Among the other dreaded interview classics—like “Tell me about yourself,” “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” and “What are some of your weaknesses?”—“What are your greatest strengths?” seems like a pretty innocuous question.
But that doesn’t mean you can skip preparing for it. In fact, answer it well, and it’s one of the best ways you can show off your skills and show that you stand out among other candidates.
Here are a few strategies for doing just that.
1. Think Quality, Not Quantity
Let’s start with what not to do. The worst response I’ve ever heard was a full minute-long diatribe during which the interviewee proceeded to list a string of positive attributes (outgoing, detail-oriented, hardworking, independent, friendly, easy-going, you name it) and just kept going.
One of the adjectives chosen was actually “humble.” I was speechless.
To walk that line between confident and arrogant, definitely don’t just list a bunch of nice adjectives to describe yourself. Sure, you want to sell yourself as the right man or woman for the job, but you’re going to be much more compelling if you cut the buzzwords and speak genuinely about your strengths.
Your strategy? Choose one to three attributes you want to mention (depending on whether the question asks for one strength or multiple) and cap it there. You’ll want to think strategically about what skills will position you as qualified for the job and a good fit for the company.
Does the position require client interaction? Communication and relationship building makes sense.
Or if the environment is fast paced and constantly evolving—your ability to multitask, adapt, and learn quickly would be good to highlight.
2. Back Strengths Up With Stories
That said, what’s more important than the strengths you choose is being able to back up your claims—don’t just expect the interviewer to believe you without some evidence.
Start off by answering the question directly, and then segue into a story that shows off your skills. For example, “I think some of my greatest strengths are my communication skills and willingness to take initiative. During my last internship, when I was helping to manage several social media accounts, I made sure that everyone on the team was on the same page and knew what our messaging strategy was by taking the initiative to send out a weekly email to keep the team up to date and to seek feedback.
This ended up being so helpful that the weekly social media update was incorporated into a full-time staff member’s responsibilities.”
3. Look for Holes and Fill Them
The great thing about the “strengths” question is that it’s actually pretty versatile and open-ended—you can really turn the conversation to whatever you want.
So, a great way to approach this question is to think about something you really want to talk about during the interview, but haven’t had the chance to share yet. Are there any skills that you want to emphasize? Maybe you have a killer “teamwork” story, but haven’t had the opportunity to share it yet. Well, here is your chance!
Alternatively, if you get the question toward the end of your interview and you’ve basically covered your bases, another approach would be to make a final pitch that you’re a great fit for the position and the company culture. Assuming you’ve done the crucial legwork of researching the company prior to interviewing, you should have a good sense of how the company perceives its own uniqueness.
One company might be known for caring about loyalty. Another company might be notorious for how much it values open communication.
Of course, you can only use this strategy if your personal values do truly align with the company’s. If they do, you can essentially rehash your answer for “Why this company?” with more of a focus on values and an example to back it up. For instance, “I would have to say that one of my greatest strengths is my ability to collaborate. In fact, having the opportunity to work in a team is one of the biggest draws for me to this position. I’ve found that working in a team brings out the best in me. For example…”
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for this. Your best bet in preparing for the “strengths” question (and questions like it) is to have your talking points prepared and a lot of good stories to turn to. Use open questions like this strategically, and then make sure your answer’s memorable by telling a killer story. With a bit of preparation, you’ll be ready to take full advantage of being asked, “What’s your greatest strength?”
5 Tips for Talking About Strengths and Weaknesses in an Interview
Okay, that’s all great in theory, but what do you actually need to do to discuss your strengths and weaknesses successfully?
1. Be Honest
One of the most important things to get right when talking about your strengths and weaknesses in an interview setting is honesty. It might sound trite, but it’s also true. An answer that sounds genuine and authentic will impress, while one that sounds generic, calculated, exaggerated, or humblebraggy will do the opposite.
A boss doesn’t want to hire someone who can’t recognize and own what they bring to the table as well as what they need to work on. You’ll be a better employee if you can understand and leverage your strengths and acknowledge and learn from your weaknesses. So you want to show in the interview that you’re capable of that kind of self-reflection.
2. Tell a Story
Here’s another cliche you shouldn’t discount: “Show, don’t tell.” Anyone who’s ever taken a writing class—whether in seventh grade or graduate school—has heard it. You should keep it in mind when answering just about any interview question, and it’s certainly helpful here.
“Anytime you can have a real-life example or a concrete example, it’s a good idea. It just helps to contextualize the response a little bit,” Smith says. “We just understand concepts and situations better with a story. So if you can tell a story that supports your thesis, then it’s always helpful.”
Talk about a time your strength helped you achieve something in a professional setting or when your weakness impeded you. For example, if you’re talking about how you’re calm under pressure in a fast-paced environment, you might tell the interviewer about that time you delivered a revamped client proposal after a last-minute change of plans.
If you’re admitting that your weakness is presenting in front of high-level executives, you might start by briefly describing the time you got so nervous presenting your plan for a new marketing strategy that you weren’t able to effectively convey your (thorough and pretty brilliant) approach and your boss had to step in and help get the plan approved.
Not only will sharing a real example make your answer stand out, but it’ll also make it sound thoughtful and honest and highlight all those other characteristics interviewers are actually looking for.
3. Remember to Get to the Insight
An answer that’s genuine and includes an illustrative anecdote is a great start, but it’s not complete until you add some insight. This goes for both strengths and weaknesses but looks a little different in each case.
When you’re talking about strength, the last beat of your answer should tie whatever skill or trait you’ve been discussing to the role and company you’re applying for. Tell the interviewer how that strength would be useful in this particular position at this particular company.
So going back to the revamped client proposal example, you might add, “Since things move quickly at [Company], this would allow me to come in and earn a new team’s confidence and foster a trusting team culture while also ensuring we’re all hitting our goals and delivering high-quality work.”
In the case of a weakness, “tell me how they’ve grown from it or what they’ve done to accommodate that or what they’ve learned from it,” Smith says. “Really showcase your growth trajectory, your learning curve, what you’ve done as a result of the awareness of that weakness,” she adds. “It gives you an idea like if I hire this person and they’re here, this is the kind of problem solving or growth that I can expect to see from them.”
So if you were the candidate with the presentation snafu, you might talk about how you sat down with your boss to make a plan to improve your public speaking skills, and how the next time you had to present to the execs you knocked it out of the park.
4. Keep It Short
You don’t have to devote half the interview to these answers. You can keep your response relatively brief and focused on one or two strengths or weaknesses, depending on how the question was phrased. To add to our list of overused-but-handy phrases: Think quality, not quantity. Don’t dive in and rattle off a litany of things you think you’re good or bad at without explaining anything. Instead, narrow it down and go into detail.
5. Don’t Sweat It So Much
While you definitely want to prepare and do your best to nail your answers, try not to stress too much. “Don’t panic,” Smith says. “I have never known an employment decision to come down to how someone answers those questions,” she adds. “It’s just one data point connected with a whole bunch of other ones. So don’t give it too much weight.”
How to Answer “What Is Your Greatest Weakness?” in an Interview
While you’ll definitely want to tie your strengths to the role and company you’re applying for, you should avoid that approach when talking about your weaknesses. “You don’t necessarily want them associating a weakness with their company or with what they’re looking for,” Smith says. For example, if the job description for a sales role lists excellent verbal communication skills, you shouldn’t say one of your weaknesses is thinking on your feet during phone calls, even if you’ve worked hard to improve and feel more than competent now.
It’s the same advice she’d give someone writing a cover letter when applying for a job for which they have most, but not all, of the qualifications. Focus on the requirements you do bring to the table, not on the ones you don’t.
Instead, prepare a couple of standard options to choose from and in each interview, talk about a weakness that doesn’t obviously impair your ability to perform the core functions of the role. Make sure you admit the weakness, pivot to the insight, and end on a strong note. “If someone can be honest and have the self-awareness to answer that question, I think that says a lot about their emotional intelligence and their professional maturity,” Smith says.
Her last piece of advice?
Don’t pick a “weakness” like “I’m such a hard worker” or “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” Going down that route will backfire, because it comes off as disingenuous, oblivious, or immature—and none of those are qualities that’ll get you the job.
What It Might Sound Like
If you’re applying for an engineering job, you might say:
“My greatest weakness would probably be waiting too long to ask questions to clarify the goals of a project and to make sure I’m on the right path. I noticed in one of my first coding jobs out of college that I would get an assignment and, because I assumed I should be able to work independently, I’d waste time going down a particular road that didn’t 100% align with the ultimate goal and then would have to spend additional time making changes. After it happened once or twice, I started asking my manager more questions about why we were adding a particular feature, who it was intended for, what about the previous functionality had made for a poor experience, etc. And especially for bigger projects, I would reach out when I needed a gut check to ask follow-up questions as well as to share the work I’d done so far and what I was planning to do next. In the long run, it meant I could finish projects faster and do better work.”