You know you’ll be nervous because you really want the job. What is it that HR people are looking for when they ask that ubiquitous question: “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”
What are some outstanding strengths and weaknesses examples and how do you personalize these so you don’t sound like an HR cliche? (My biggest strength is that I’m a hard worker! An example of a weakness is that I’m a perfectionist!).
Stand out with a tailored response that puts the needs of the role at its heart. Share a strength that few others will be able to boast and a weakness that will not be mission critical.
Here’s what we’ll cover in this blog:
- How to find your strengths and weaknesses
- What strengths are employers looking for?
- Examples of great answers for strength and weakness-related questions
How to create a list of strengths and weaknesses examples
First, take stock of yourself. You can’t answer this question at all if you don’t know what your strengths are. Think through not just your technical or industry knowledge, but all the attributes that make you a valued employee. Take pride in your own strengths. Not only will this help you develop a stronger list, but your confidence will show when you explain your strengths in an interview.
Modest people may find it difficult to come up with a list. Don’t be shy about asking friends and colleagues what they see in you. Maybe the same answer crops up again and again or maybe you get a long list of your strengths. Either way, this is the basic material for your answer along with your own assessment. Think not only about the things that you have always done well, but also the skills that you have recently been able to improve. Strengths evolve.
Repeat the process for weaknesses. We all have areas we are working to improve so, examine yourself with a critical eye. Then ask friends and colleagues you trust to give you an honest answer. Now is not the time to take things personally. Tell people that you want to hear their worst. You can then decide what to share with an employer - and maybe learn a few things along the way.
You’ve got your list, now what do you do with it?
If you’re not sure which strengths and weaknesses to focus on, we offer strengths and weaknesses examples below. Let’s start with strengths.
What strengths are HR people looking for?
While there’s no one answer to this question, in general if you got the interview, you have the basic skills for the job. HR people are looking for harder to quantify qualities that will make you a good fit with the organization.
These traits are typically soft skills or your ability to get along with others and function in a work environment. Here’s a short list of strengths:
Of course, this list is far from complete, but it gives you a jumping off point for your own brainstorming.
“What are your greatest strengths?” example answers
Now you have a list of your strengths . But your interviewer is not looking for a one or two word answer. Instead, you need to offer an anecdote that backs up your assertion. The best answers will explain why your strength makes you the best fit for the job. Below you will find five sample responses to the question: “What is your biggest strength?”
1. Big-picture thinking
My biggest strength is my ability to see the forest for the trees. I am a big-picture thinker. In my current position, I was asked to revise documentation for a software application. I saw a way to streamline the revision process for all documentation and presented it to the team leader. The suggestion shaved many hours off the process and freed up the team to develop new applications.
Notice that the response goes well beyond stating the strength to explain how that strength plays out in the workplace and its benefit to the company. Explain the strength in terms that everyone understands and then delve into the details of what it might mean to a prospective employer.
I am a people-person. By that I mean much more than getting along with my colleagues. I pride myself on my bridge-building. I act as a liaison between the product development and marketing departments. Just last week, I was able to clear up a misunderstanding about a product that could have led to a misleading marketing effort.
In this case, the response clarifies what “people-person” means to the job applicant. In your interview, make that the HR person understands exactly what your strength means to you. This is one of the most commonly shared strengths, so give your answer as much context as possible. What is your impact on others?
I liken myself to a utility player because I am very versatile. I can do almost any job in my department. In fact, in the last six months I have filled in for two sick leaves while continuing to manage my own workload.
This answer not only illustrates the respondents versatility, but plays up their team spirit and willingness to pitch in when needed. It exudes confidence and willingness. Your interview should be peppered with moments like this when your eyes shine with pride. Your interviewer will believe every word (of this and of everything that follows).
It seems obvious for an accountant to say they are detail-oriented, but that is my greatest strength. It’s one reason I chose the field. I just love making sure the accounts reconcile and that the budget makes sense. I won’t say it’s a joy to find errors, but I do feel proud when I am able to find the little mistakes that can be amplified over time.
In this example, the interviewee recognizes that detail orientation is not surprising for an account, but also knows that it’s a necessary attribute. The answer also explains why they enjoy their job. This will be a joy to hear for an employer who needs someone to keep an eagle eye on the financials.
The education field is growing and changing rapidly. It’s been my adaptability over the years that has allowed me to be the best teacher possible despite curriculum and technology changes. Now, it’s allowing me to transition to the sales of educational materials from the sale of information to students.
Here, the answer “adaptability” demonstrates a key soft skill that employers often seek, but the interviewee also takes the opportunity to slip in the information that this trait allows for a shift in careers as well.
How to answer “What are three strengths you bring to the job?”
To prepare the best answers to this question, group your strengths list into bundles that complement each other before your interview. You may even be able to come up with one story that illustrates all three. Here are some strength example lists that may work along with short ideas of how they apply to the same successes.
This question is more specific about the strengths that you bring to the specific role, so put the requirements of the position first. Leading with anything that isn't mission critical shows that you do not quite understand what you will be expected to do.
1. Enthusiastic, collaborative, honest
Have you worked on a pet project with a team and given credit where credit was due? Then you have the above strengths. Show how these traits made a difference. They aren't much good if someone just sits in the corner of a room doing what they are told.
2. Determination, dedication, continuous learning
If you have earned a certification or degree while working full-time or gone back to school to change careers, you can claim this list of strengths. This grouping also illustrates gaining new skills on the job through a mentoring program or other company education program. Be careful that some of the words that you use are not synonyms - make each individual strength count on its own merits.
3. Creativity, leadership, technical skills
Try these strengths to illustrate a time when you came up with a unique solution to a technical problem and led the effort to implement it. The mix of a creative thought process with the technical skills to carry it out is going to be a winner in so many careers.
Now let's move on to weaknesses.
How to approach the question: “What is your greatest weakness?”
This question can really trip you up if you’re not prepared. Weaknesses? Do I want to say I have them? Yes, you do. Saying you don’t have any weaknesses makes you seem either lacking in self-awareness or just plain egotistical.
The trick is to humbly describe a skill, knowledge or personality trait that you are taking steps to correct. Awareness of your weaknesses may be seen as a strength, but awareness and action to minimize that weakness will take you farther. HR wants to gauge how you deal with adversity, so give examples that show your approach to work obstacles.
Alternatively you might pick a weakness that could be seen as a strength in another context. They are often two sides of the same coin. Don't be too cute with your answer, though.
Here’s a no-no to avoid: Do not include in your weaknesses examples anything that is a must-have for the job!
List of weaknesses that won’t eliminate you from the job
As we said above, you’re looking to offer up real weaknesses that are non-essential to the job you seek. Before your interview, make sure you know what all those requirements are and use weakness examples that don’t detract from your candidacy. Be brave and don't talk about something that is trivial.
Here is a list of weaknesses to consider:
- Fear of public speaking: This fear is common and relatable. And, unless you are planning a TedTalk or present pitches regularly to clients and coworkers, it probably won’t interfere with the day-to-day workings of your job.
- A messy workspace: This is easily managed and another common problem. It’s particularly a non-issue if you are interviewing for a remote position.
- Trouble delegating (if you are not a manager): OK, if you’re not a manager, this mostly just means you complete all the tasks you are responsible for without asking for help.
- Inexperience in a software program or other ancillary task: Inexperience is only a weakness until you gain the experience. Don’t point this out if the software program is important to your job, but if it is one you may use occasionally, go for it.
- Impatience with red tape: Does anyone like bureaucracy?
- Lack of work-life balance: This is another way of saying you work too hard or too much. Not necessarily a bad thing if you don’t burn yourself out.
- Too direct when offering advice or criticism: This weakness can be a harder sell, but only if you come off as too brash in the interview. Your awareness here means you’re probably working on it.
- Self-criticism: Being hard on yourself is a bigger problem for you than it is for your employer unless you become paralyzed by fear of making a mistake.
- Uncomfortable taking risks: That’s OK. Depending on your role, risks may not be welcome.
- Difficulty sharing ideas in large groups: This combines a fear of public speaking with a bit of self-doubt, but this is also easily fixable.
“What is your greatest weakness?” example answers
Just as in the “What are your strengths?” best answers, when you are asked “What are your weaknesses?” the best answers will be ones that include a story. In the case of your weaknesses list, you want your story to illustrate how you coped with a weakness or what you did or are doing about it.
It’s OK to describe a time when you weren’t perfect at work as long as there’s a moral to the story.
Here are five sample answers to that daunting question: “What is your greatest weakness?”
1. Fear of public speaking
I get very nervous when I have to present to a large group. The first time I tried it, my boss had to step up and read my presentation because I couldn’t speak. Now, I am mostly fine if it’s just my direct coworkers, though. When it’s a larger group, I practice a lot to get more comfortable, but I still get butterflies in my stomach. It’s easier for me if I have a collaborator presenting with me.
The interviewee tells of a common fear and then elaborates with the methods they use to solve the problem. It is good to talk about a fear that a manager might share or maybe someone in their team suffers from. If the weakness does not impair the performance of others, you will likely be able to cope with it, too.
2. A messy desk.
Wow! You should see my home office. Sticky notes everywhere! It was worse when I worked in the office. My coworkers would threaten to pull a file from the bottom of one of the piles to watch the whole thing topple! Luckily, these days, there are a lot fewer physical files and I find organizing my desktop a lot easier. I developed a habit of gathering up all the stickies at the end of the day and taking care of any task that wasn’t complete.
This response is light-hearted and reveals a lot of personality. It also tells the interviewer that the problem is mostly solved. Humour can often lighten the mood in an interview - choosing to make a joke with this question is a great way of deflecting what might be more damaging areas of discussion.
In the past, I would go over and over every small mistake or or misstep I made and label myself a failure. It got me a bit stuck to the point that I missed a deadline or two worrying about tiny things. Over time, I have learned that it’s good to examine your mistakes and try to do better, but not to dwell on them. A mentor helped me by saying, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.”
This answer combines elements of self-criticism and perfectionism, but also tells the HR person that the applicant is open to mentoring and personal growth. Some people may consider it a little cloying. Don't be too self-effacing.
4. Impatience with red tape
I get very impatient when a project gets stalled because paperwork is missing or I get conflicting responses from different layers of management. In my current position, there’s a lot of “hurry up and wait.” That’s why I applied for this position. I thrive in a startup atmosphere without all the red tape.
This response answers the question, “Why do you want to work here?” as well as answering “What’s your greatest weakness?” It’s also an example of naming a weakness that won’t be a problem at the position for which the candidate is applying.
5. Uncomfortable taking risks.
I’m very uncomfortable taking risks at work. For example, everybody was complaining about our workflow. I knew of a work OS that a friend at another company used and liked. I told a coworker about it, but was afraid to approach my boss. Finally, my coworker did and the boss loved it. Luckily, she’s a good friend and gave me credit, but the boss wondered why I didn’t bring it up myself. With encouragement, I’m trying to be more assertive.
This would be a bad answer for an applicant in a startup, where everyone is expected to pitch in everywhere, but it’s fine for a large company or a position where risk-taking or independent decisions are minimized. Consider the industry that you work in and your own function - would such a weakness be seen as a strength?
The bottom line for that strengths and weaknesses portion of your interview:
- Develop a list of all your strengths and weaknesses.
- Play up strengths that enhance your desirability by targeting your answers to the specific job. Use examples that demonstrate how that strength plays out at work.
- Choose weaknesses that won’t affect the key functions of your job and try to show what you are doing to offset or minimize them.
- Practice, practice, practice.
- Take these tips and strengths and weaknesses best answers, make your cv and go get that new job!