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Written by Debbie BrideDebbie Bride

Weaknesses: What to say when interviewers ask

22 min read
Weaknesses: What to say when interviewers ask
Artwork by:Vika Shibaeva
Don’t be caught off guard by this common interview question about your professional weaknesses. Take advantage of the opportunity to prepare a game-changing answer that turns the interview in your favor.

What are your weaknesses? That much-dreaded job interview question could actually be the best winning chance you never expected. As a secret weapon or saving grace, your effective response hinges on the expectation that you will be asked. 

Telling interviewers about your greatest weaknesses is a tricky topic, to be tackled in this blog as follows:

  • Why do job interviewers ask about weaknesses?
  • Positive perspectives: what you say about weaknesses can work in your favor
  • Best and worst weaknesses to talk about
  • Ways to frame weaknesses in a strong context: a look at two angles with examples

Why do employers ask about weaknesses in interviews?

You might be asked to identify your single greatest weakness, or several in the plural. Either way, both versions of this commonly asked job interview question have one and the same objective — to show hiring managers another side of yourself that hasn’t come to light yet. 

Up to this point, your qualifications and personal attributes have been emphasized from all the right angles. A persuasive resume and cover letter in that regard likely won you the job interview in the first place. And most of that conversation will stay focused on your strengths as an ideal candidate. Obviously, you wouldn’t want it any other way — nor would prospective employers.

How to answer, what is your weakness?
How to answer, what is your weakness?

But let’s be real — nobody is perfect and neither are you. Pretending to be is neither realistic nor credible and will do yourself no favors.

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At the same time, interviewers recognize the subjective limitations of the question itself, “what are your weaknesses?” Negative introspection is uncomfortable for most people at the best of times, in familiar company. On the “hiring line,” under close scrutiny by near-strangers whose impression counts for everything, an ill-conceived response could be a showstopper.

So besides seeking more insight into your fitness for the position, recruiters want some indication of self-awareness and integrity. Above all, they are interested in your desire and capacity to improve and develop. This can provide clues about your judgment and analytical abilities as a proactive problem-solver.

The flipside of weakness questions

Embracing the upside of interview questions about weaknesses goes hand in hand with anticipating them and being prepared. How to talk about your weaknesses in a job interview is a great skill. This alone enables you to benefit from the possibility that other interview candidates may be blindsided when asked about weaknesses.

What’s even likelier are the strengths you’ll have in common with most of those same competitors, if not everyone else being interviewed. These will include mandatory job requirements that come with the territory of being shortlisted for the position. Recruiters will not only take for granted that these strengths will come up repeatedly during the interview process, but may find the sameness of what they hear start blurring together as unremarkable.

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So now consider the “weaknesses” question as a golden opportunity to stand out from the rest. Let go of the notion that it’s a set-up for sabotaging your best efforts to impress hiring managers — a trick or a trap. Instead, welcome the opportunity to tip the scales in your favor by framing weaknesses as strengths. “Framing” is the operative word here, with the goal of shifting attention from the weakness itself to your manner of presenting in a relevant context.

With less pressure to portray only your super-hired self, you get to lighten up slightly — but not in any comedic sense! You remain perfectly serious while revealing imperfections that don’t have to work against you.  

How to talk about weaknesses in a job interview

Before suggesting which are good weaknesses for a job interview, here are some general thoughts on how to go about it.

  • Keep in mind the mutually exclusive difference between “perfectly honest” and “honestly perfect.” The first is desirable in the hiring scenario we are describing, while the second sounds dishonest.
Expert tip

Denying that you have any weaknesses when interviewers ask is never recommended. It makes you sound arrogant. A joking or frivolous response won’t go over well either. Also ill-advised: “I’d rather not say,” or “Hmm, I’d have to give that more thought.” 

  • Disqualifying yourself by discussing the “wrong” weakness is another pitfall you want to avoid. Any skill or trait that’s vital to the job has no place on your interview list of weaknesses.
  • In the same vein, do prepare such a list of carefully chosen weaknesses. Be very specific, keeping the focus narrow for each item. This is no time for random spontaneity. Even if you end up being spared the “weaknesses” question when the time comes — it could happen — you’ll never regret being prepared for it.
  • It is possible to be honest and positive about your shortcomings at the same time. It can simply be a matter of avoiding negative words and phrases like “poor,” “failed,” “not good at” or “problems with.” Or certain weaknesses in one hiring situation may be perceived as strengths in another.
  • Affirming room for improvement, alongside an action plan — past, present or future — conveys strength rather than weakness. Your communication deftness here shows an ability to see challenges as opportunities.
Expert tip

First things first

Some interviewers will ask you to describe strengths and weaknesses in two separate stand-alone questions. Others pose it as a “two-birds-with-one-stone” question.

In the latter instance, leading with your weaknesses can be advantageous. With greater control over the course of discussion, you decide when and how to shift direction from negative to positive.

The right weakness at the right time

So what are the “best” weaknesses to discuss with an interviewer? As with any job application strategy, it depends on the hiring situation. In the same way your most directly relevant strengths should always be tailored to the position and employer, so should the specific weaknesses you choose to mention (or not) in any given interview. 

As touched on earlier, make sure the weaknesses you mention:

  • Do not involve abilities that are essential or important to this job
  • Reflect your motivation to overcome or minimize the impact through corrective actions
Expert tip

Keeping a master list of your weaknesses handy for cherry-picking in each instance is useful for the same reason we recommend a master list of strengths for tailoring each version of your resume. Make sure you have three weaknesses ready for your job interview since three is a popular number to ask for.

Taking honest stock of your skill deficiencies and troublesome traits or tendencies is the first step. Ask for input from a friend or co-worker if you get stuck.

Just like the strengths you selectively emphasize in resumes or interviews, your weaknesses inventory may be loosely categorized as hard skills or soft skills.

Hard Skills Soft Skills
Job-specific May be less job-specific but generally important in most occupations to varying extents
Proficiency can often be measured Not always quantifiable
Learned and developed at school or on the job Largely innate or developed socially and institutionally, reflecting personality and behaviors

What are good weaknesses for a job interview?

Here are common examples of abilities or qualities that are not required or important in every job. That means you can talk about them without degrading your ability to do the work.

Hard Skills Soft Skills
Advanced computer or technical skills Ease in delegating tasks, saying no or asking for help
Math Well organized in setting goals and balancing priorities
Finance and accounting Spontaneity, flexibility, adaptability or risk-taking
Science specialties Confident, assertive and articulate
Research and analysis Public speaking, presenting to groups
Writing Giving / receiving directions, constructive feedback or assistance
Foreign languages Work well independently and/or on a team
Physical — strength, stamina, coordination, flexibility, speed  
Task-specific motor skills  
Equipment operations  
Expert tip

Weaknesses for a student or recent grad

If school is still part of your life, or was not too long ago, citing an academic difficulty can work well when you are asked about weaknesses in a job interview. As long as you’re not talking about a tough or failed course that could scuttle your chances of being hired, feel free to mention anything that has no direct bearing on your candidacy. For instance, problems with essay writing or standardized tests might be suitable weaknesses in a job interview, if you are careful to point out report-writing or instruction-following strengths that are directly relevant to the job.

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Lists of weaknesses for a job interview with example answers

Interviewers can’t help but be impressed by your openness to self-challenge on a path of learning, growth, and improvement. Once more making sure to avoid disqualifying deal-breakers for this job, it’s not as hard as it may seem to frame your weaknesses in that context of striving to do better. Two possible angles are described below, with examples.

I could learn more about (or get more practice in) …

Most job applicants can think of a talent, trait or tendency worth learning or developing, now or down the road. It might even be a goal you’ve already acted on, but in an area where more knowledge and experience would be beneficial.

This approach to talking about weaknesses in a job interview lends itself to an infinite number of hard or soft skills — the more specific the better. Here are just a few possibilities for discussing your weaknesses during a job interview.

  • Analytics interpretation
  • Writing digital marketing content
  • Team building and leadership
  • Sales opening and closing techniques
  • Priority management
  • Creating attractive charts and graphs for presentations and reports
  • Medical appointment scheduling software
  • Legal and regulatory updates in the <specify> industry
  • Personality types and communication styles in the workplace

Below are some examples you could adapt for your preparatory list of weaknesses for job interviews.

Sample weakness: Office software app

I got hooked on PowerPoint after learning some basics years ago in a volunteer community group role. I think it’s the greatest invention ever and has many potential uses, even if slide presentations are not a job requirement. That’s why I’ve taken a few online courses and am constantly picking up new tips from YouTube tutorials.

Weakness example: Job-specific hard/soft skill

I could always use more experience with negotiation techniques and strategies, specifically in a face-to-face setting. It’s been really helpful to brush up on what I learned in college, and get more practice, by attending the workshop series at our local union center.

Sample weakness: Interpersonal communication ability

Shyness, fear of public speaking, and even becoming tongue-tied in front of colleagues or bosses have been a long-time challenge. I’ve come a long way, with plenty of support and practice. But my biggest breakthrough two years ago was signing up for improv classes through the university drama program.


Too much of a good thing

There can be a fine line between strengths and weaknesses in both directions of desirable or detrimental, depending on the job role. This is sometimes in the realm of work ethics gone overboard. 

Perfectionism springs to mind as a classic blessing-and-curse example. For all the face-saving mistakes your employer can thank you for catching in time, missed deadlines or unfinished projects may be casualties of your obsession with thoroughness and correctness at any cost.

A related “problem child” of being detail-oriented is overthinking and rethinking projects past the point of manageability. And procrastination is not always a matter of a stalled start. It can also find you unable to stop when enough is enough.

Here are some other common weaknesses wearing a work ethic disguise:

  • Working too many hours or struggling with professional/personal life balance
  • Difficulty focusing on one task or shifting focus to another
  • Spreading yourself too thin by not setting realistic limits (often a people-pleasing behavior)
  • Impatience and frustration when things don’t progress smoothly or on schedule
  • Competitiveness that undermines your co-workers’ contributions

Here are some ideas for describing weaknesses related to work ethic.

Weakness example: Perfectionism, overthinking, too detail-oriented

Overenthusiasm for certain writing projects used to find me falling off track, despite. seeming well organized at the onset. I’d become intrigued by the extra details that emerged when digging deeper into research sources, and then overwhelmed by the possibilities for enriched end-product quality. Capturing far too much unplanned content at this stage made the editing ordeal a nightmare.

I’ve found it really helpful to implement new work plan deadlines at the front end of research-intensive projects. The outline now reflects the full extent of research already done beforehand, with a strict cutoff. It means starting the project earlier but avoiding the bottleneck that used to occur later. It’s made a huge difference in avoiding the stress and exhaustion of late-stage editing.

Sample weakness: Asking for help

It took me a while to get used to asking for help or clarification in my current job, even when useful or necessary. Previously, I worked independently in a small office, with little or no supervision most of the time. Those job duties were straightforward and clearcut, and the solo workload was never too onerous.

Gradually I’ve become more comfortable reaching out to coworkers or managers when I have questions or feel overwhelmed. Their response has always been positive and the collaborative vibe is great for morale. My work quality and efficiency have improved at the same time.

Weakness example: Hard to say “no”

Of course it feels good when bosses or coworkers appreciate and value my contributions, but I’m also aware it’s a weakness to have trouble saying “no” to their requests. Whether it’s a one-off favor or committing to a new assignment, the desire to help sometimes overrules my judgment about how much I can handle realistically. 

I’ve found it much easier to handle this situation since I started using a project management app on my phone and laptop. One quick glance gives me a color-coded snapshot of all my commitments. I’m able to say “yes,” “no” or  “maybe” without hesitation, or any sense of guilt for letting anyone down.

Sample weakness: Multi-tasking can be a minefield

In a previous workplace where I took for granted that multi-tasking was a virtue, it suddenly dawned on me to question that whole notion. Did I really think it made me better or smarter at getting more things done faster? If that was ever the case, it sure didn’t seem that way anymore. So I decided to read up on the subject and try alternatives.

What I discovered about the merits of single-tasking was liberating. It’s made a world of difference in my productivity, effectiveness and energy. My three biggest takeaways about single-tasking: it’s far less stressful, I can focus on “should dos” instead of “could dos” and it boosts my creativity.

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Key takeaways for discussing weaknesses in a job interview

  • Prepare carefully for this opportunity to show deeper dimensions of your worthiness as a serious job contender. Introspective insights into your self-improvement goals could give you an edge over other candidates sharing taken-for-granted strengths in common.
  • Like any other aspect of a tailored job search strategy, the weaknesses you pinpoint should be customized to the hiring situation. Make sure there is no diminished impact on your ability to fulfill essential or important job requirements.
  • Frame your weaknesses in a positive, proactive context as works in progress, emphasizing corrective steps with successful outcomes.
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