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The Weakness Question

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At some point in the interview process, you are likely to be asked about your weakness(es). This is the question that seems to be most problematic to candidates, and is the one I get the most questions about.

There are two possible approaches to this answer, in my opinion. One is what I call the "traditional approach," and the other is what I call the "realistic approach." I believe that one is better than the other based on my conversations with employers, but I will give a brief description of each and let you decide.

The traditional approach is what we recommended over the years: pick something that might appear to be a weakness and turn it into a strength. I have never been imaginative enough to figure out a lot of ways to do this, but here are a couple of examples:

"I'm too much of a perfectionist. Sometimes it takes me a little bit longer to complete assignments or tasks because I want them to be perfect before I submit them."

"I take on too many projects; I really just don't know how to say no and don't have enough time for myself."

In both cases, there is a hint of weakness. The perfectionist takes a little more time completing tasks. The too-many-projects lacks time for life balance and may be overextended. On the other hand, making sure tasks are done correctly is a good thing; I want people who do things correctly. Busy people get things done; I could depend on too-many-projects to work on the things I need done.

In my discussions with employers, I get the impression that they think they have heard all the answers in the traditional approach. The preference now seems to be the realistic approach. In this scenario, the employer wants to see that the candidate has done the "soul searching" necessary for identifying real weaknesses and is honest in sharing what they are.

So how do you mitigate the impact of sharing a "real" weakness? You must also tell the employer how you have addressed or are addressing the weakness you share (or weaknesses - let's hope they don't ask for a handful) and the improvement or progress you have made in that area. I will present a great example shortly.

The weakness question may come in different forms. I often ask in mock interviews, "If you could change one thing about yourself, what would you change?" This form of the question seems to confound some of my interviewees, but it is simply a weakness question.

A few years ago, I invited an employer to conduct a mock interview in front of an audience as part of a professional development program with a student applying for an elementary teaching position. When he asked the weakness question, it was phrased this way: On a ten-point scale, what are you a "6" on today that you would like to be a "10" on in a couple of years?

The candidate took the realistic approach. Her response was that she did not feel that she was very good with science. You could immediately see the 75 pairs of eyebrows in the audience rise. But she continued. "I have talked with my supervising teacher, and she has shared some materials that I can use to develop lessons and units in my classroom next year. I have joined a science teachers' organization, and I will be attending their conference this summer. I have contacted the local natural history museum and arranged to check out some of the 'kits' they have available for teachers to develop units around. I am taking steps to improve my abilities as a science teacher."

After the interview was over, there was a time for questions, and of course some of the audience members asked about her answer to this question. The administrator responded that he had absolutely no worries about this teacher. She had identified what she needed to work on and was taking the steps to improve. "In two years," he said, "she will be the best science teacher in my building."

The realistic approach does work, and, as you can no doubt tell, I believe it to be the better approach. Do not work yourself into a corner with it; always show how you are improving on your weaknesses. Employers know we have weaknesses, and they want to know that we are doing the self-analysis to identify what ours are. Showing that you are taking steps to improve is essential to making a positive impression, but more importantly, it is essential for developing your personal and professional goals and development plans. And THAT is the real reason for the question.

--Kent McAnally,
Director of Career Services,
Washburn University, on behalf of AAEE

1 Comment

Kent, I like the realistic approach, and the candidate who was not good in science is a great example.

I also wrote two blog posts about answering the weakness question:

In this short post, I discuss the secret to answering the biggest weakness question.
http://blog.seattleinterviewcoach.com/2009/01/how-to-answer-what-is-your-biggest.html

In this longer post, I analyze Barack Obama's response to a variant of the greatest weakness interview question, drawing from an interview between Katie Couric and Obama.
http://blog.seattleinterviewcoach.com/2009/01/ace-your-job-interview-questions-like.html

- Lewis, Seattle Interview Coach

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