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by Vault Education Editors | April 11, 2011


By Deborah Federico

The dreaded weakness question—the bane of every college student's interview. I should know: As an undergraduate career counselor, I conduct plenty of mock interviews with students every semester, and they always flop and flounder on this question. 

Admittedly, it is probably one of the most difficult questions to have to answer on interviews. The problem, I think, is that most students believe it to be a sign of weakness to admit they have a weakness. In one recent mock interview, I asked a student why it was so difficult for him to answer this question honestly. He replied, "Well, aren't the interviewers screening out candidates based upon how bad their weakness is?" While I could definitely understand why he felt this way, I told him that this was not the case (unless you give a horribly horrendous weakness!) and proceeded to explain why interviewers ask this question and the appropriate way to answer it.

Interviewers ask this question for a number of reasons. To see if you can remain confident and positive when discussing a negative aspect of your life, for one. It’s also used to determine if you are mature enough to routinely reflect on areas of your life that offer room for professional growth. And often, the question is invoked to see if you will answer it honestly, without pretending like one of your strengths is actually a weakness. As in, "I'm such a perfectionist that I end up spending way too much time on my projects." Or this, a clip from The Office, where Michael does exactly what you're NOT supposed to do.

The typical way that many career experts say to answer this question is to state a true weakness, but then show how you're working on overcoming that weakness. If the thought of stating your true weakness makes you break into a cold sweat, then consider my approach to answering this question. Reframe this question in your mind: "In which areas do I need to grow professionally, and how am I accomplishing that?" This is what interviewers are trying to evaluate with this question. And if you're not growing professionally, then that is undoubtedly a weakness. As I always point out to students, every professional, no matter what level, needs to be continuously assessing themselves to find ways to improve in order to increase their chances of upward mobility and to remain competitive candidates in the job market.

Listed below are a few examples showing how your answer to this question can be changed from the weakness approach to the professional development approach.

Weakness approach: "My public speaking skills are not that great."
Professional development approach: "Because my public speaking skills were not up to par, I enrolled in a Toastmaster's course."

Weakness approach: "I tend to dominate team discussions and not listen to others' opinions."
Professional development approach: "Being an extrovert, I tend to get excited about sharing my ideas, but now I'm stepping back more to give everyone else a chance to speak before I present my opinions. I've realized from doing this that my teammates have a lot of great ideas to contribute."

Weakness approach:  "I tend to be really shy and don't like to attend networking events."
Professional development approach: "I am attending at least two networking events each semester so that I can improve my professional networking skills."

One last point: Never state a really big weakness—that is, one that’s directly tied to the job’s responsibilities. For example, if an internship requires strong analytical skills, don't say, "I hate working with numbers." If the position requires strong customer service skills, don't say, "I always lose my patience with people." If the job involves a lot of writing, don't say, "My writing skills aren't the best, but I'm taking a creative writing course." If writing is a major requirement for the position, you should possess that skill right now. If you're finding that your true weakness is in direct opposition to the job requirements, then it might be time to pursue another career direction, or find a way to overcome that weakness through some form of professional development before you embark on your internship or job search.

Deborah Federico is an Assistant Director of Undergraduate Career Services in the School of Management at Boston University. Prior to her career in higher education, Deborah worked in the corporate world, primarily doing marketing and market research. She blogs about career advice here and her LinkedIn profile is here.

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