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 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. ”
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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 it’s own uniqueness. Bloomberg, for example, is known for caring about loyalty. On the other hand, Bridgewater is a bit 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?”
Photo of strong man courtesy of Shutterstock.
Lily Zhang serves as a Career Development Specialist at MIT where she works with a range of students from undergraduates to PhDs on how to reach their career aspirations. When she's not indulging in a new book or video game, she's thinking about, talking about, or writing about careers. Follow her musings on Twitter @lzhng.More from this Author