There’s a whole lot of talking about yourself that goes on in an interview. It’s a barrage of “I”s and “me”s that would be inappropriate in so many other contexts. And one of the most stressful spotlights on you might come when a recruiter or prospective boss asks you to tell them about your strengths and especially when they ask about your weaknesses.
You’re bound to hear, “What would you say is one of your weaknesses?” or “What’s your greatest strength?” or both in virtually every hiring process you’ll ever go through. While that might be frustrating—really, every time?!—it also means that you can anticipate the questions and craft thoughtful answers that will impress the interviewer.
With just a little bit of preparation, you can master the art of selling your strengths without sounding conceited and talking about your weaknesses without undermining your candidacy.
- Why do interviewers ask about your strengths and weaknesses?
- 5 tips for talking about strengths and weaknesses in an interview
- What are some example strengths and weaknesses you could use in an interview?
- How to answer “What are your strengths?” in an interview
- Example answers for “What is your greatest strength?”
- How to answer “What is your greatest weakness?” in an interview
- Example answers for “What is your greatest weakness?”
Why do interviewers ask about your strengths and weaknesses?
Interviews are fundamentally about getting to know you, says Muse career coach Angela Smith, founder of Angela Smith Consulting. “I know some people feel like the interview is trying to trip them up or put them in an awkward position, but at the end of the day it’s really about getting to know the person so that you can make the best decision that you can,” she adds. “When I ask those questions, that’s where I’m coming from.”
The actual strengths and weaknesses you bring up probably matter less than how you talk about them. “I’ve done a ton of interviews over the years and when pressed for it, I can’t really remember the answers,” Smith says. That doesn’t mean the questions aren’t important at all, it’s just that what an interviewer is evaluating likely goes deeper. They’re trying to understand what kind of employee you’d be and how you’d carry yourself in the role.
“For me it’s: Are they honest? Do they have self-awareness? Can they own their stuff in a professional and mature way? Is this someone that we can have growth and development conversations with? Are they going to hit a wall [when] it comes to giving them feedback?” Smith says. “How they answer that question really tells me the answer to all of those other things—and those are the things that matter.”
5 tips for talking about strengths and weaknesses in an interview
OK, that’s all great in theory, but what do you actually need to do to discuss your strengths and weaknesses successfully?
1. Be honest.
It might sound trite, but it’s also true: An answer that sounds genuine and authentic will impress, while one that sounds generic, calculated, exaggerated, or humblebraggy will do the opposite.
A boss doesn’t want to hire someone who can’t recognize and own what they bring to the table and what they need to work on. You’ll be a better employee if you can understand and leverage your strengths and acknowledge and learn from your weaknesses. So you want to show in the interview that you’re capable of that kind of self-reflection.
2. Tell a story.
Here’s another cliché you shouldn’t discount: “Show, don’t tell.” Anyone who’s ever taken a writing class—whether in seventh grade or graduate school—has heard it. You should keep it in mind when answering just about any interview question, and it’s certainly helpful here.
“Anytime you can have a real-life example or a concrete example, it’s a good idea. It just helps to contextualize the response a little bit,” Smith says. “We just understand concepts and situations better with a story. So if you can tell a story that supports your thesis, then it’s always helpful.”
Talk about a time your strength helped you achieve something in a professional setting or when your weakness impeded you. For example, if you’re talking about how you’re calm under pressure in a fast-paced environment, you might tell the interviewer about that time you delivered a revamped client proposal after a last-minute change of plans. If you’re admitting that your weakness is presenting in front of high-level executives, you might start by briefly describing the time you got so nervous presenting your plan for a new marketing strategy that you weren’t able to effectively convey your (thorough and pretty brilliant) approach and your boss had to step in and help get the plan approved.
Not only will sharing a real example make your answer stand out, but it’ll also make it sound thoughtful and honest and highlight all those other characteristics interviewers are actually looking for.
3. Remember to get to the insight.
An answer that’s genuine and includes an illustrative anecdote is a great start, but it’s not complete until you address the “so what?”
When you’re talking about a strength, the last beat of your answer should tie whatever skill or trait you’ve been discussing to the role and company you’re applying for. Tell the interviewer how that strength would be useful in this job at this company. So going back to the revamped client proposal example, you might add, “Since things move quickly at [Company], this would allow me to come in and earn a new team’s confidence and foster a trusting team culture while also ensuring we’re all hitting our goals and delivering high-quality work.”
In the case of a weakness, “Really showcase your growth trajectory, your learning curve, what you’ve done as a result of the awareness of that weakness,” Smith says. It’ll help the interviewer understand how you’d approach problem-solving and professional growth in this new job. So if you were the candidate with the presentation snafu, you might talk about how you sat down with your boss to make a plan to improve your public speaking skills, and how the next time you had to present to the execs you knocked it out of the park.
4. Keep it short.
You don’t have to devote half the interview to these answers. You can keep your response relatively brief and focused on one or two strengths and/or weaknesses, depending on how the question was phrased. To add to our list of overused-but-handy phrases: Think quality, not quantity. Don’t dive in and rattle off a litany of things you think you’re good or bad at without explaining anything. Instead, narrow it down and go into detail.
5. Don’t sweat it so much.
While you definitely want to prepare and do your best to nail your answers, try not to stress too much. “I have never known an employment decision to come down to how someone answers those questions,” Smith says. “It’s just one data point connected with a whole bunch of other ones. So don’t give it too much weight.”
What are some example strengths and weaknesses you could use in an interview?
Here are some possible strengths and weaknesses you can use as the basis of your answers for these questions.
Example strengths for job interviews
- Being adaptable
- Being proactive
- Building relationships
- Being willing to go above and beyond to help others
- Coming up with innovative solutions
- Communicating in writing
- Displaying emotional intelligence
- Having experience with a problem that the company is currently facing
- Figuring out how to effectively use a piece of software
- Giving or receiving constructive feedback
- Handling conflicts
- Interpreting data and/or results
- Managing projects
- Motivating employees
- Noticing small details
- Public speaking
- Recognizing patterns
- Setting deadlines
- Switching between different tasks quickly
- Thinking critically
- Working well under pressure
Example weaknesses for job interviews
- Being a perfectionist
- Being too hard on yourself
- Getting too caught up in small details
- Getting nervous about speaking to groups or on the phone
- Ignoring or rationalizing away constructive feedback
- Locking in on a certain idea or way of doing things
- Losing track of deadlines, tasks, or work products
- Making basic math errors or not being able to do math in your head
- Making frequent grammar errors when writing
- Maintaining work-life balance
- Not being comfortable with vague instructions
- Not being confident
- Not being willing to change your mind
- Not knowing when to ask for clarification
- Not picking up on nonverbal cues
- Missing deadlines
- Overlooking small details
- Struggling with time management
- Taking on too much work rather than delegating or saying no
- Writing unclearly
How to answer “What are your strengths?” in an interview
Use this opportunity to emphasize the most important qualities you’d bring to the role, team, and company.
Smith recommends reading carefully through the job description and learning as much as you can about what the company is up to and what the culture is like. Read various pages on the organization’s website, take a look at its social media accounts, and catch up on some recent announcements and news coverage if applicable. Use what you’ve learned to identify which of your strengths is most relevant and how it will allow you to contribute. Then make the connection inescapable. “Every answer should position you to help them see how you can solve a problem” and help the company achieve its goals, Smith says.
At the same time, you don’t want to go overboard. “It’s such a fine line. I always tell people not to worry about bragging, but you also don’t want to come across as cocky or too full of yourself,” Smith says. Give a confident and honest assessment that does your skills justice, but don’t let yourself veer into hyperbole.
Example answers for “What is your greatest strength?”
If you’re applying for an operations role at a startup, you might say:
“I’d say one of my greatest strengths is bringing organization to hectic environments and implementing processes to make everyone’s lives easier. In my current role as an executive assistant to a CEO, I created new processes for pretty much everything, from scheduling meetings to planning monthly all hands agendas to selecting and preparing for event appearances. Everyone in the company knew how things worked and how long they would take, and the structures helped alleviate stress and set expectations on all sides. I’d be excited to bring that same approach to an operations manager role at a startup, where everything is new and constantly growing and could use just the right amount of structure to keep things running smoothly.”
A teacher could answer like this:
“I think that as a teacher, one of the top goals is keeping students engaged. That’s why I think it’s important that some of my greatest strengths are being adaptable, gauging a classroom’s excitement and energy, and coming up with creative and varied lesson plans. I’ve come up with a system where I have a complete lesson plan for each day but build in some flexibility to go in any order. I also make sure that for each day I have activities that help students relax, get them moving around, encourage them to participate, and allow them to work independently. The variety and flexibility together let me be responsive and match the students’ energy levels and moods—for example, if they’re hyped up after lunch, exhausted after gym class, or getting antsy after a long period at their desks.”
If you’re a recent grad, you might draw from your experience in school for your answer, such as:
“One of my greatest strengths is my time management. As a Division I athlete who also maintained a 3.7 GPA and worked part-time, I really honed my ability to prioritize and schedule my time to account for classes, practices, games, homework, and shifts. I gave every activity, assignment, or study session a priority rating and estimated plenty of extra time for all of them before plotting them out on my calendar and setting phone alarms. I didn’t usually need so many reminders, but it helped give me peace of mind. I talked with my boss—who was luckily super understanding—to figure out which shifts were best for each semester. Sure, I was mocked for the giant wall calendar in my bedroom, but it was worth it for the results. As an HR assistant, I know I’ll be getting a lot of different assignments from the team, so I plan to hone and evolve my existing systems to make sure everything gets done on time and to a high standard.”
A graphic designer applying for a job at an agency might say:
“I think that my greatest strength is changing up design styles and aesthetics to match different campaigns or brands—or in the case of this job, clients. I love the challenge of being creative within different rules, such as brand guidelines or just a mood that a client is going for. I love to expose myself to a lot of different artists and art styles so that I always have new ideas and don’t get stuck in one groove. At my current job, I’ve designed campaign graphics and templates for medications being explained to doctors and pharmacists, exercise equipment being advertised to teenagers and young adults, and more—all with great results."
How to answer “What is your greatest weakness?” in an interview
While you’ll definitely want to tie your strengths to the role and company you’re applying for, you should avoid that approach when talking about your weaknesses. “You don’t necessarily want them associating a weakness with their company or with what they’re looking for,” Smith says. For example, if the job description for a sales role lists excellent verbal communication skills, you shouldn’t say one of your weaknesses is thinking on your feet during phone calls, even if you’ve worked hard to improve and feel more than competent now.
Instead, talk about a weakness that doesn’t obviously impair your ability to perform the core functions of the role. Make sure you admit the weakness, pivot to the insight, and end on a strong note. “If someone can be honest and have the self-awareness to answer that question, I think that says a lot about their emotional intelligence and their professional maturity,” Smith says.
Her last piece of advice? Don’t pick a “weakness” like, “I’m such a hard worker,” or, “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” Going down that route will backfire, because it comes off as disingenuous, oblivious, or immature—and none of those are qualities that’ll get you the job.
Example answers for “What is your greatest weakness?”
If you’re applying for an engineering job, you might say:
“My greatest weakness would probably be waiting too long to ask questions to clarify the goals of a project and to make sure I’m on the right path. I noticed in one of my first coding jobs out of college that I would get an assignment and, because I assumed I should be able to work independently, I’d waste time going down a particular road that didn’t 100% align with the ultimate goal and then would have to spend additional time making changes. After it happened once or twice, I started asking my manager more questions about why we were adding a particular feature, who it was intended for, what about the previous functionality had made for a poor experience, etc. And especially for bigger projects, I would reach out when I needed a gut check to ask follow-up questions as well as to share the work I’d done so far and what I was planning to do next. In the long run, it meant I could finish projects faster and do better work.”
If your greatest weakness is overloading yourself with work, instead of saying something like “I work too hard,” try something like:
“My greatest weakness is probably knowing when to say no to extra tasks. As an entry-level IT employee, I was sure that the best way to impress was to make the people I worked with think I could literally do it all. If someone wanted something fixed by tomorrow, I’d promise to do it by tomorrow, even if I already had four high-priority tickets on my plate for the day.
“I found myself working long hours, and my supervisor talked to me about how I was doing extra tasks but my main work was getting sloppier and slower. I realized that I needed to get better at saying ‘no’ and ‘yes, but not right now.’ With my supervisor’s guidance, I started asking a few standard questions whenever I was given a new task, such as what an issue was blocking or impeding, when it needed to be addressed by, what kind of flexibility there was in that timeline, and whether the employee had tried some simple fixes they could do themselves. I also started scheduling an hour each morning or afternoon for things that popped up, but outside of those times, unless something was on fire, I was working on my core job of strengthening our internal network security. Over time, I’ve become way better at prioritizing, communicating and setting expectations, and making sure extra tasks didn’t prevent me from getting my work done—and done well.”
Someone who needed to work on their written communication might say:
“Before I started working, I always bought into the idea that people who were good with computers and numbers didn’t necessarily need to be good with words, and that in some cases, they just ‘couldn’t’ be. So I just sort of did the bare minimum to get by in required writing and English classes. But as soon as I started my first job, I realized that my written communication skills were probably my greatest weakness, and they were holding me back. I kept finding myself misunderstood when I sent emails or Slack messages, or it would take me half an hour to write a paragraph because I didn’t know how to translate my thoughts and ideas into words. I decided to take a basic writing course in my free time, but I also started to read the written communication I was getting from others at work with an eye toward understanding what worked well and what didn’t. Over time, my messages have needed less and less clarification and I’ve found myself getting the words on the page much faster. My boss even mentioned she’s noticed a significant improvement and tasked me with sending out monthly team updates.”
If your greatest weakness was your lack of confidence, your answer might sound like:
“My greatest weakness is having less confidence than I should in my ideas. I used to be terrified to bring up my ideas during meetings—I was so afraid they were bad or even that I’d get laughed at. But as a result, I watched others at my level get noticed and move up faster. So I went to someone on my team who had a few more years experience than me and who I was friendly with. I asked her if I could start running my ideas by her before meetings. That way, I could tell myself that if she didn’t think they were hilariously stupid, that at least I wouldn’t be laughed out of the office. And I’d have practice saying them out loud in front of one person I really trusted first. It turned out she really liked most of my ideas and I started mentioning things I’d rehearsed with her. Eventually, I felt like I could gauge my ideas better for myself, and I no longer needed that confidence boost. I’ve also presented a few bad ideas—and realized it wasn’t the end of the world or even the end of the conversation. Now I’m way more confident sharing ideas in group settings or to higher ups and it’s been really rewarding to see those ideas generate excitement and come to fruition.”
Regina Borsellino contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.