“What is your biggest weakness?”
It’s a question interviewers love and candidates hate – for good reason. “Trap” questions like this one allow interviewers to easily weed out candidates without doing a whole lot of work. Many times, the prospective hires take care of that for them.
See, there is a “right” answer to this question but most job seekers fail to deliver on it. The ones who do automatically earn a leg up over the competition in the hiring managers mind. The ones who don’t end up in a mile-high stack on someone’s desk collecting dust.
So the question becomes, how do you “correctly” answer the question of speaking to your weaknesses in an interview. This guide is going to walk you through that and a whole lot more. We’re going to cover:
- The two most common mistakes candidates make when talking about their weaknesses in an interview (I’ll even give you a few examples of what not to do)
- The formula for nailing the answer to “what is your biggest weakness?” every single time (along with examples for different weaknesses)
- A comprehensive list of weaknesses you can use to plug into the formula and automatically have an awesome answer that will blow your interviewer away
If you’re ready to turn this question from a complete pain into one of the reasons you land the job offer over the competition, read on! For more answers to common interview questions, check out this post.
Two Mistakes People Make When Answering “What Is Your Biggest Weakness?”
When it comes to talking about weaknesses in a job interview, candidates tend to fall into one of two traps:
- They try to play up a skill that they think the employer would want to hear (i.e. “I work too hard”)
- They get a little too honest about an actual weakness
Let’s start with the first bullet. While the idea of spinning the “weakness” into a strength is good, this is definitely NOT the right way to do it. Employers tend to see right through people who take this route and it usually comes off as pedantic and unprofessional. Here are a few examples of bad answers that fall into this category:
Bad Example Answer #1
My biggest weakness is definitely the fact that I work too much. At my previous job my boss actually had to implement a rule that I needed to be out of the office by 7pm because I was routinely staying until 9pm. I did win the award for highest sell through rate though so maybe it wasn’t all for nothing, right!?
Bad Example Answer #2
My biggest weakness is probably biting off more than I can chew. I love learning new things, helping my colleagues, and being right in the thick of innovation. I usually get the hang of my job pretty quickly, which leads me to take on a lot of additional stretch projects. It’s funny how my bandwidth feels maxed but there’s always room for more!
In the first bad example, our candidate is trying to show that they love to work and that hiring them will net the company and employee who puts in tireless hours and drives tons of results. Instead, it comes off as a bit arrogant and cringeworthy.
In the second bad example, our candidate is trying to convey that they love to wear many hats, dive into new situations, and tackle new challenges. While companies love that, they’re going to look at this answer and see a person who stretches themselves thin, decreasing performance across the board.
Now let’s talk about the next common mistake candidates make – oversharing.
If you’re applying for a job in sales and talking to strangers genuinely terrifies you, you might not want to share that with your interviewers. Sure, it’s a weakness, but highlighting it is likely going to pull you out of contention for the job. Here are two examples of answers where people are a little too honest:
Bad Example #1
My biggest weakness is the fact that I freeze up whenever I’m forced to talk to someone I don’t know. To be honest, I was terrified when I walked in the door today and sat down with you – but you’ve been really nice, thank you – but yea, I was shaking earlier. I just don’t really feel comfortable in those situations and I get pretty awkward. I’m working on it though.
Bad Example #2
My biggest weakness is probably procrastination. I was never good at planning ahead in school / at my previous job, and I’d put stuff off until the last minute. That said, I only missed a few deadlines – I’m pretty good at cramming stuff in at the last minute. I think there’s research out there that showed people get better results when they’re under a tight deadline. That’s kind of how I operate.
It almost hurts a little to read those, right?
When you start at a new company, you’re going to be meeting TONS of people you’ve never met before – colleagues, clients, competitors, etc. If your company thinks you freeze up and become an awkward shell of yourself, how are you going to add to their culture or push clients to make decisions that benefit the company? Example #1 is going to get your application tossed out fast.
Example #2 sounds like someone trying to be the cool kid in school who never studied but still got A’s. While you may be able to do that in the professional world, it’s best to keep it to yourself. Companies want people who are organized and working ahead of time to make sure deliverables are perfect and deadlines are met.
Now I’m going to show you the right way to frame up your weakness so that you blow away your interviewer and completely set yourself apart from the competition.
How To Answer “What Is Your Biggest Weakness?” In An Interview
When it comes to crafting the best possible answer to this interview question, we have to think about the opportunities that our answer affords us. How can we use it to proactively handle objections, highlight specific experience, and prove out our value?
I mentioned above that people had the right idea when they aimed to spin their weakness as a strength – that’s exactly what we’re going to do here, but we’re going to frame it in a way that seriously impresses our interviewer (rather than coming off as arrogant or unprofessional). In order to do that, we’re going to follow this simple 5 step formula:
- Pick a skill/trait that you’ve been actively working to improve
- Describe how that challenge/trait has been a challenge for you in the past
- Talk about the actions you’ve taken to improve it
- Showcase the results you’ve gotten from your actions
- Talk about how others have acknowledged your progress
Here’s why this works.
We start by citing a weakness and we carefully share how it’s impacted us in the past. For example, maybe you have a paralyzing fear of public speaking which kept you from sharing ideas in meetings and conveying your message to clients.
This is OK because we’re all human and we all have weaknesses, but we’re not going to end on that note. Instead, we’re going to follow up by citing the actions we’ve taken to overcome our fear. To start, you hired a speaking coach to help you understand why this fear is occurring and to give you guidance on how to manage it in the moment. Next, you spoke to your boss and asked them if you could have 10 minutes each month to present on a topic in front of the team.
Awesome! You recognized that you had a weakness and you began to take steps to overcome it. Your interviewer is going to take note of your self awareness and drive. But we’re not done yet. Finally, you’re going to showcase the results you’ve gotten from your hard work as well as any recognition you received from others.
After speaking in front of your team several times, you felt ready to take it to the big stage. You raised your hand to co-lead a pitch to one of the largest prospects in the company’s pipeline. On the big day, you completely nailed it. The prospect signed on for $5.25M/year and your company recognized you with the award for largest deal of the year!
That answer shows your interviewer that you have enough awareness to recognize your weaknesses, but you’re also committed to improving and you’re not afraid to step out of your comfort zone in order to grow. What company wouldn’t want to hire someone like that?
Example Answers For “What Is Your Biggest Weakness?”
Now let’s take that bulleted formula from the section above and turn it into a template that you can rehearse and repeat in your next interview:
“Biggest Weakness” Interview Answer Template
In the past, [Weakness] was a huge challenge for me. I’d get incredibly nervous when I knew I had to [Weakness]. I realized this was hindering my progress and an individual and a professional so I decided to [Action You Took To Improve]. After several months of working through it, I can honestly say that [Weakness] is something I’m starting to enjoy. Most recently, [Showcase Results From Action Taken] and my colleagues even [Include Colleague Testimonial].
Here is how we’d leverage it using the public speaking example from above:
“Biggest Weakness” Answer Example #1 – Public Speaking
In the past, public speaking was a huge challenge for me. I’d get incredibly nervous when I knew I had to get up and speak in front of a crowd. I realized this was hindering my progress as an individual and a professional so I decided to take action.
I hired a speaking coach and I asked my manager to allocate 10 minutes in our team meeting each month where I could present on something. After a few months of working through my speaking issues, I can honestly say it’s something I’m starting to enjoy.
Most recently, I co-led a pitch to one of our biggest potential prospects in the past 5 years. The stakes were high but we ended up closing them for $5.25M/year. After the deal was signed, our senior salesperson came up to me and told me that my narrative on X topic was what really sealed the deal. We wouldn’t have closed them without it.
Here’s another example using the challenge of navigating cultural barriers:
Answer Example #2 – Navigating Cultural Barriers
My current company recently expanded their focus from US-only markets into Japan. As you probably know, Japan’s professional culture is very different from what we’re used to here in the US and I had a hard time adjusting.
During the early months of the expansion, I was sent to Japan to meet with prospective clients. I didn’t do much reading beforehand since I’m typically good with our domestic clients and proceeded to botch the first two meetings. Those companies stopped all communication after my visit. I couldn’t understand what I did wrong.
At first, I blamed the companies and the “weird” way they did business but after some reflection I realized that I was most likely at fault. To help me better understand, I hired a Japanese business coach who taught me the key differences between American and Japanese culture. I also picked up Duolingo to learn some of the language and found a local group dedicated to practicing each week. After months of hard work, I rewarded myself with a two week personal trip to Japan and used Couchsurfing.com to make the experience as authentic as possible.
After months of not communicating with the two companies I mentioned before, I was able to get a hold of someone and persuade them to let me come back. At the end of the meeting, we signed them on as clients and they eventually became critical to our expansion within the country.
Finally, here’s a third example with someone who struggles with not having the “right experience” for a developer role:
Answer Example #3 – Not Having The “Right” Experience
In the past, my biggest weakness has been not having a traditional background in development and computer science. I was a sociology major in college and I’ve been working as an account manager for the past 3 years. I knew it wouldn’t be an easy path, but front end development is what I’m passionate about.
Twelve months ago, I began teaching myself how to code. I leveraged basic resources like Free Code Camp and spent hours on Stack Exchange every day. Next, I began creating apps that solved personal problems and forced me to expand into new languages and APIs.
Most recently, I launched an app called Forest which aims to help people maintain a healthy relationship with their phone. The app allows them to plant a tree a let it grow for a certain period of time, during which their phone is completely locked. If they unlock their phone, the tree dies. I marketed it via Medium, several major publications, and Reddit and it currently has 10,000 monthly active users.
While my background and experience isn’t traditional, I know this is what I’m meant to do and I’d love to have the opportunity to learn from the amazing developers at your company.
See how well that flows from admitting your weakness to showcasing how you conquered your fear and turned it into tangible results for the company? That’s what we’re aiming for.
List of Weakness Topics You Can Use For Your Answer
Thus far we’ve flesh out answers for a few topics you can use as your weakness. If you’ve been reading this and a weakness hasn’t popped into your head, I’ve listed out dozens of examples below that you can plug and play with the template above:
|Asking for what you want||Fear of rejection||Organization|
|Avoiding necessary conflict||Feeling inadequate||Passivity|
|Blame- taking the fall for others||Giving feedback||Procrastination|
|Blame - pointing the finger at others||Honesty - sharing too much with colleagues, managers, clients||Public Speaking|
|Boredom||Lack of patience||Reaching out to strangers (cold email / cold calling)|
|Close-mindedness||Learning new skills||Sharing responsibility|
|Confidence / self-limiting beliefs||Managing risk||Stubborn|
|Criticism - not being able to provide it constructively||Managing relationships with difficult people||Time management|
|Criticism - not taking it well||Multitasking||Too detail oriented|
|Delegating tasks||My way or the highway||Willing to have tough conversations|
|Emotional control||Navigating cultural barriers||Work/life balance|
|Expecting too much from co-workers||Needing to be right/correct||Working too hard|
|Expressing frustration improperly||Not taking credit for work you did||Working on too many projects|
Now you know you “right” way to answer when your interviewer asks, “what is your biggest weakness?” so you can ace your next interview, edge out the competition, and land that job offer! For more ways to ace your interview, check out my comprehensive guide on preparing for job interviews.
Austin is the founder of Cultivated Culture where he helps people land jobs without connections, without traditional experience, and without applying online. His strategies have been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, & Fast Company and has helped people just like you land jobs at Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, & more.