'What is your biggest weakness?' Tricky graduate interview question

This classic tricky interview question appears to be asking you to reveal your shortcomings, but if you use the right tactics it can be a golden opportunity to show that you're right for the job.

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When you're being interviewed you want to show yourself in the best possible light, so what do you do if you are asked to talk about something you find difficult? There are certain interview questions that graduate recruiters love and candidates sometimes stumble over, and this is one of them. Think about it in advance and you’ll be in a much better position to come up with a response that tackles the question but still helps you to come across in a positive light.

How not to reply to the interview question ‘What is your biggest weakness?’

‘Uh, I don’t know. Um, I guess I have a big weakness for chocolate. No, wait! I get stressed under pressure when up against a tight deadline and tend to procrastinate.’

Why is this answer unlikely to get you the graduate job you want?

Most jobs involve some pressure, so avoid giving the impression that you’re not going to be able to cope. Also, you need to stick to work-related skills – this shows that you take the interview seriously and have a professional outlook.

What is the graduate recruiter really asking?

The problem with this question is that you’re being asked about your shortcomings, when your instinct, in an interview situation, is to keep your flaws as well hidden as possible. What you need to do is to frame your answer so as to give it a positive spin.

This question is designed to test analytical abilities and self-awareness, so having a confident answer to this will impress. Avoid taking a self-deprecating approach in an attempt to win the interviewer over.

So how should you answer the question ‘What is your biggest weakness?’

You could show that, although you may have had a problem in the past, you’ve taken steps to combat it. For example: ‘I used to find that pressure got to me but I’ve found ways to minimise this. I went on a time management course at university, which has helped me to organise myself and reduce my stress.’

The best response, however, is to describe a weakness that could also be viewed as a strength. But try to avoid the old favourite answer: 'I'm a perfectionist'. It is such a cliche that intervewers will wonder if it is true. If you do use it, select an element of perfectionism, such as ‘Because I tend to get very passionate about the work I do, I get frustrated if others don’t share my enthusiasm.’

Most strengths – attention to detail, teamworking and so on – have the potential to shade over into weakness. If you’re a natural teamworker, do you find it difficult to cope with conflict, or to assume leadership responsibilities? If you’re great at the details, do you sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture? Another way to approach this question is to think about how you overcome the potential downside of your biggest strength.

Use your research into the employer and the job

This is a good opportunity for you to draw on your research into the organisation and the role you are applying for. If there are certain kinds of task you feel you do not excel at and these are not going to be key requirements, you could make these the focus of your answer. However, it's still worth trying to show how you manage when you are called upon to draw on skills that are not your natural strength.

For example, if you are applying for a sales role where you are going to have tough regular targets to meet and will be working in a competitive environment, you could explain how you find deadlines and targets motivating and enjoy the buzz of striving to achieve, but sometimes find it difficult to sustain your enthusiasm and commitment in a slower-paced set-up where you don't have clearly defined responsibilities and feel you aren't sufficiently challenged. Then you could explain how you coped in such a situation, even though it went against the grain of your natural inclinations. For example, perhaps you used your initiative and sought out additional responsibilities.

Alternatively, if you are applying for a job where teamworking is going to be essential and you will need to support your colleagues and draw on their expertise, you could discuss a time when you have found it hard to keep going because you were working in isolation, and explain how you overcame this.

You can practise your answers to tricky interview questions using resources from our partners at Shortlist.Me .

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