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Yesterday, a reader asked us what he should say when an interviewer asks him to describe his strengths and weaknesses. Zoë had a great answer: Tell the truth.
She’s right. This is not a trick question, and the interviewer just wants to learn more about how you work and determine if you have good self-assessment skills. After all, one of the values Microsoft requires of its employees is the ability to be “self-critical, questioning, and committed to personal excellence and self-improvement.” No one’s perfect. Not even BillG. :)
That said, “Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses” is probably the most frequently asked interview question (not just at Microsoft), and it’s smart to be well-prepared with a good answer. You definitely don’t want to say, “Uh, I’m really lazy.” Be ready!
As an avid Apprentice watcher, I will once again make a comparison between that entertaining (albeit pathetic, at times) show and it’s less cool cousin … real life. In last week’s episode, Bill was asked what his biggest weakness was, and while he did have the right idea, his answer was not great. He told his interviewer that his biggest weakness is that he is never satisfied. The good part is that he thought of a weakness that could be a positive if properly controlled, but the bad part is he, quite honestly, sounded pretty cheesy and insincere with that answer, and his interviewer immediately realized that.
I’m not unlike Bill. I remember when I interviewed for my job at Microsoft, I was asked this question, and I answered with the most cliché thing possible (which at the time, I thought was quite brilliant.) I told my interviewer that I’m too much of a perfectionist. I thought I was so clever to think of something most people would think was a strength and make it a detriment.
Sometimes I still can’t believe I got this job.
Luckily, my interviewer pushed me harder on this question, and thankfully, I pulled it out of the water. When he asked me to elaborate, I told him that since I am a perfectionist, I have the belief that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Consequently, I have a really hard time delegating tasks to others, and in the end, I often work overtime to finish a project, I walk away bitter, and my teammates feel like they don’t get to contribute as much as they would like. I told him I was aware of this weakness, and I was working very hard to be a better team player. I continued by telling him a specific example about a group project I had recently worked on back at school where the team assigned specific responsibilities and goals to each person … and so on and so forth.
When the interviewer asked me my greatest strength, I think I again answered with the same statement: I’m a perfectionist. But this time I elaborated about how results and quality driven I am.
I am by no means saying my answer was the best I’ve ever heard. In fact, it was pretty lame. I was 22; that was my first “real” interview; and I think I got lucky by having an interviewer who allowed me to go back and qualify my original answer. But I think I did do a few things right.
So my tips on the strengths/weaknesses question:
- Anticipate this question, and write down your strengths and weaknesses before the interview. Maybe think of three each.
- Ask the interviewer to clarify the question. Depending on the type of interview, this question may be getting at general competencies, technical skills, teamwork situations, etc. Always make sure you understand the question before answering.
- Be prepared to explain why you believe your assertion and provide specific examples which illustrate this strength or weakness in action.
- If discussing a strength, explain how you’ve used your strength to help others perform better and improve the quality of work you were producing. If discussing a weakness, be prepared to talk about lessons you’ve learned and your plan for improvement.
Above all else, remember this: Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and interviewers know you are not perfect. They are not trying to expose your flaws, but rather they are trying to determine what unique attributes you bring to the table and, mostly importantly, how you identify and adjust for your shortcomings.
Be yourself … and prepare for this question. :)