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Practically every manager knows there's no perfect job candidate. Employers know it, and that's why they search for the candidate who comes the closest to meeting their organizations' needs. That's the purpose of an interview process and, in some cases, an assessment of the candidate's skill level. But where interview questions are concerned, the one that's vexing for many candidates is, "What are your strengths and weaknesses?"
It's the interview question you dread because you've practiced and rehearsed all the answers you think are what the hiring manager wants to hear about how great you are. In your cover letter and resume, all candidates focus on are the positive qualities, and that's understandable but not necessarily realistic. At some point, you have to be objective and tell your future employer what you don't excel at or the areas where you need improvement. But the challenge is how to describe your weaknesses in a way that doesn't disqualify you or makes you appear not to be a suitable candidate.
Don't Reverse Your Strengths
Career coaches such as New York City-based Caroline Ceniza-Levine depart from age-old suggestions that say to just turn a strength into a weakness. For example, saying that you are so detail-focused that you sometimes pore over a written report several times before you're comfortable disseminating it. That type of answer could backfire, raising the interviewer's concerns about your time-management skills. If you spend too much time double- and triple-checking your work, it could suggest that your confidence level is slightly amiss. Instead, Ceniza-Levine says to stay away from admitting to weaknesses that could disqualify you. If you're going to be working in a fast-paced office, spending hours on a single report could have a negative affect on your productivity and your ability to meet the demands of the job.
Show Motivation for Self-Improvement
An answer that Ceniza-Levine suggests is effective is one that shows you're motivated to work on your weaknesses. Avoid acknowledging that you have weaknesses without following up with what you're doing to improve. For example, if you're not especially tech-savvy, tell the interviewer that you aren't as proficient as you would like with some of the newer software applications. Add that you are studying online tutorials to get up to speed on programs that can increase your productivity.
Use an Outsider's Perspective
Turn around the question and tell the interviewer what someone else might perceive is one of your weaknesses. For example, if you've been accused of spending too much time working, you could explain that your co-workers might say that about you because you're always punctual and usually already at work by the time they get to their desks. That's using what someone sees as a weakness but really isn't -- it's a misconception. On the other hand, if you admittedly spend too much time working and not enough time engaging in activities outside of work, tell the interviewer that you're working toward achieving work-life balance.
Don't Pretend to Be Perfect
Be prepared for the inevitable question about your weaknesses. Don't give that deer-in-the-headlights look when the interviewer poses it, or you'll appear as if you didn't prepare for the interview. Most job seekers know they ought to be prepared to respond to this question, regardless of how the interviewer frames it. And don't say you can't think of any weaknesses you have -- everybody has weaknesses. You can't excel at everything.
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Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.
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