During a pre-election interview on CBS News, Katie Couric asked President Barack Obama to name a personal flaw that might hinder his performance as president. His response: “I don’t think there's a flaw that would hinder my ability to function as president. I think that all of us have things we need to improve.”
Obama’s answer is not one you should mimic in a job interview, and proves that even unflappable, articulate public speakers can struggle with this common interview question. But it’s the universal difficulty of answering the question that makes it such a good one —and why your response matters in a job interview.
When recruiters, human resources managers, or interviewers pose any variation of the weakness question, they’re waiting to see how savvy you are at answering. “They care how you handle the question and what it indicates about you,” says Michael Neece, CEO of InterviewMastery.com. “Interviewers are hoping someone is self-reflective.”
Beware of these seven overused, lousy answers, and take the expert advice that follows to form a unique answer that will impress your interviewers.
“I’M A PERFECTIONIST” and “I’M A WORKAHOLIC”
The oldest trick in the book is to take a weakness and turn it into a strength—and one any seasoned interviewer knows and hates. “It comes off to gimmicky, clever, insincere, and not putting in effort to think about the answer,” says Lewis Lin, founder of Seattle Interview Coach and former hiring manager for Microsoft and Google.
“I PROCRASTINATE” and “I’M DISORGANIZED”
Honesty is the best policy, but these answers tend to be a little too honest. Although you may brag to friends about making your deadlines in the final seconds, it will not impress interviewers.
“I HAVE HIGH EXPECTATIONS FOR MYSELF.”
This answer translates into “I put a lot of pressure on myself,” and this is bad for two reasons: first, you may be unpleasant to work with; second, you may become easily stressed out, which is a concern for employers.
“I DON’T KNOW.”
“For me, this is a red flag that they are not self-aware or they can’t think on their feet,” says Lin. Sorry Obamas out there—you have a flaw, so you need to identify it, and preferably before the interview so you’re not put on the spot.
“I DON’T HAVE ANY.” This is another red flag answer. It’s best to avoid sounding egotistical, defensive, and phony in an interview, and this answer is all three. As stated before, you need to identify a weakness before you’re put on the spot.
THE MILLION-DOLLAR ANSWER
Neece and Lin agree that the best response breaks down into three parts. First, demonstrate you’re self-aware by stating a weakness. Second, share how you’re taking initiative to improve upon it. And third, discuss your success thus far—or as Lin says, tell the “happy ending” of it all.
For example, if you’re bad at giving presentations, you might identify your weakness as public speaking. Tell how you overcame this weakness by constantly volunteering to present on behalf of your department in your old job, or attending Toastmasters meetings. Then reflect on your comfort level with presenting now.
Just remember to keep it short and sweet—Neece says most interviewers lose focus after 60 seconds of monologue, so practice making your story as concise as possible.