Career Corner: January-February 2005

January 31, 2005

If I'm asked in a job interview to list my weaknesses, how should I respond without damaging my chances of getting the job?

Interviewers love this question. Obviously, the intent is to make it easier for your potential employer to scratch you from consideration. The common advice is to find an answer that isn't a "red flag" and could actually be considered a strength--telling the interviewer that friends have complained that you work too hard, for example.

The truth is, most interviewers have heard such answers so many times that they'll try other ways to get the dirt. I know one employer who, after hearing an "I work too hard" answer, said, "Okay, give me another weakness." Then he asked for a third. By that time, he was sure the answer was not rehearsed.

My advice is not to answer the question unless you have to. This is easier if the interviewer asks for your strengths and weaknesses. Always lead with your strengths, perhaps having three that directly relate to the job for which you're applying. If an interviewer really likes what she's hearing, she may not press you on your weaknesses. If, however, she does, you might pick something that comes from a recent performance review.

Here's an example: "My supervisor told me that even though I'm good with figures, my lack of budget experience is a weakness. I took advantage of that feedback to take a course in budgeting." The candidate went a step beyond what was asked, providing three pieces of useful information to the interviewer: He acknowledged the feedback; he demonstrated that he understood that lack of budgeting experience could hold him back; and he did something about it.

The "weakness" question is not a friendly question, but it is rarely fatal. Just make certain you don't cite a flaw that relates to a critical requirement of the job. If it does, you might consider looking elsewhere.

The Career Center, through a partnership with the Duke Alumni Association, provides career advice to alumni. For information, please contact