A tough grilling in an interviewer’s office can be a stressful experience no matter how well-prepared you are – and few questions cause more interview-morning heartburn than the dreaded “What’s your greatest weakness?” inquiry. Answering this question is no cakewalk for any professional, but the right approach and attitude can give you a solid advantage over the competition. Here are some expert tips to get you planning ahead and thinking positive.

Understand what employers want to know
A question about your greatest weakness might seem like an attempt to trip you up or test your reaction speed, but it actually contains a few different shades of meaning. On one hand, “an interviewer asks this question to determine if you are forthright and honest about your flaws,” says Heather McNab, author of What Top Professionals Need to Know About Answering Job Interview Questions – so your response should be clear and upfront. At the same time, says Alison Doyle, job search expert for About.com, “they’re also looking for insight into what you think are the skills you may need to improve.” That means they’ll be looking for cues about your self-assessment abilities – and how you handle your own shortcomings – so it may be helpful to focus on a weakness you’re already acknowledging and trying to improve. In the end, though, “they’re trying to find out if you’re capable of doing the job,” says Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding and author of Promote Yourself (St. Martin’s Press, fall 2013). Thus, it’s better to describe a general weakness than one directly related to the job’s core functions.

Understand what’ll turn them off
As mentioned above, no employer will hire a candidate who claims a main weakness in an area crucial for the performance of the job. But that doesn’t mean you should err too far on the side of vagueness – or worse, dishonesty. Your interviewer will likely be well-trained to sniff out avoidant answers. “Many professionals try to take a strength and turn it into a weakness – ‘I just work too hard’ – but the interviewer won’t buy it,” McNab says. Instead, what’s most important is to give the interviewer proof that you’re human, aware of your flaws, and committed to self-improvement. Even more importantly – though this might seem to go without saying – no employer will be happy to hear you claim that you don’t have any weaknesses. “This could indicate that you aren’t flexible, or are unwilling to improve when improvement is needed,” Doyle explains – or worse, it could imply that you’ve got something to hide. In short, you’ve got to pick a weakness, admit it openly, and spin it as a net positive.

Understand what kinds of stories they like
Putting your weakness in proper context means walking a delicate line. The goal is to describe the weakness as a motivation for positive self-change without sounding too defensive about the problem. In other words, “saying you lack the right skills but are a quick learner won’t help your candidacy,” Doyle says. A far better approach is to think of an area in which you’re currently working hard on improving, and frame that as a weakness. “Explain that although you’ve had difficulty in a given situation, you recovered from it, learned something and have performed better as a result,” Schawbel says. An alternate route is to talk about a weakness that has little or nothing to do with the job for which you’re interviewing. If you take this path, though, it’s important to focus on a weakness that conveys a genuine struggle – otherwise your answer may sound like a cop-out. If you tell a personal story well, though, your answer may satisfy the interviewer and cast you as a fully developed “character” at the same time.

Keep these tips in mind as you rehearse your answers, and you may wind up surprising yourself – and your potential employer – with a unique and thought-provoking answer.

Guest Blogger – Ben Thomas, a member of the Riley Guide writing team, is an expert on a variety of topics related to the job search.

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