Even with improvements in interviewing techniques and recruiting technology, some tired questions persist during the job-interview process, including that old favorite: “What is your greatest strength and your greatest weakness?”
If you’re a candidate confronted with that kind of question, you probably can’t help but wonder: What does the hiring manager want to actually hear? What’s the right answer?
In an ideal world, all interview questions would tie directly to the skills needed to do the job. Smart employers use behavior-based interviewing, which requires that candidates give specific examples of when they exhibited a skill or competency essential to the position. Unfortunately, not every interviewer uses this methodology—instead, they resort to questions that don’t really provide insight into your skills and experience.
Consequently, many candidates find themselves in an uncomfortable position, trying to answer vague inquiries. No matter what the questions, though, the key is to respond in a way that highlights your experience and skills and shows the employer you are a good fit for the job. Here are some effective ways to answer some of these questions.
“Tell me about yourself.”
While this innocent question is probably not designed as a trap, it is overly broad and often trips applicants up, said career coach Rita Friedman: “Job-seekers attempt to answer this by summarizing their entire résumé, but that’s not a great way to start and it doesn’t feel organic.”
Instead, Friedman suggested breaking the ice by saying something sincere but light, even funny. “It’s a good way to get out of stuffy interview mode,” she said. “Maybe say, ‘My hobbies include woodworking and reading, I wear a size 7.5 shoe, and I love long walks on the beach.’” The interviewer is really just trying to loosen things up, so prepare an answer that helps set a good tone.
“What is your greatest strength… and your greatest weakness?”
Too many interviewers still use this question. The result is often a canned answer from the candidate that just doesn’t ring true. Friedman recommended customizing your answer to bring it back to the position. “Give some version of an honest answer,” she advised. “The catch here is to seize the opportunity for relevant storytelling. For example, if you say you are great at problem-solving, narrow that down to a specific type of problem-solving relevant to the job, and give a quick example of how you did this.”
Sara Ferraioli, managing director at Winter Wyman, also suggested shaping your answer to mirror the skills required for the job: “You want to elevate and highlight the strengths that you own… that speak directly to the job requirement.”
Sharing a weakness is more challenging. “First, consider the truth,” Friedman said, “and then save yourself.” For instance, you might say: “I’m not a naturally organized person—my desk can look a little scary—but I find that keeping checklists of my daily and weekly goals really helps me stay on top of things. Since I started using a bullet journal at work, I haven’t missed a single deadline.”
Ferraioli advised choosing a weakness that you can spin into a strength. Speak about a technical skill you aren’t strong in but that you are working to improve. For example: “I want to learn more about iOS app development, so I’ve taken two online courses.”
“What are your salary requirements?”
This is probably the trickiest dance in the entire interview, and it often comes up early because the employer doesn’t want to waste time with a candidate who wants more money than they have.
First, do your research and find out the salary range of the position. Check out salary information websites (e.g., Payscale.com, Salary.com), employer review websites (e.g., Glassdoor.com), the employer’s career page, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Then, decide what you want for this position—the lowest number you’ll take and the high number you’d like.
Armed with that information, see if you can postpone the salary discussion until later in the process. It’s legitimate to say that it may be too early to discuss numbers, said Bryan Zawikowski, vice president at executive recruiting firm Lucas Group: “You can say, ‘I'm worried that we're getting ahead of ourselves. Based on my research, I know generally where the salary should be, but I need to understand more about the company and the position before we discuss numbers. You need to learn a lot more about me, too. If you’d like, you can tell me the range that you’re considering and I'll let you know if I'm in that range; but even then, I don't know where I would fit in. So, could we table that one for later?’”
Finally, it’s okay for an employer to ask about your salary expectations… but in many cities and states, asking for salary history is illegal. These laws aim to create better pay equity.
An Interview Should Always Focus on the Job
No matter how vague a particular question, you have the opportunity to turn it to your benefit by giving an answer that leads back to the job. If you’re asked, “What motivates you?” bring it back to the competencies and skills from your past work experience that fit the job opening, and sincerely speak to the things that motivate you. When asked, “What did you like least about your last job?”, frame your answer based on the open position, saying how this position will enable you to use skills you couldn’t in previous roles.
“The whole point is demonstrating you have the skill ability and cultural DNA to be a good fit into the role they have open,” said Greg Ambrose, managing partner at Stack Talent. If you're talking about other things during the interview, explained Ambrose, then you're not accomplishing this. Even if the interviewer’s questions are weak, you can still answer them to your advantage.