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Interview Prep: Defining Your Strengths and Weaknesses

By Gradspot Dot Com

The following is an excerpt from the Ace Your Interview! book by WetFeet:

No matter whether you’re interviewing for a position in investment banking or pizza delivery, potential employers are bound to ask the dependable, go-to interview question: What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses? It seems like a simple question, but it requires a complex answer because it will tell employers what you’ll bring to the organization and whether you’re mature enough to admit and learn from your mistakes. To answer the question gracefully, follow the advice below.

Strengths: Many job applicants confuse strengths with skills. Skills are abilities that can be learned, such as using a software application. Strengths are inherent personal attributes that you have cultivated over the course of many years and life experiences—perseverance in the face of adversity, for example. Interviewers are usually much more interested in candidates who have all the strengths needed to do the job well than in interviewees who can only bring skills to the table.

Instead of racking your brain to come up with a long list of your strengths, spend an hour or two on the following exercise:

1. Looking over the job description, make a list of the personal strengths required for this job. Does the position entail handling lots of money? Then the right candidate will be responsible, reliable, and ethical. If it’s a customer care position, they’ll be looking for someone who is personable, patient, and empathetic.

2. Ponder some extra personal strengths that could be a plus for the job. List those too. If the job description includes budget management, a thrifty nature could be a competitive advantage.

3. Think of an anecdote that illustrates you possess each strength on the first list. Let’s say you can recall a time when you caught an oversight on the annual report, and from then on were entrusted with double-checking the financial numbers on all investor communications. That anecdote would show you’re thorough and responsible enough to handle fiscal responsibilities.

4. Look over the second list, and identify those strengths you feel are attributed to you. Though an employer may not expect these strengths outright, you should still bring them up and be prepared to talk about them. Your interviewer will see you were thoughtful and may be pleasantly surprised that you have a strength he or she didn’t consider before.

Weaknesses: Nothing is more suspicious or less impressive than a flawless candidate. Either you’re hiding some truly terrible flaw that will surface after you’ve been hired or you are so naturally talented that you have no idea what it’s like to work at developing a skill.

Show that you’ve already learned a few important life lessons, and you’ll sound more experienced, wise, and human. Hiring managers want candidates who have demonstrated an ability to learn and recover from mistake, so you’d be wise to have a “lesson learned” story ready as an answer rather than admitting a character flaw under duress. Here are four key tips for choosing your story and making the most of it:

Beware of TMI (too much information) syndrome

Such stories may be standard fare on reality TV shows, but does your prospective employer really want to know about how you learned the hard way not to date your coworkers or down cocktails before board meetings? Definitely not.

Keep it work-related

You may have learned a lot when your grandmother passed away, but do you really want that to be your identifying story? It would be much better to tell the story to a financial planning firm of how you discovered how much more you enjoyed the client problem-solving aspects of website design than the actual coding. Then you’ll be remembered as the multi-talented applicant who’d be a natural at helping clients find workable solutions.

Make your interviewer your ally

If you’re in the same line of work as your interviewer, chances are your interviewer has experienced some of the same trials you have and will appreciate your graceful handling of a familiar situation.

Explain how the lesson learned relates to this position

If you say you learned that you despise elephants and you’re applying to be a carpenter, that story seems like a bizarre non sequitur. But if you learned that you didn’t like working with elephants as much as you enjoyed building sets at the circus, this may actually be a helpful story to get you the job. In other words, be sure that lesson learned is relevant to the position you’re interviewing for.

Just remember, employers know you’re human, and being honest about your strengths and weaknesses will make you sound more wise and ready to handle the job.

WetFeet has been dispensing career advice to jobseekers since 1994 through WetFeet.com and the Insider Guide books. The above is from Ace Your Interview!, which you can now get as part of our Grad Pack—five books and one DVD containing everything you need to snag your dream job right out of college. Check it out here.

©2010 Gradspot LLC