This job search advice post originally appears in my Work In Progress column for Forbes.com:
As a former recruiter and now career coach, many job seekers ask me about the ideal answer to common interview questions. Of the questions job seekers are curious about, most ask specifically about the Weakness question. Variations on this question include: What would your boss or colleagues say is your biggest weakness? What is your biggest mistake? Tell me about a project where something went wrong? In all of these cases, you are asked to reveal something negative that could decrease your chances of getting hired. Here are three strategies for handling the Weakness interview question:
You want to minimize the reach and scope of what you reveal. So don’t confess to a general skill set as a weakness, such as communication skills, but rather point to something very specific. One candidate I interviewed who handled the weakness question well stated her weakness as presentation skills, specifically presenting to a large group. She offered how she was working on this skill and how she handled it in the past (yes, she can make presentations but set aside extra time to prepare.) Had she not answered so specifically I might have assumed that she can’t handle meetings or communicate well at all. You must be specific in what you share, or the interviewer will imagine the worst.
Avoid deal-breakers for the job.
That same candidate also chose her weakness well because her role didn’t involve a lot of public speaking. Had I been interviewing for a corporate communications role or a teacher/ trainer, presentation skills would have been a terrible weakness to share. In her operations role, however, it was an infrequent part of the job, and she showed that she could get by given advance time to prepare. Review the job description closely and steer clear of skills and expertise directly related to the role you want.
Remember that a weakness isn’t necessarily bad.
This candidate confessed to needing extra time to prepare and to not being good at spontaneous and impromptu speaking. She didn’t say she was a nervous wreck or someone who gets booed off the stage. A weakness is just an area that isn’t a strength. It doesn’t mean it has to be terrible. Think of things that don’t come naturally to you that require extra preparation. Think of projects where you might have done things differently in hindsight – what specifically would you do differently and can this be turned into a weakness that you are dealing with?
There is no single best answer to any interview question because it must be authentic to you (therefore it varies person-by-person) and it must be relevant to the interviewer (i.e., a weakness can’t be a deal-breaker, a strength should be a key responsibility). In addition, interview questions are framed a multitude of ways (see all of my weakness question variations above). Therefore, I can’t tell you word-for-word what you should say in every instance. But by identifying specific, non-essential, and not damning areas of development, you can come across as a self-aware, reflective, and thoughtful professional.