Do you really have to talk about your weaknesses?

Dr. Joseph Barber

It is a hard question. You are pretty sure it is going to come up, but like most other people, you are probably not very comfortable with any of the answers you have been thinking about for this question. No-one wants to talk about weaknesses in an interview setting, after all. So, here are just some of the suggestions that I have for people thinking about this question.

First of all, there are different types of weakness question you might get an in interview, and some of the common ones include:

  • What is your greatest weakness?
  • If we spoke to your supervisor today, what would they say is your greatest weakness?
  • Based on the job description, what can’t you do, or where do you lack experiences or skills?
  • What are your skill competencies that you need to work on if you were selected for this position?

It is definitely a good idea to have a well-thought out answer that you might be able to use for these types of questions. Each of these questions is slightly different, and can be tackled in slightly different ways, but there are also some general approaches that can be useful for each one. Let’s start with the general advice first.

Pause, think, and respond: If you are asked the much nicer “what is your greatest strength?” question, then I would advise answering quickly and confidently, without much of a pause, and definitely without any “ummm-ing” or “ahhh-ing”. You should definitely know what the greatest (and most relevant) strength is that you bring to a job to which you are applying. In essence, the answer to this question is one of the main reasons you have for someone hiring you. When it comes to weaknesses, you don’t want it to seem like you have so many, and that they are so obvious, that you can immediately think of 4 or 5. Even if you have a well-rehearsed answer to this question, take a thoughtful moment before answering.

Don’t linger: For any negative-leaning question, your goal is to spend as little time as possible talking about negative aspects of yourself. Be able to talk concisely about your answer, and when you have said what you need to say, practice the art of not talking. Practice how to stop talking confidently. Practice being comfortable with a little bit of silence as the interviewer prepares to ask their next question. Your brain and mouth will be tempted to fill in silence with anything, and in most cases, this filler will make what might have been a great answer into a much more wishy-washy type of answer.

Don’t be a cliché: If your greatest weakness is one of the following, then you are probably coming across as a bit of a cliché, and not showing an employer that you can effectively self-assess your skills or develop as a professional:

  • You are a perfectionist
  • You work too hard on your projects
  • You are just never satisfied and always want to be better or do better
  • You have never really had any weakness
  • Kryptonite
  • Chocolate
  • Garlic

You want to identify an honest weakness, making sure not to pick an area that would be an obvious obstacle to you being able to perform the job for which you are interviewing. Think about tangible skills or knowledge areas…, because the trick to this type of weakness question is to be able to end you answer on a more positive, upbeat note.

End on a positive note: See…, I told you. Ending on a positive note does not mean saying “ahhh, but that actually means that it is also my greatest strength”. Your actual weakness might be a useful attribute in certain settings, but have you been able to work on it so that it is helpful (or at least not unhelpful) in all professional settings? If you end your weakness answer by saying that your weakness is something you hope to address in the future, and you’ll work hard on improving, then you are basically saying that the weakness you have identified is and will always be a weakness. After all, if you haven’t addressed this yet, what is going to change in the near future that will make it more likely that you will? So, your main goal is to show that you have been working on whatever weakness you have identified, and to provide an example of how this approach has allowed you to be successful in the work that you have done without the weakness holding you back.

I’ll end today by just mentioning some of the specific strategies you might be able to use to answer the four specific questions that I listed above. There is no right way to answer these questions, though, so incorporate this advice with all of the other advice you are sure to have read about when preparing for your interviews.

What is your greatest weakness? Try to actually answer the question “what WAS your greatest weakness?” by separating your weakness from you by time. You might say “when I first started by PhD I found that I wasn’t good at communicating my ideas to people from different disciplines, and it made it difficult for me to…”. Of course, now that you might be at the end of your PhD, you can say “…but since then, I have taken the opportunity to work in cross-functional groups to be able to better practice my ability to translate my work for others, and in my latest collaboration, I am working closely with researchers from three disciplines, and we have a successfully co-authored paper in press”. Even though you are not really answering the question being asked, I think this approach is close enough to satisfy the interviewers. Also, if they ask for one weakness, don’t give them four! I’ve seen this happen in several mock interviews.

If we spoke to your supervisor today, what would they say is your greatest weakness? For this question, you can’t really focus on what has happened in the past. You will need to think about what your supervisor might actually say, because they might actually say this in their recommendation letter too. In this case, pick something that your supervisor said that you could do better, rather than something that you do poorly. So, “my advisor recently told me that to be a better problem-solver I should try to incorporate even more perspectives into the way I look at the problem in front of me…”. Obviously, you’ll need to talk about some honest feedback you received relevant to you. The way to end this on a positive note is to talk about the ways you have been thinking about to do be better. So rather than just saying “…and I hope to work on this in the future…”, you might try to come up with a specific example of what you could to that would illustrate that you have given this some thought. You could also state that you really valued hearing this feedback from your advisor, because you respect their expertise and judgment, and that you believe that good mentoring is very important for professional development (again, only if you actually feel this). This has a positive feel to it.

Based on the job description, what can’t you do, or where do you lack experiences or skills? Don’t start off with “although I can’t do X and Y, I can do Z”. Instead, start off talking about being able to do “Z”. You could also mention that you are quick learner, and provide an example of this skill in action (both the learning and the application of that knowledge/skill). Talk about how much you are looking forward to working with and learning from your future colleagues and mentors to get up to speed on all of the skills and knowledge areas they are looking for.

What are your skill competencies that you need to work on if you were selected for this position? This isn’t actually such a negative question. This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your understanding of what skills are needed for the position, what you know the organization already provides in terms of training, mentoring, hands-on experience, and so on, and for you to show that you are eager to grow as a professional within the role.

As always, feel free to schedule an appointment with an advisor if you have questions about how to answer tough interview questions like these. You’ll also want to schedule a 1-hour mock interview before your next actual interview – you will find it very helpful!

Insta-Advice: Advice Videos on Instagram

Are you following us on Instagram? If not, I highly encourage you to do so because we’re not only sharing moments we capture on campus, we’re sharing some candid advice, too.


Earlier this semester, we took advantage of Instagram’s 15 second video option to share some “insta-advice”.  We went around and asked you, our students and alumni, what your thoughts were on internships, career fairs, networking, career exploration, and more!  Check out these videos on our Instagram, and stay tuned for new editions on Tuesday!

Return the Call (Reprise Edition)

Although I originally wrote this blog  post in 2009, the issue seems to have resurfaced again this year as I have recently heard from multiple employers who have called to express their frustration about students not responding to their phone calls and emails. I thought it was time for a reprise, as the advice is as true today as it was four years ago….
During the last month I’ve received calls from three different employers complaining that they have not been able to get Penn students to return their phone calls. One wanted to invite a student for a second round interview. One only learned that two students no longer planned to actually attend their previously scheduled second round interviews when the employer took the time to reach out to reconfirm the date and time. The last complaint came for an employer who had extended an offer to a student, but could not get the student to return follow-up phone calls from either recruiters or a relatively high level senior executive who had taken time out of his busy day to call the candidate.

Students often think they are simply “cogs in the machine” of the recruiting process – one of many individuals traipsing through the halls of organizations across America to interview in an attempt to land an offer. They may not think that returning a phone call or answering an email promptly matters much in the big scheme of things. Let me assure you it does. Employers spend a tremendous amount of energy, time and money on college recruiting. They work hard to find individuals who will be the right fit for their organizations. They want to know that the students to whom they extend offers will be passionate about working for them and committed to the organization once they come on board.
If a candidate doesn’t have the common courtesy to return a phone call, it sends the message that he or she either does not know how to be professional, or really doesn’t care about the kind of impression s/he is making on the firm. Employers in this situation may very well begin to think that they made the wrong decision in extending an offer. Real concerns about the candidate’s ability to work with colleagues and clients may arise. I have seen employers withdraw offers after such negative experiences with candidates.

I understand why students sometimes hesitate to return employers’ calls. Often they are very busy. Perhaps they are worried that they will receive undue pressure to accept an offer before they are ready to do so. They may feel they have had all their questions answered and won’t know what to say when the inevitable “What questions can I answer for you?” comes up. Never-the-less, in order to be perceived as professional and courteous, it is important to respond and respond quickly to employers when they reach out. You don’t want to come across as disinterested in a position when in fact you might be.

On the other hand, if you have decided an opportunity is not the right fit for you, or if you have accepted another offer, let any employers with whom you have outstanding applications or offers know as soon as possible. They will appreciate your honesty and it will help them move forward to find alternate candidates for the position. You never know – a few years down the road you might again be considering opportunities with the same employer, and you certainly want to leave a positive lingering impression.

Do I Need a Summer Internship?

by Crissy Iglesias, College Team Graduate Assistant

Summer internship season is here, and if you visit on Career Services on any given day, you’ll find students coming in to chat with one of our counselors looking for guidance on the summer internship and opportunities search. I recently had a discussion with some of my residents about how it seems like “everyone” had their summer internship already, and they were concerned about how to pursue their own path.

What is a summer internship?

In this post, I’ll use the phrase summer internship for brevity’s sake, but the term is more all -encompassing than that. “Summer internship” doesn’t just mean working for the corporate world. It can be a research experience working with a professor on a subject you’re passionate about, or it can be working for a non-profit or social impact organization. The term is as limited as your imagination. If you check out the Penn Internship Network, our database of Penn students and information about their summer experiences, you’ll see the depth and breadth of opportunities Penn students pursued over the past summer. Feel free to search by keyword or major and poke around – the results can be illuminating!

When should I get my internship?

This is probably the question I get most frequently in my appointments, and I’m always happy to clear up misconceptions about timelines. Honestly, as the search is a very individual endeavor, the answer varies by person and organization. If you check out our Career Plans Survey Report on Summer Internships for 2013, you’ll notice that the majority of Penn students received their summer internships in the time frame of February-May, with a noticeable peak in March-April. So if you’ve been worried about being behind in your search process, fear not! As past years clearly illustrate, there’s still plenty of time for a successful search.

What do I do now?

Use your spring break (and the next few weeks) as a time for some introspection and information gathering. Think about what you really want to get out of your summer. Is it that you want to explore a new or existing career interest? Do you want to volunteer for a cause you’re passionate about? Do you want to travel and experience a place you’ve never been before? In higher education, we only get one summer per year, so it’s important that you really reflect about what you want to gain from this period.

Once you’ve determined what paths you’d be interested in pursuing, it’s time for information gathering and research. Peruse the Penn Internship Network to see what Penn students have pursued in the past, or check out our Resources by Career Field page for industry-specific tips and search tools. Know a friend who did something interesting last summer, or someone who works in a field that you’d like to know more about? Ask if you can have an informational interview with them to get more insights into their experience, and find out how you can pursue something similar. (Never heard of informational interviewing? Find out more about what it means and how to go about it.)

Continue reading “Do I Need a Summer Internship?”

Happy Spring Break!

We hope everyone has an enjoyable, relaxing and safe spring break!

As a reminder, Career Services remains open from 9am-5pm Monday through Friday during Spring Break.  Call for an appointment or to check what our walk-in hours are for the day.

There are no extended library hours during break.