The question that evokes the most seat-squirming and palm sweating is the same one that gives interviewers the most juice: "What's your greatest weakness?"
"Interviewers want to know that you're self-aware because you can only improve if you're self-aware. They want to know if you're mature enough to think and talk about your shortcomings," says Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, head of career coaching firm SixFigureStart and a former recruiter with Merrill Lynch. Plus, effectively articulating your weaknesses shows your humility and humanness. "You're going to make a nice connection with the manager if they can relate," she says.
Prepare and Keep It Short
Patrick Gorman, head of the accounting and financial recruitment firm iFind, says it's critical to plan your answer and be succinct. "Some people literally go on and on and on when asked this question," he says. "The manager isn't asking to hear your life story of weaknesses. They want to know that you're a team player and easy to manage." Adds Cathleen Faerber, head of search firm the Wellesley Group: "When people stumble and stammer over a question, it shows a lack preparedness and awareness. On Wall Street you'd better be able to think on your feet in even more difficult situations where you have to respond on a dime."
"A weakness should never be a core component of the job," Cerrachio says. "If you're an accountant, you should not have analytical weaknesses. Marketing people should not have problems with creativity."
And keep it real. "If it's inauthentic, we can sniff it out a mile away," says Cerrachio. "One word about being a perfectionist and we roll our eyes."
Employers want to know your shortcomings, and also what you did about them.
An example of a strong response: "I wish my presentation skills were stronger. I've given many presentations and done well, but even when I prepare my palms get sweaty. I want to be one of those presenters who can hold the audience in the palm of her hand for three hours. I've read books on better public speaking and recently took a course on presentations, and I'm getting better. In fact I gave one a couple of weeks ago and got good feedback from my boss. But I want to be even better."
In this answer, you're being candid about your weakness, setting high goals, outlining the steps you took to improve, and displaying growth.
Turn It In Your Favor
When Frances Moreno interviewed with Vaco, a finance and accounting placement firm where she serves as managing partner, she answered the weakness question this way: "I told my future bosses, 'I have a particular challenge in that I have a special needs child and I would like to have another baby. As a woman who has family goals, I need an employer who understands that I might need extra time for family issues.' It was something that might not have been appreciated by three men without those challenges, but they hired me and let me prove myself.
"Interviewing is a two-way street," Moreno adds. "You need to vet them and be real about what you need out of your career, too."