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  • Writer's pictureBryan Wang

What’s Your Greatest Strength?

Ah yes. The classic strengths and weaknesses interview question, a question that sinks many candidates’ chances of landing an offer.

This particular interview question, and its complement - ‘What is your greatest weakness?’ - are particularly challenging for a lot of students, even postgrads, to answer, and it’s because many applicants don’t actually know what their interviewers are actually looking for.

Well, look no further — in today’s post, we’ll unravel the best practices, tips, and tricks for acing this question. Next week, we’ll cover the “Weakness’ portion of this question, so stay tuned for that as well!

First, here is what your interviewer is actually looking for:

  • An idea of how self-perceptive // self-aware you are (you need that right balance of humility but confidence and self-esteem, tricky tricky)

  • Insight as to whether your strengths align well with the job // role itself, and if you are a strong professional fit with in the position and wider team

Everyone has a wealth of positive attributes, talents, and qualities worth talking about, but it’s crucial that you are selective when it comes to communicating your list of strengths.

First, only focus on strengths that are relevant to the role. For instance, if you’re interviewing to be an investment banking analyst, it wouldn’t make sense to discuss your graphic or web design skills.

Second, in some cases, you’ll be asked to share one strength. Other interviewers, however, may ask for multiple strengths. The best way to prepare is to select your “greatest” relevant // key strength, and then choose two to three additional attributes you can share if necessary. These additional qualities should be loosely related to your core strength insomuch as they are related to the job/position at hand.

Meanwhile, if you aren’t sure about your strengths (because you suffer from a classic dose of impostor syndrome and feel like you’re not qualified for the role — by the way, YOU ARE), ask your friends, family, and mentors on what they see as your best qualities. If you have any formal written feedback - as a result of previous internships, part-time jobs, research projects, etc. - then these can be great resources as well.

Best Practices

When you’re thinking of examples of strengths, some key ones include:

  • Entrepreneurial

  • Collaborative problem-solving

  • Creative problem-solving

  • Empathetic problem-solving

  • Passion (for the job/industry/company specifically)

  • Adaptability

  • Innovative

There are other ones, like being ‘detail-oriented’ and ‘hard working,’ but honestly these kinds of qualities are not as differentiable as others. Anybody can say they’re detail-oriented, hard-working, respectful, honest, etc. Choosing strengths that a) are slightly rarer and b) come attached with amazing stories will elevate your candidacy and make you stand out from the crowd.

Strengths can be skill-based or character-based. The ones shown above are character-based. Meanwhile, if your interviewer experts multiple strengths, provide multiple answers that is a mix of skill-based and character-based.

Skill-based strengths allow you to directly align your technical experiences and skills with the job’s qualifications. When explaining technical strengths, it’s important to provide specific examples of how you’ve applied your strength to drive success for an organization. This shows the interviewer you have a thorough grasp of a primary requirement for the job and know how to apply this knowledge to real-life situations. Be sure to also tell a story, again using the STAR framework as a general guideline for structuring your thoughts and having a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end:

“One of my greatest strengths in product marketing is my expertise in using a variety of analytic tools, such as Google Analytics and statistical programming languages like R and SQL. In my last role as a product marketer in XYZ startup, I noticed our marketing team wasn’t fully leveraging user data to make data-driven decisions. We didn’t know what times our users were most likely to engage with our site and blog, or how new users were directed to our site. We also had lower than average conversion rates - from site viewer to customer - and it was because we didn’t understand who our users were, their demographics or psychographics, or wants and needs. Because I was familiar with Google Analytics, I delved into metrics such as bounce rate, retention, site referrals, and more, and was able to find out that most of our active users were Gen Z, largely college students in college campuses, clustered in metropolitan areas in San Jose and San Francisco (as opposed to Berkeley and Oakland, like we previously thought). We were able to refine our marketing campaigns, target active users, and curate our language to fit the customer personas of our target users. We were able to increase sales by more than $50,000/year by improving customer acquisition and growing retention and conversion rates.

Character-based strengths, on the other hand, are soft-skills that can apply to multiple roles but can be tailored to fit one position. Examples include interpersonal communication skills, problem-solving skills, and/or a strong work ethic. When sharing this kind of strength, be sure to use specific examples and stories of how you were able to leverage your strength to solve a challenge that’s relevant to the role for which you’re applying. Again, STAR - or some method of structure - is key here.

“One of my greatest strengths is my perceptiveness. I grew up in a household of six and was constantly surrounded by family members, so I got pretty good at picking up when family members needed cheering up or alone time, when they needed help or when they didn’t, and when to ask for help versus knowing my family was very, very busy. This perceptiveness carried over in a number of roles, and one experience I’m particularly proud of is when I was elected the President of my community service-oriented student organization. I began my term in the Summer of 2020, at the height of COVID-19 when students like me were still uncertain whether school would be virtual or not, and if so, asking ourselves how student clubs like ours should adapt and operate? I also knew it was a very stressful time for my executive committee and general members — we all were dealing with the consequences of remote schooling and general uncertainty, and even though we all cared about the club I knew not everybody had the energy to innovate the club to make sure we could successfully recruit new members in the Fall and grow club operations. During Zoom meetings, I was able to quickly identify when my team members were angry, frustrated or stressed out, and address the problem on the spot - in private - after our weekly meetings were over. Despite how stressful that summer was, we were able to build a game-plan for virtually recruiting and onboarding 25 new members - a 20% increase from last semester - and growing our mentorship project (where we teach low-income, URM K-12 students in the Oakland school area virtually over Zoom) to a new partner school and >50 amazing new students. The best part — our club had a turnover rate of 0%, meaning we didn’t lose any members as we were COVID-proofing our club and transitioning to survive, no, thrive, in the new normal.

The best answer is one that incorporates both skills and character-based strengths. You could talk about being entrepreneurial, for instance, and in your story you can mention key technical skills that are relevant to the internship // job at hand.

As you’re preparing your response, here are some best practices to keep in mind:

  • Be honest. Ensure your answer is sincere. Don’t make up strengths just because they fit the job description. This is your opportunity to showcase your real talents and show the interviewer why you’re the best candidate.

  • Be prepared. Outline your speaking points ahead of time and practice them until you’re comfortable with your response. Prepare several, well-rehearsed responses to this question, because having an idea of what you’re going to say before your interview will help your answer sound more polished and natural.

  • Tailor your answer to the position. Ensure that the strength you talk about is aligned with job // role.

  • Be specific. Tell great stories, and hook your interviewer. Have them become invested in your experiences, so they can see the full weight of your strengths in action as you tie your skills + qualities with the job position and company itself.

Not-So Best Practices

Meanwhile, here are some things NOT TO DO as you’re thinking about answering this question:

  • Be too casual or attempt humor in your response. And no, please don’t say humor as a strength (unless you’re applying to be a clown).

  • Be too boastful in strengths or too frank in shortcomings. You need to hit the right mix of humility but also confidence.

For people who come off as too humble: confidence comes with preparation. Practice rehearsing and communicating your responses, and record yourself. We often are too shy when interviewing on the spot, and it isn’t until when we play back the tape we realize we could have brought more energy and self-esteem to the game. Don’t feel like you’re unqualified to talk about your strengths. You are qualified. Your interviewer isn’t going to give you a second chance to prove yourself. Only you can.

For people who come off as too confident: back every strength you bring to the table with concrete stories and experiences to tell, but don’t feel like you need to over-hype yourself. Record yourself, and err on the side of caution — if you feel off-put by your answer, then chances are your interviewer will feel so too. Make sure your tone is friendly and engaging, and qualify every strength with a meaningful story and experience.

Confidence and humility are both double-edged swords, and both are key to landing the job/internship (and just being a solid human being in general). It’s a really hard balance to strike, and there are no actionably concrete best practices to employ when it comes to embodying that perfect mix of self-awareness and self-confidence.

It comes with time, and it comes with practice.

Example of Weak Responses:

I have been told that I’m a very likeable person. If I’m ever on a flight, I love striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to me, for instance. I always end up learning so much about their life and their experiences – and it’s so interesting! I just make friends really easily. I’m sure this would be a great asset for your firm, especially given how teamwork and collaborative problem-solving skills are key qualities to thriving on the job. I believe I am a fantastic fit for this reason alone.
I am the President of my consulting club, so I’m clearly well versed in leadership and management. I consider myself a natural-born leader, managing an organization of 40 elite undergraduate students ranging from all years and academic disciplines. We send members to great companies like yours every year, and it’s a testament to our strong organizational structure, mentorship, and leadership. I lead many workshops personally, so I know how to inspire team members but also teach them valuable skills as well. I was also previously a Project Manager and worked closely with our client, a multi-billion dollar tech company based in Silicon Valley, I’m sure you’ve heard of them, so I also know how to build meaningful relationships with key stakeholders. All in all, I consider my greatest strength to be my leadership skills and qualities, and it’s one I look forward to deploying in your team and firm in the near future.

Right off the bat, these interview answers don’t provide a STORY. They outline a situation and task, but not an action and a result.

Second, they’re not specific enough. They do a somewhat decent job at tying back the skill/quality to the job/role, but they need to go even deeper.

Finally, their tone is a tad bit too aggressive. It’s good to be proud of your organization and experiences, but don’t take it to the next level. A student club is a student club, not the end-all be-all elite experience most students think it is. Also, you should be proud for the right reasons — don’t talk about corporate placement or other metrics that measure ‘prestige’.

Focus on more impactful metrics, like the friendships and camaraderie you’ve built and the impact you’ve had on your community and fellow peers. Talk about mentorship and skills-building, about building a community that feels more like a family than a plain old student organization.

These are great things to be proud of, and when you talk about these kinds of things you won’t come off as arrogant — you’ll come off as someone who genuinely cares about culture and community-building. And who wouldn’t want someone like that in their team?

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