“What are your greatest strengths?” seems like an innocuous enough question. It’s your time to shine, right?
However, many people have a difficult time with this question, leading us to believe that it’s one of those “trick question” types.
“But for many candidates, it can be tricky—either they’re too modest in their response or they fail to highlight on-target strengths, “according to The Balance Careers.
So how do you answer “what are your greatest strengths?”
The most important thing to understand about the “what are your greatest strengths?” question is that – as with all other interview questions – what the employer really wants to know is how you can help them solve their problems.
Another way to put this is that it’s intended to help the employer figure out whether your greatest strengths are enough for – and align with – what the employer is hoping the position they’re hiring for will solve.
This question will also help your potential employers determine if you’re the best applicant for their position.
The best way to approach “what are your greatest strengths” is to figure out the core skills and qualities needed for the position.
I like to do a little exercise where I picture a specific imaginary person who would do really well in this type of role. Does this person have a lot of technical skills?
Are they great communicators? What do they look like?
Once you figure out the specific persona that best fits the role, you can speak to
how you have a lot in common with that person.
Don’t fall for giving lots of different answers to appease the interviewer
For example, if you were applying to walk dogs, it wouldn’t be helpful to talk about how you’re really good at math. It might make you appear smart, but it’s
There’s a much better (and narrower) way to approach the “what are your
greatest strengths?” question. For example, if the environment is deadline-
oriented, talk about how you enjoy multitasking and are a great adapter.
Easy enough, right?
You’d be surprised by how many people get this question wrong. Our natural tendency is to speak about all the skills we have (related or not) because we want to show how capable we are.
The actual effect this usually has is appearing “less confident” because it looks like you’re throwing things out there just to get a job.
The truth is that you don’t need confidence to ace an interview (for more on why you don’t need confidence to succeed in an interview, check this out.)
What you do need to do is to show why you’d be really good at that particular job.
This begins with simply showing the skills you have that would make you the best person for that job.
As long as you’re explaining what makes you the best fit, you’re on the right track.
Remember: you’re not trying to trick the employer into hiring you. Not only does this method not work but it also doesn’t answer your interviewer’s main question about how you’ll be able to help them.
How to actually respond to the question of “what are your greatest strengths?”
Begin by reading the job posting several times. Yes, this is boring but it’s also necessary.
To begin, think about how your skills might directly correlate to the skills listed in the ad. Then, write down the specific skills listed that you have (this is also a great way to apply to a position and write a cover letter.)
Next to each of the skills, think of an experience from your past work where you really used that skill and try to commit it to memory.
When an employer asks you to elaborate on a specific strength, you’ll be ready to go with examples.
Once you’ve done this not-so-fun part, you’re ready to answer this “what are your greatest strengths?” question.
Use your list of matching qualifications (such as education, training, past work experience, communication skills, etc.) and narrow the list to your three or four strongest skills.
These should be the ones you discuss in the interview.
Begin by describing the exact skills and experience you have that directly correlate to the open position.
Use active (not passive) words
“If you’re wondering how much of a difference word choice can make, just consider which of these two responses makes a better impression: “I helped brainstorm ideas for campaigns and I generated ideas that were used in award-winning, successful campaigns,” The Balance Careers writes.
“To start, the word “helped” (which is seen in the first response) is vague. To an interviewer, this could mean that you presented a list of powerful ideas—but it could also signify that you were a near-silent participant on a conference call to discuss the campaign. The second option uses a more active verb—a person generating ideas is deeply involved in the project. Plus, powerful adjectives are added; not only did you come up with ideas, but they were good ones!”
You want to show your passion for the position and your field, not that you simply read the job description and are really good at reciting it.
Use words like the following to show your passion (and that you’re not a robot just trying to get through the interview so you can go home, even if you are):
Try to avoid words like “excited” and “anxious to begin” to avoid coming off desperate. Remember: you’re just trying to help them fill the role and if you’re not a good fit (or they’re not a good fit) you deserve to move on to a position that better fits you.
“To walk that line between confident and arrogant, definitely don’t just list a bunch of nice adjectives to describe yourself. Sure, you want to sell yourself as the right man or woman for the job, but you’re going to be much more compelling if you cut the buzzwords and speak genuinely about your strengths,” according to The Muse.
The key is to be straightforward, know what you have to offer, and be able to articulate exactly how you can help.
The most important part
The most important part of answering “what are your greatest strengths?” (and the biggest game-changer) is to research what the company’s pain points might
be and then focus on those.
Of course, you don’t need to tell your employer about how they have a lot of pain points in a way that’s condescending.
Instead, say something like, “I read in the news that you were recently acquired by private equity firm X. You must be in a real state of transition right now. What
are some specific needs your company has right now?”
Then explain why you are the best person to help with those needs. This is the best way to answer this question.
Why? Because it will also show you’ve gone the extra mile to do your research (extra points if the company you’re interviewing for isn’t mentioned in the news
frequently or if it’s not really common knowledge.)
Why the “what are your greatest strengths?” question isn’t so bad
One of the great things about the greatest strengths question is that it’s open-ended, which means you can steer the conversation in the direction you want it to go.
It’s a great time to emphasize the skills you haven’t gotten around to talking about yet and to tell any relevant stories you may have.
“Assuming you’ve done the crucial legwork of researching the company prior to interviewing, you should have a good sense of how the company perceives its own uniqueness,” according to The Muse.
“Of course, you can only use this strategy if your personal values do truly align with the company’s. If they do, you can essentially rehash your answer for “Why
this company?” with more of a focus on values and an example to back it up.
The bad news: the “what are your greatest strengths?” question needs to be prepared for. The good news: it’s arguably the most important question in the interview and isn’t difficult to prepare for.
Another silver lining? It’s way more fun to prepare for than the dreaded “what is your greatest weakness?” question.
Focus on the company’s needs, not yours
One of the most common blunders job interviewers make is putting too much focus on themselves. In fact, it’s far more helpful (and takes the spotlight off you!)
to focus on the company.
Of course, your job search is all about you (please don’t lose sight of this.) The interview, however, is best focused on the employer.
Remember: you are only there to explain how you can help solve your interviewer’s pain.
Answering “What are your greatest strengths?” with that is mind is your secret weapon to getting that job.
For even more advice on seemingly basic interview questions and answers that kind of aren’t, check out the latest Ladders Interviews Guide with interview tips and questions.