By Monica Torres at The Ladders,
For job seekers, interview questions require you to think quickly on your feet and respond to any curveball the interviewer throws your way — even when these questions veer away from the scripts you prepared. Do you know what tree you would be or what animal best represents you? Although “what’s your biggest weakness?” is a popular interview question that has endured, many candidates are still unprepared to discuss their failures. (As we learned from these cautionary tales of how not to answer this question.)
Here’s what you need to know about how to get this question right.
The best way to talk about your weakness is to make your answer true
The secret to answering this question is in recognizing that the weakness itself isn’t what your hiring manager is most interested in hearing — it’s the story that comes with your answer. Hiring managers want to hear a story about professional adversity, not a personal failure. No need to blab about any moral mistakes you’ve made in your personal life while your hiring manager listens in mute horror.
There is a formula
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for you to copy, but there is a basic formula for you to adapt to your needs: Acknowledge a real weakness and then talk about what actions you’re taking to overcome it.
The best answers should be tailored to the company you’re interviewing for and should include a weakness you actually possess.
In other words, your answer needs to be authentic and honest, so that the recruiter can see you as a job candidate and as a real person.
“I believe the most effective answer is one that is true!” recruiting expert Harry Urschel advises in a Quora post. He cites being a bad public speaker as an example. You can tell your interviewer that giving presentations in front of crowds makes you freeze up and how you’re taking courses to overcome this fear. By acknowledging the weakness, you show the interviewer that you’re self-aware.
Why you can’t dodge, according to science
That’s the danger in dodging this question: When you don’t mention any real weakness, you come off as insincere — or incapable of self-awareness.
When 122 college students were asked, “what’s your biggest weakness?” in a Harvard Business School experiment, the ones who answered “being a perfectionist,” “working too hard,” “being too nice,” or “being too honest” as weaknesses were seen as strategically insincere “humblebraggers.”
On the other hand, the students who were honest about weaknesses and had answers like “I’m not always the best at staying organized” were seen as more desirable hires by the research assistants who rated the interviews.
Francesca Gino, the researcher behind the experiment, suggested that this is because “authentic people who are willing to show vulnerability are likely to be the type of candidates interviewers most want to hire.”
Don’t be too honest
Of course, your answer should own up to a shortcoming, but it should also be calculated. “It’s best if your weakness is not central to the very success of the business,” Urschel also notes. Avoid mentioning relevant skills to the job you want as a weakness. You want to show vulnerability; you don’t want to reveal that you’re ill-equipped for the job.
Same question, different words
You also need to be prepared to hear the “biggest weakness” question in a different form.
Kelli Dragovich, the senior vice president of people at Hired, told Refinery29 that she asks candidates the same core question with more specifics: “If I talked to 10 people from the past that you’ve either worked for, partnered with, or managed, what would they say about you as a whole? What would they say you’re great at, that you bring to the table? And what would they say you need more help with or is an area you might need to grow and develop in?”
When you’re being asked what’s your biggest weakness, what you’re really being asked is what are your biggest gaps in professional development, and how are you addressing these gaps.
As long as this question keeps being asked, you’ll need to prepare an answer for it.
This article originally appeared on The Ladders.