How to answer the question "What is your greatest strength?" (Your current answer may not

You did it! You accomplished the almost impossible: you pulled together a great resume that made it through the applicant tracking system and appealed to an actual person. You passed the generic phone screen. And now, you’re prepping for that hard-won in-person interview.

You’ve already done your research on the company (because you read “What Do You Know About Our Company?”). And now you’re working on the next set of almost-guaranteed-to-be-asked-questions: What is your greatest strength? What is your greatest weakness?

Let’s start with that strengths question. (We’ll tackle the weakness question in the next article.) Seems pretty straightforward, right? Everybody has at least one or two things they’re really good at. And in your case, you already know your strength: you have great people skills. Question answered!

But hold on a moment…

That may be a true statement. You may have awesome people skills. But…is that the right strength for the job you’re interviewing for? Let’s say you’re interviewing for a payroll clerk position, which entails sitting in a cubicle analyzing information and doing data entry for most of the day. How will your answer – that your greatest strength is your people skills – position you as a top candidate in a job where there is little emphasis on interactions with others?

See, here’s the thing…this question isn’t really about your greatest strength. What the interviewer is really trying to get at is this: are you aware of your various strengths? Do your strengths align with the needs of this company and this position? Are you a good fit for this job?

So…how do you answer this question?

As with so many other interview questions, your answer needs to be based on the information you gathered during your research phase. What competencies (areas of skill) are necessary to be successful in this position? Of those competencies, which ones do you possess? And of those, which ones are you really good at? Those are your strengths.

Let’s look at that payroll clerk example again. We already know people skills probably aren’t going to be high on the list of necessary competencies for this job. So what skills might be on that list? Strong command of a specific payroll software program? Yep. Attention to detail? Probably. Outstanding problem solving and critical thinking skills? Yes, again. Ability to prioritize tasks? Likely. Now, this isn’t to say that communication skills aren’t necessary. In today’s world, good communication skills are expected for almost every job out there. (Let’s face it, few jobs allow you to work in a bubble of isolation.) But despite expecting solid communication skills, the emphasis will be on other skills. Your job in preparing an answer is to identify what those skills are.

So, how do you do this? Fortunately, most job postings will list these top skills under the “Requirements” or “Qualifications” section of the post. If you’re interviewing for a position where the job posting was very brief and didn’t offer these insights or for a position that wasn’t posted publicly (i.e., you found the job through networking – good for you!), finding the top skills just requires a little more work on your part. One way to do this is to search for the same type of position on a job board like Review as many as you feel necessary to give you a solid understanding of what those top skills might be. (Hint: the ones that appear over and over again in the different listings are the ones you want to focus on.)

Now that you know what skills are most important for this position, you need to determine 1) which of these skills you have and 2) which of these skills you excel at. Think back through jobs you’ve done in the past and the skills you used in each position. How many of those skills match the ones you identified for this new job? And of those, what were the ones you used most often? What were the ones you were recognized for by supervisors/co-workers/etc.? What were the ones that led to your most significant accomplishments on the job? Got that figured out? Those are your greatest strengths for this job.

Back to our payroll clerk position…

Interviewer: “So, what would you say is your greatest strength?”

You: “I’m very skilled at analyzing large amounts of data and quickly zeroing in on discrepancies, which allows me the opportunity to resolve minor issues before they become major problems. For example, in my last position…”

See that last sentence? “For example, in my last position…” It’s okay to give a brief example of why this is your greatest strength and how this strength would be a benefit to the company you’re interviewing with (you have used this skill to save your past employer $X, you prevented travel reimbursement money from being applied to the wrong account, etc.).

The “What is your greatest strength?” question is a pretty standard question, yet many candidates don’t spend the necessary time preparing for it. Do your research, align your strengths with the specific job you’re interviewing for, and use the question as an opportunity to sell yourself.

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