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Answering "What are your strengths?"

imageOne interview question many people seem to have a difficult time answering well is "What are your strengths?".

Either they feel uncomfortable "blowing their own horn" in the interview process, or they give answers that are very generic and don't distinguish themselves from the majority of other candidates.

This is one question you know will be asked in one form or another… either directly, or indirectly through behavioral questions. If you've had trouble answering this question well, what can you do to make it draw the interviewer to you instead of leaving them flat?

Here are some ideas that may help…

Know Yourself! You can't give a great response to the question if you don't know what your strengths are. Take the time to think through and catalog your successes and your abilities. Use tools like Survey Monkey, to ask previous co-workers and others what they think your accomplishments, strengths, and weaknesses are. Take assessment tests to better understand your personality and natural talents. StrengthsFinder 2.0 is an excellent tool for this. Get more help by reading "Know Yourself!"

Use Testimonials! Many people are self-conscious about trumpeting their own achievements to others in an interview. Although I would argue this is the time to do it… well. It's not bragging when you're sticking to facts. However, one way to do this very effectively while not sounding boastful is when you're quoting someone else's comments about you. Use feedback you've gotten from others, whether from survey's you've done when preparing for this, comments or kudos you've received in your previous position, or from previous performance reviews.

When you say something like… "In preparing for my job search, I went back to previous co-workers and managers asking them what they thought my strengths in my position were, I reviewed my previous performance reviews, and I took assessment tests. Some of the comments I received were…"  It's much more powerful than simply stating a lot of opinions about yourself. It shows you took extra steps to prepare, and it effectively comes across as a third-party testimonial, and that carries much more weight. It also takes the monkey off your back since it sounds less like bragging, but rather simply conveying what others have said.

Use Examples! It's one thing to say that "effective time management" is one of your strengths, and another to say "I've learned to fully use my calendar and task list to keep myself on track and focused throughout the day, and it's made me more productive." The first statement is a vague opinion. The second statement gives a specific illustration of what kind of time management you're referring to and how you do it. Examples that show your strengths in practice and what the advantage is (i.e. "made me more productive), are much more convincing and effective than simply using subjective, self-descriptive words. If you're a wizard with corporate tax software then say so, and don't just say you're good at bookkeeping. Examples are powerful!

Tailor It! For each interview you go to, you should make a point to know what the most important requirements are and then tailor your responses to best address their concerns. You may have a particular strength in mind. However, if it has little or no bearing to that particular job, it's not going to have much impact. Figure out which strengths you have that mean the most for that role, or tailor how you describe your strength in a way that applies directly to the position.

For example… if you are interviewing for an Accounting position where the company is planning on implementing new Accounting and Finance software…

You might have said: "I have strong communication skills."

However, a more effective answer might be: "Previous co-workers have told me I'm very effective at making complex concepts simple to understand, which is useful when communicating with other areas of the company, like IT, when trying to explain functional requirements for new systems."

The first statement uses subjective, self-descriptive words. The second statement uses a testimonial, a specific statement, and a benefit directly tailored for the position.

Be Prepared! In order to do all this well… you will not be able to simply come up with answers 'off the cuff'! It takes preparation and practice. As I coach job seekers regularly… write out answers in advance, practice them, hone them, practice them again and again. The more you practice saying them out loud, the easier, and more naturally they will come out in the interview. Preparation is key to presenting yourself as professionally and as effectively as you can.

The next time you're asked "What are your strengths?" Use these tips to be the best candidate they see!

The “Weakness” Question!
Deadly Interview Question #1!
Ya’ Gotta Ask!
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

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