How to answer 'What's your biggest weakness?'

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image captionThose vying to be the next Conservative leader took part in a Channel 4 debate

During Sunday's televised Conservative leadership debate the five participating candidates were asked a question most of us have answered at some point - what is your biggest weakness?

It is the question many people dread being asked at a job interview.

So how do you answer it honestly and effectively without coming across as cliched?

BBC News spoke to employers, potential employees, academics and recruiters on how best to answer the trickiest of interview questions.

Why ask?

James Reed, Chairman of Reed recruitment, said: "What interviewers can't tell from a CV with certainty is an individual's true personality.

"By asking the question 'what is your greatest weakness', employers are really asking candidates 'are the conclusions I have drawn about you correct?'

"This question is an opportunity for them to delve into your character more."

Be bold

Sophie Phillipson, founder of graduate support site HelloGrads, said: "'I'm a perfectionist' or 'I'm stubborn' are both done to death; everyone knows working to a high standard or being doggedly determined are not weaknesses, so most good interviewers will tell you to think of another.

"My favourite response was from a graduate interviewee who began her answer with: "Ah, I have so many weaknesses I don't know where to start". It got a laugh from the interviewers, the room on her side, and displayed emotional intelligence.

"She told us she wasn't 'work ready', being fresh out of university, and had big knowledge gaps, but also that she'd been doing as much industry research and work experience as she could to prepare, that she was a fast learner and intuitive.

"Be bold, original and human if you want to be remembered."

Come prepared

Lewis Constable, a copywriter, was asked about his weaknesses in an interview a couple of years ago but said he went "blank".

He said: "I lost out on a role because I couldn't think of one.

"I sat there, for around 150 seconds, trying to think of one and I couldn't. And it's not like there aren't swathes to pick from - I'm quite a self-deprecating person so to not be able to come up with something is a matter of deep shame for me.

"I asked if I could return to it later... unsurprisingly the interview ended before I got a chance."

Avoid platitudes

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image captionPsychologist Jenny Straumers says it's good to show you're self-aware

Business psychologist Jenny Straumers added: "Definitely say that you are aware of your weaknesses and are working hard to address them.

"Avoid platitudes. Using real-life examples demonstrates authenticity and honesty, values that most employers value very highly.

"Be specific - highlight a particular weakness and demonstrate what you're doing about it. So for example, don't just say that you're working on your people skills. Talk about a particular skill that you're developing and explain why.

"Explain how you turned your 'weakness' into a positive. Most employers want to see that you're self-aware, and also that you're constantly learning."

Be honest...

Lee Biggins, founder and CEO of independent job board CV-Library, said: "There's nothing worse than someone responding to this question with the cliched 'I'm a perfectionist', 'I always have to be on time', 'I care too much about what I do', or similar.

"It just doesn't appear genuine and you end up sounding like every other person out there.

"Instead, try to be honest with your answers; if you struggle with a certain area of your work, you can admit this. So long as you back it up with what you're doing to improve in this area.

"For example, you could say, ' I struggle with my time management, but this is something I'm working on and I set up calendar alerts to ensure I work to a strict schedule.'"

Ed Johnson, who runs mentoring and career progression website PushFar, said: "The key here is to turn a weakness into something that an organisation may consider advantageous to them.

"Treading carefully, it's often advisable to pick up on the mood of an interview.

"If it's a more 'creative' company, then admitting you aren't great at certain aspects of a role but at the same time being keen to improve upon them, may help the organisation to feel that actually they can offer you training and support, and that ultimately you are a good match for the organisation and they are a good match for you."

... but not too honest

Author and careers strategist John Lees has written several books on how to interview successfully.

He said: "It's best to practise short convincing responses about strengths and weaknesses by writing them down, saying them aloud two or three times and testing them out on a trusted friend.

"But remember interviewers will usually admit that they give far more weighting to negative information and remember it more clearly than all the positive things you have said.

"Never volunteer information about past work relationship problems or culture clashes at work, or critical failings like poor attention to detail or negative feedback you have received in the past, or that you're worried about what other people say about you behind your back."

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