It’s said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes, but you could also add that you will certainly be asked “What are your strengths?” in a job interview. In fact, in a recent survey of 1000+ U.S. workers, 91% reported being asked this in an interview. Unfortunately, this deceptively simple question can cause even the most seasoned jobseeker to break out in a sweat.
Why Is This Question So Hard to Answer?
Why is this? One of main reasons we sweat it is because we don’t have good idea of what our strengths are. This odd situation is due to many reasons including:
- We don’t see ourselves as others see us. Others are not privy to our internal or private processes, so they don’t see most of our struggles and failures. If we are praised for an accomplishment, we tend to think about what went wrong.
- Our strengths often lie in the things that we find easy. We may underrate a strength because it comes naturally. We think everyone can do that.
- Our strengths often come in the form of things we find hard. Conversely, if we find something very difficult, even though we may master it, we can continue to feel it is a problem for us and not a strength.
- Any extreme trait we possess is probably both a strength and a weakness. For example, if you are “very” adaptable, you may get bored easily.
- We compare ourselves to others. Every time we may think of something we are good at, we tend to also think of 10 people who are better at it than we are.
However, with some advance preparation, you can turn the tables. Read on for tips to turn this frequently-asked interview question to your advantage and get the job you want.
Step 1: Identify Your Strengths
In order to successfully talk about your unique strengths, you must know what they are. So, the first step to acing the “What are your strengths?” interview question is to identify them. Strengths in this instance refer to our traits and abilities that allow us to excel. They can include our knowledge, proficiencies, skills, and talents. This exercise is worthwhile even without an impending interview. This is because knowing our strengths has been shown in studies to contribute to job satisfaction, work engagement, performance, and our overall well-being.
Strengths Finding Tests
Perhaps the quickest and easiest way to get started is to take a strengths finder test. There are plenty of both free and paid options available, below are links to three popular free assessments to get you started:
- RedBull Wingfinder. This fun and free assessment tool is based on empirical research that does a good job of translating personal strengths into professional ones. In addition, there are also free activities and resources to help you explore and leverage your results.
- VIA Character Strengths Survey. This scientifically-based survey is free to take and will provide a ranked list of your character strengths starting with core strengths. More in-depth reports on how to use and grow your strengths are available for purchase.
- Positive Psychology 3 Strengths Exercises Pack. These are written exercises developed using the results of multiple psychology studies. They are designed to draw out your strengths in a more in-depth and narrative way than those above. Perfect practice for developing stories that will work well in your interview.
Do Your Own Research
Now that you have a starting point, research your current and past situations to see how these insights are reflected in your everyday life. Some places to explore include:
- Review old performance reviews. These documents are a treasure trove of information to help you identify strengths noted and valued by your prior supervisors. We tend to remember the negative. Revisit these documents with the intention to focus on the positive.
- Check in with friends, family, and co-workers. Talk to people close to you when you are surprised by any of the results of your strengths test. Chances are they can supply perspectives that you may otherwise be blind to.
- Remember situations where you received recognition or awards. Think back to situations where you were singled out for praise. What strengths contributed to your success in those situations? It can also be useful to review how you overcame failure as well.
Reflecting on our strengths in this way allows us to develop the self-awareness required to overcome the difficulties listed in the introduction to this article. In addition, even if you have undertaken this exercise in the past, it’s important to return to it periodically because, of course, our strengths change and develop over time.
Step 2: Identify the Strengths Valued in the Position/Company/Industry
The goal of the “What are your strengths?” interview question is to reveal how closely your strengths align with the needs of the job and the company. Now that you have a list of your strengths, it is important to compare them with strengths that you feel will be valued during the interview.
- Review the job ad. The first place to start your research is in the job ad. Scour and dissect the text to identify the strengths they are looking for in applicants. The job ad is especially useful for finding the strengths in skills and experience they are looking for.
- Research the company. Read the company website and any recent news stories to gain insights into the stated values of the company. What are the vision and mission? What ethics does the company embody? Are they forward-thinking or traditional?
- Interview current and past employees. If you have the opportunity, check in with people who have actual experience working with the company. Sometimes the stated values of a company are different from the reality experienced by employees. If you don’t know anyone who works there, consider reaching out on LinkedIn to employees for an informational interview. Another option is to check company reviews on Glassdoor or a similar website.
Step 3: Develop Anecdotes that Highlight Your Strengths
Now that you have a list of your top strengths and identified the strengths you feel will align most closely with the position you are interviewing for, it’s time to flesh out your responses.
Compare the two lists you created and identify areas where they overlap. If there are major areas of overlap, try and group them into categories so you can potentially include more than one strength in your responses. These are the strengths that you want to highlight during your interview.
Think about circumstances in your past where you demonstrated those strengths. Preferably the circumstances you identify are in your professional life. However, if you are in a career transition or have limited work experience, feel free to draw on personal or volunteer circumstances as well. Ideally, you should prepare two or three possible responses so you can choose the one that seems best during the interview.
Use the STAR Format
Once you have identified the situations you want to describe in your responses to the “What are your strengths?” interview question, it’s time to create your anecdote. It’s very useful to follow the STAR interview response format when developing answers to this question. This is because the STAR method is specifically designed to provide all the relevant information that the interviewer is hoping to capture when asking open-ended response questions like this one. Write your answers for each identified situation according to the acronym as shown below:
- S = Situation. Summarize the situation concisely and include any obstacles you encountered.
- T = Task/Target. Describe your task or role, what you were trying to achieve, and any challenges you faced.
- A = Action. Highlight the actions you completed to reach your goals and meet the challenges. Include specifics such as the processes, technical skills, and knowledge you used, and the soft skills you employed.
- R = Result. End by summarizing the specific and quantifiable outcomes. You can also add further information on how the situation changed your future behavior or the behavior of the team or company.
Once you have this information, you can rewrite as needed to create a compelling story. To see the process in action, see the example below.
Example Response To the “What are your strengths?” Interview Question
Strengths to Demonstrate:
Mine – Leadership, curiosity, innovation, open to new experiences.
Job/Company – Staying on top of industry trends, identify and implement new technologies and processes.
Situation – Previous employer wanted to redesign their website. It was very out of date and lacked some of the functionality that was available on their competitor’s websites.
Task/Target – I was selected to lead the vendor selection committee charged with developing the project scope, creating and distributing an RFP, viewing vendor presentations, and making the final vendor selection. The goal was to select the best vendor that would meet the company’s business requirements while providing value for the money. Team members were chosen from each department and many team members were unfamiliar with modern website functions and current trends.
Action – Undertook research to identify design trends and new technologies in website development. Distilled and distributed to committee members to bring them up to speed. Worked with each committee member individually to analyze the business needs of each department. Facilitated team discussions and built consensus to finalize the RFP. Worked with team to develop methods to evaluate the vendor proposals and presentations.
Result – The committee successfully selected a website design vendor that met the needs of the company and completed the project on time and within budget. As a result, web traffic increased by 300%, on-site ordering increased 40%, and hundreds of man-hours were saved by automating previously manual aspects of the product ordering and shipping process.
It’s a good idea to write out your anecdote. Even if you plan on being more spontaneous in telling your story, writing it down will help you ensure that you have a beginning, middle, and end and that there is enough context to make sense.
I am always exploring new ways of achieving business goals. Whether it is improving products or streamlining workflows, I love finding new innovations and sharing that excitement with my teammates and colleagues. One recent example of my strengths in this area occurred in my last position. I was chosen by leadership to spearhead a website redesign project working with a team of non-technical department representatives.
It was really exciting exploring all the new technology and innovations available! In order to help my non-technical team understand the opportunities, I created presentations to demonstrate how the technology worked. I also worked with each representative to incorporate the features and functionality that would meet their department’s needs. Once everyone was onboard, we were able to pick the perfect vendor who completed the project on time and on budget. As a result, traffic to our website increased over 400% and each department benefited from reduced workloads due to automations introduced in the ordering and shipping system.
Interview with Confidence Using Your Anecdotes
Once you have two or three stories to tell that illustrate the successful application of your strengths in action, you are ready for your interview. Polish your delivery by memorizing your anecdotes and practicing your delivery. If you’re not sure how you’re coming across, get feedback from friends and family. Another option is to record yourself using your laptop or phone and review for things like eye contact, hand placement, and facial expressions.
In the end, the key to a successful job interview is to prepare in advance. By having a few well-rehearsed stories that illustrate the strengths you can bring to a new position, you can put yourself at the top of the candidate list.
Have you had success answering the “What are your strengths” interview question? What worked for you? Did you get the job? Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube to share your story. We’d love to hear from you!
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Article based on original content by Alexia Chianis from May 13, 2013