By Lexie Brada
When it comes to interviewing, there are a few questions that you’re more likely to be asked. One of these questions might be ‘what are your strengths’. The answer can be tricky to some, as it can be difficult to figure out what exactly an interviewer is looking for with this reply. Are they asking what hobbies you excel at? Do they want to know about the time you won your 5th grade spelling bee? Are they interested in what you bench press at the gym?
Well, first, let’s rephrase this question to be “What are your professional strengths?”
When it comes to each job, there might be some personality types that fit into the role better than others. As a side note, even if your strengths aren’t the ones they’re looking for, it doesn’t mean the whole interview is blown and your chance is shot; it just means that you might not be who they think they’re looking for.
- Think about the Answer Beforehand
This should be true of any standard interview question that pops up frequently, but take some time to think about what you’re going to say before you get in there. You know that this is a question that’s asked a ton…why would you waste the knowledge and hope something will magically appear in your brain when the time comes? This is not the time to be interviewing on the fly.
So the first thing to do is make a list of all of your strengths. Take a good time to do a brain dump and list anything that you think could be something you could talk about with certainty. Do NOT lie about skills you don’t have, because karma (and the hiring team) may come back to make you regret it. Only list strengths you actually possess.
When it comes to what sort of strengths companies look for, your answer could fall into four different categories. You could talk about:
When it comes to experience, these could be skills related to specific ways that things are done in a certain industry. These are strengths based on time that you spent with it, whatever ‘it’ ends up being.
These are the skills that you have picked up over the years that you may say help define your personality or interests.
Perhaps this is the time to bring out the fact that you can speak four languages fluently. Maybe you want to talk about how you enjoy painting in your spare time. If you’ve written a thousand grant proposals and feel like you could do it in your sleep, that might be of interest to a company.
- Training and Education
If you’ve been trained in a specific way, either through someone taking the time to teach you, an online course, or formal time spent at a university, these skills can be particularly valuable. So think about any time that someone has taught you a very particular way of doing something. These could be things that fit into ‘talents’ or ‘experience’ as well, but these are things that might be difficult to learn by oneself or that a hiring team would not like to hear that you taught yourself.
It’s awesome to be a self-starter, but if you go into a hospital interview and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t go to medical school, but I watched a lot of Grey’s Anatomy, and I’m a fast learner’, chances are you are not going to get that job.
This might be the time to look back through any certificates that you’ve been awarded and list specific examples of things that a different group of people have said you have spent the required time to learn.
- Soft Skills
Soft skills are not skills that are ‘easy’, but they’re skills that every job also wants you to talk about. These are how you go about doing something and in what way.
Want to know the great thing about soft skills? If you’re thinking that you don’t have any experience in anything, you’re not sure if any of your talents could translate to something valuable in the workplace, and you don’t have much past training…fear not! Soft skills have no threshold and don’t gatekeep. Anyone, and everyone, has soft skills or can draw upon soft skills.
Some common soft skills that many companies desire are: writing skills, communication, problem-solving, team-work, or decision making skills. If you’re nodding along or thinking that any of these match you, congrats! You have soft skills!
If you did all that and you have your list, congratulations! You can now add ‘ability to self-reflect’ to your collection of soft skills. Taking the time to think about yourself and organize or analyze is an often wanted skill, and this is a tangible example of being able to do so.
- Revise Your List
You should keep a master copy, but every time you get a job interview, pull out a new sheet of paper.
Remember how we discussed that it’s great to have this list, but you need to make sure it’s relevant?
This is the time to shave down your list to the ‘best foot forward’ sort of answers. You not only want to be showing the interview team the things you’re best at, but you want to assure that it’s also what they’re looking for. Going into an interview for a teaching job but highlighting that you have great skills in the kitchen won’t get you very far, even if you are a Michelin star chef.
The best way to do this is to pull out their job description and play a game of matching with your own sheet.
If you are going to talk about a strength that they don’t explicitly state that they’re looking for, always be ready to answer why this strength would make their company better.
- Give Examples
It’s not good enough to sit there with a wide grin and say, “Sir, I’m great at time-management!” and leave it at that. Chances are you’ll be asked to elaborate, so you might as well do it yourself.
Think of very specific instances in which these skills were used. Ones relating to jobs or careers are most helpful, but if a skill is best shown with something from your personal life, that may be the best choice.
These are also things you should jot down beforehand, so you aren’t sitting there and sifting through your memories the day of.
- Walk the Thin Line
What I mean by this, and this may be the most difficult part of this answer, is to walk the line between haughty and humble. You want to be talking about your skills and have pride in exactly the right amount.
On one hand, being arrogant, rude, or dismissive of others in a situation that describes your skills may show that you do have said skills, but chances are you’ll be showing the interview team a less than desirable trait with it. You can be proud of your achievements and abilities, but don’t act like you’re the only person in the world that possesses them. If by chance you’re some sort of award-winning genius, you still should be professional and courteous while talking about your skill.
On the other hand, you don’t want to undersell yourself. If you’re not 100% confident in your strength, maybe you shouldn’t be talking about it. To talk about a specific strength and then continue and say, “oh, but it’s not a big deal” or “yeah, I guess I’m sort of good at that” undermines everything you just set up with trying to convince the hiring team that you’re fit to do that job!
Hopefully writing this list gave you a boost of self-confidence, and showed you that you do have necessary and wanted skills. If you’re still unsure, at least act confident in your skills during the interview, and try not to make it seem like you stumbled into these skills and you’re still not sure how to work them.
- Don’t Ramble
Keep your answers short and sweet! Think about two or three sentences. You shouldn’t be giving them your entire life story to answer “what are your biggest strengths’. Many interviewers advise to use the S.T.A.R method; a way to organize your thoughts to make sure you’re not talking a novel at the interviewers, but that everything that you need to say is said. S.T.A.R stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result.
Using this will make sure that you stick to the details that are needed, but you’re not going on a tangent talking about the time you saved a kitten from dying while trying to explain how you learned how to use Salesforce.
Perhaps the most important reminder is to just be yourself and answer honestly. We’ve seen sitcoms where someone lies that they know fluent Mandarin and then, surprise, has to speak Mandarin. It’s funny to watch but would be horrifying to actually have to endure. Don’t embellish your skills beyond what they are. Stick to the facts, be confident in your delivery, and make sure you’re making the connection for the interview team as to why this strength will help their company or assure them that this makes you the best candidate for the job or internship.
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