How to answer: What are your strengths?

Not big on self-promotion?

Talking about your strengths at an interview can be tough, especially if blowing your own trumpet isn’t your thing. And aside from finding the fine line between pride and arrogance, you also have to avoid falling back on clichéd answers (let’s face it, who isn’t a hard worker?).

We’ve already covered some of the most common interview questions that could come up, but here’s our advice for how to answer: ‘What are your strengths?’


The real question

What they’re asking: ‘What are your greatest strengths?’

What they’re actually asking: ‘Do you really know yourself – and do you know what our problem is here?’

OK, so they want you to talk about your strengths; seems simple enough. But what’s the catch?

You also need to show the interviewer how these carefully thought-out strengths will solve their problems – by making sure they’re based around the job’s key requirements, and mapped against your best achievements to date.

So go easy on the adjectives and heavy on hard data.


Step 1: Come up with a new list of strengths

Everyone has a vague list of personal strengths; you’ve had it in your head for years, it rarely changes, and may or may not be entirely accurate.

Instead, it’s a mixture of facts and wishes – inspired by your work, friends, and let’s face it, what you think an employer wants to hear. Unfortunately, this old dusty list is the complete opposite of what they’re looking for.

What’s really needed is a new list of strengths – put together using your in-depth knowledge of the job description, alongside your most impressive (and relevant) achievements.


Step 2: Choose your strengths wisely

When it comes to creating your updated list of strengths, it’s vital to pick ones that fit into a decent plotline.

Can you use it to demonstrate progression and development, or is it too generic to quantify? After all, it’s hard to weave an interesting story about you being merely hard-working and trustworthy.

So instead of opting for the obvious, pick something that has been demonstrated consistently over the course of your career/education – whether it was by helping you achieve excellent results at work, gaining the praise of your colleagues or manager, or even earning a promotion.

Because if you’re not able to give any context, there’ll be no way for you to set yourself apart from the crowd – not to mention accurately represent your strength.


Step 3: Give examples

Finally, you need to actually back up your claims.

Sure, you might feel like using a bunch of pleasant-sounding adjectives will make people think you’re a smart, or generally a good, professional all-rounder – but that won’t help solve the employer’s problem.

In other words, those things might be necessary, but they’re not sufficient. Adjectives can’t serve customers, write financial reports, or drive a fork-lift truck. But solid, tangible examples that accurately demonstrate the strength you chose to cover? They can.

So for each strength you talk about; explain the context in which it was used, describe the impact it had, and give it the element that all employers are looking for – results (e.g. transformations, successes, achievements).


Example answer

I’ve always been very good at reading markets and staying in step with them. For example, out of all the fashion buyers in my industry I was the first to realise that our stores could make money from selling mobile phone accessories (with different colours to match different outfits, for example) – even though we’re principally a fashion retailer.

My manager usually trusts me on trend spotting so she let me experiment and now our technology line is the fastest growing category in the store.

It’s had a great impact on the company, because it put people in the mood to experiment with other technology lines – so now we’re doing well with things like headphones too. I think my success at spotting trends is why they promoted me to chief buyer. Now I’m responsible for helping other buyers develop their trend-spotting skills – and I’m certain I could bring those training skills to this job too.


Need more interview questions?

Unfortunately, we can’t help you predict exactly which interview questions will come up on the big day. However, we can help you prepare for every eventuality and avoid any interview nightmares.

Buy James Reed’s new book: Why You? 101 Interview Questions You’ll Never Fear Again to find out how.

Five interview questions you should stop being scared of



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