How to Answer “What Is Your Greatest Strength” in an Interview

FT Contributor  | 

“What is your greatest strength?” You will likely hear this question each time you go to an interview for a new job.

Many applicants don’t contemplate how to talk about their strengths because it seems to be one of the less-challenging interview subjects. However, a lack of preparation can cause you to come across as too modest or too arrogant. Also, strength and skill-related questions give you a great chance to relate your skills and experience directly to the job for which you are interviewing.

The reason the interviewer asks these questions is to see if your strengths match their employment needs. If you prepare correctly, you will be able to show them that you indeed have the attributes they are seeking.

The good news is that with a little research you’ll get a good idea of the strengths the company or organization values. Then, you can talk about your skills and personality traits in a way that matches those attributes that the company values and the job demands.

Examples of Professional Strengths

There are different types of strengths. Interviewers usually ask about technical skills, which are also known as hard skills, and general personality traits or attributes, which they often call soft skills. For some positions, interviewers may focus on a specific set of soft skills called interpersonal skills. Interpersonal skills focus on teamwork and communication with others.

As you prepare for your interview, choose hard, soft, and interpersonal skills that relate directly to the job for which you are interviewing.

How can you know which skills and strengths relate to the job? In some cases, the company’s industry or the nature of the job will make the required skills obvious. Look closely at any available employment ads for the job to see which skills they list as requirements.

Finally, look at the company’s website of social media accounts and see the language that they use to talk about their overall values, mission, and company culture. You can then use similar keywords or phrases when speaking about your strengths.

Hard Skills

Hard skills are technical skills you gain from experience or education. You can usually prove that you have these skills by listing a degree, certificate, or completion of a training program.

  • In fields such as programming or IT, you need to detail relevant computer skills. You may talk about a computer-related degree or certificate, but you could also highlight any experience with the computer languages or development methodologies necessary for the job.
  • In some careers, machine or equipment operation skills are essential. In addition to highlighting education, experience, or professional certification, you may need to answer technical questions about the equipment that you will use if you get the job.
  • You learn trade skills through a technical program or apprenticeship. If you are applying to work as an electrician, for example, you need to highlight your experience as an apprentice or completion of a trade school electrician program.
  • Being able to speak a foreign language is a hard skill. While this skill might seem impressive in general, you should only mention it if you will use the language in your job. For example, if you speak Japanese, you would only list it as a skill if the company had offices, clients, or suppliers in Japan.
  • Research skills may be attractive to an employer. If you are applying to work in academia or a law office, you would include research as one of your hard skills. Knowledge of proper research techniques can also be useful in an organization or the corporate world.
  • Management skills are vital if you are applying for a position that involves overseeing other employees. Even if you are interviewing for an entry-level position, a degree or certification related to management will show the interviewer that you are interested in developing skills that could make you a long-term asset for the company.

Soft Skills

Soft skills are non-technical skills, such as personality traits or personal attributes. You acquire these skills over time or gain them from experience rather than training.

  • Decision-making skills involve weighing all variables involved in an issue and making a decision based on the available data. The ability to make informed choices is an essential attribute in many industries and careers.
  • Adaptability means being able to thrive in different work environments, settings, and situations. If you remain with a company long enough, you will inevitably work with different people and perform various tasks. Adaptable people can make the necessary adjustments to perform well regardless of the setting in which they find themselves. If you list adaptability as a strength, you should be prepared to provide a specific example of how you were adaptable in a past job.
  • Problem-solving skills focus on coming up with a solution to an issue. You will want to provide examples of a specific instance where you solved a problem in a work setting. In addition to being able to solve problems, this soft skill proves that you can remain calm and productive when things do not work as expected.
  • A strong work ethic will be attractive to most employers. The interviewer is going to judge whether or not they think you are willing to put in the necessary work to be effective in the job. Since this attribute is universally attractive, interviewers hear it very often. To stand out, provide a specific example of a time when you stayed late, worked on the weekend, or took work home to complete a project on time.
  • Employers value employees with a positive attitude. They can better handle adversity and they have a positive impact on workplace culture. If you lack hard skills or soft skills that require experience, a positive attitude is an excellent option to fill out your greatest strengths list.

Interpersonal Skills

Interpersonal skills are vital because most jobs require that you work as part of a team, take direction, and interact with your peers and management. These skills relate to employability, so the interviewer will likely ask questions that provide insight into your interpersonal skills.

  • You need collaboration skills to work as a part of a team. If you use this attribute on your list of strengths, you should be ready with specific examples of times that you were able to collaborate effectively.
  • You need communication skills in every job. Even if you work alone at a computer, you need to communicate with a manager or other members of the computer team. Some jobs require verbal communication, while others involve written communication. Choose the type of communication style that best fits the position.  
  • Networking abilities are essential in many careers. In sales, journalism, procurement, and many other professions, you need to build relationships, make new contacts, and interact with people you have never met before. In some sales professions, networking is the primary focus of your job.
  • Listening skills are important, whether you are in management or an entry-level position. You need to be able to listen to employees or a boss to find out details about your current tasks, expectations, and future work plans.
  • Emotional intelligence involves understanding your feelings and the emotions of others. This soft skill is vital if you work as part of a team or if your job involves dealing with clients or other third parties regularly. Employers value emotional intelligence because it can help you act professionally even when others do not.

How to Talk About Strengths

During an interview, you will not simply list your strengths, you will talk about them in the context of the job.

Provide Examples

The best way to put your skills in the context of the job is to provide specific examples. This step not only provides credibility, but it also allows you to show how you apply your skills in a work setting. When giving an example of your strengths, start by listing the specific ability. For example, one of your soft skills could be adaptability. You could say, “I am very adaptable.”

Then, follow that statement up with your example. “When a team member quit without notice, I moved from my position to their position and completed the project even though it was not my original assignment.”

Consider using examples that highlight both your hard and soft skills. For example, you could underline hard programming skills and soft problem-solving skills. “I used JavaScript to create the user-interface for a website. When the website went down during testing, I used my problem-solving skills to define the problem and fix the code so that the website worked again.”

Relate It to the Job Skills

You always want to relate your strengths to the job for which you are interviewing. Start this process by thinking about the job requirements and make sure that the skills you plan to discuss and the examples you plan to use directly address these requirements.

You can also look for additional keywords related to the job or the company’s mission or culture in general. Plan to discuss your skills as they relate to these keywords. Find insights into the requirements on the job ad for the position for which you are applying. Look at the company website or other company literature to find information about company values, mission, and culture.  

Avoid Exaggerations

It can be challenging to discuss your skills in a matter-of-fact way that is neither too modest or too arrogant. One method to avoid either extreme is to focus your answers on the specific details of the job. Prepare three to five strengths related to the position. This step can protect you from talking about too many (too arrogant) or too few (too modest) skills.

Another method for avoiding exaggerations involves focusing on the facts by first mentioning your skills and then providing an example that focuses on what you did without any embellishment. While you do not want to embellish, your example story should have a positive outcome.

Be Direct

Preparation will help you be more direct during an interview. Plan to state your skill and then provide an example without any additional language, explanation, or introduction. You can practice these direct statements with someone before you go to the interview.

Taking a direct and straightforward approach when discussing your strengths will help you avoid the extremes of arrogance and false humility.


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