What's your weakness?

An old interview question every candidate should be prepared for is, "What is your strongest asset?" This question is almost always followed by the much tougher question, "What is your weakest?" Although the exact verbiage may vary, and this question can take many forms, the basic premise is usually the same. The panel wants you to divulge something negative about yourself.

There are many ways to respond to such a question. The most common way candidates can respond is to take a neutral or even a positive trait and spin it in such a way that sounds negative and self deprecating, but really isn't. You can be assured that a large portion of candidates asked this question will try to pull this off and will reply with, "I tend to be too hard on myself", or "I tend to expect too much from myself."

Even the best salesperson, with the best pitch and delivery will score average at best if they take this approach. It simply doesn't work and you will be far from original. I recommend avoiding any such response. I've heard many of them and they never get the highest marks.

Another response I've heard is to deny any weaknesses. Such a response often goes something like this, "Well, I can't really think of any weaknesses. I feel I'm a solid candidate and am confident in my knowledge skills and abilities.

"While I know I have a lot to learn, I don't see that as a weakness, just room to grow as a firefighter." This reply is also not recommended. In my opinion it's never a good idea to evade a question or not answer a question. We all have areas we need to improve. However, this reply is better than someone who sells him/herself down the river by stating a weakness that will raise an eyebrow.

I have also heard candidates say that their lack of experience is their greatest weakness. They explain that experience is what gives a firefighter the most knowledge and is the best way to improve the skills of their trade and that they feel their lack of experience is a weakness, but they are eager to learn and look forward to gaining such experience in their city so they will become a great asset to the department.

Like the others above this is not going to score really high marks and is not recommended, because one of the criteria you are most likely being scored on is your level of training and experience, so walking in and stating that experience is your weakness is really shooting yourself in the foot.
I also do not recommend saying that your interview skills are your weakest point. It sounds like a whinny excuse for having a bad interview. It may sound good in theory, but it's not.

The way to get the job is to have a great interview, not to have a lousy or average interview and explain it away or make excuses for it. If you're having a great interview and are then asked this question and tell the panel that your interview skills are your weakness it doesn't work and perhaps you've now just blown what would have been a great interview.

If you're having a bad interview and then reply this way, the panel will simply nod and say yes, your interview skills aren't good and that's why we are not going to hire you. My point is, that's not the way to get the job. The way you get the job is by having a great interview and answering every question in the best possible way.

Another approach to take is to use complete and utter honesty. For most of us, this is not a good idea. For example, to say, "My drinking problem is definitely my greatest weakness. I really need to get a handle on the booze," probably won't get you a job. But for some of you, your true weakness may be one that you can and should use. For example, one of the most memorable responses I've heard was a candidate that said he discovered his weakness in the academy when they started doing ropes and knots. He had a tough time remembering his knots. It was the only thing that he struggled with and that didn't "stick" for him.

He explained that to work on this he carried a short length of rope with him everywhere he went and practiced them daily. He admitted to having to spend 10 times longer studying and practicing knots then his classmates, who seemed to catch on so easily. He described himself as having "rope dyslexia."

He said that he was now enrolled in Rescue Systems II and still carries the length of rope around to constantly refresh himself. He is now comfortable with knots, but still considers it a weakness that he needs to continue to stay up on and work on, especially as knots and rope systems used in the fire service change as often as they do.

This candidate's answer was so refreshing, because it was so real and so honest. It also showed an honest appraisal and awareness of his weakness. He didn't hide from it. He owned up to his weakness and took it seriously. Anyone who has ever worked in the fire house, knows that the most dangerous firefighter is one who can not admit they are not proficient at something and tries to hide from their incompetencies, rather them face them and work to improve them. This candidate did score well by being completely honest and showing what he's done and is doing to work on this particular area.

If you're like most people and your true weakness is not one you should use, it has been my experience that the best way to answer this question is with catered honesty.

Select an attribute that is a weakness, (perhaps not your worst weakness), and is an honest negative that people can relate to. It should be something that is not detrimental to your ability to perform the job.

Like the rope example, it should be followed by an understanding of its importance and an explanation of what you have done and are doing to improve in this area. Some examples may be computer skills, or public speaking. Another example is something as simple, but as true, as not being able to remember people's names.

Examples such as these are things that many people can relate to, they are a negative, they can be improved upon and they will not raise an eyebrow or question your ability to perform the job. You should stress that you understand the importance of this weak attribute as it pertains to the fire service, explain why it is important and what you are doing, or will do to improve this weakness. By doing so you are giving an honest, sincere and real answer and there will be a good chance that someone on that panel will be able to relate to the same weakness. Come up with your own specific weakness, one that is unique and real, and you will score well.

The best way to wow the panel is to have a truly unique response that is real and sincere, but not hurtful to your integrity or ability to perform the job duties. Within your response you should also indirectly reveal other positive attributes, by articulating your understanding of the fire service as it pertains to your particular weakness and the motivation to overcome such obstacles.

A good response has many layers that continue to be revealed throughout the response. When you have finished explaining to the panel your weakest point, they should be left with a great deal of new information about you as a candidate and firefighter that is very positive, much like the candidate who used "rope dyslexia" as his weakest point was able to do.

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