Medical school and residency interviews are challenging, and diligently preparing for them will get you one step closer to acceptance into your dream program. Perhaps your nerves are getting the best of you as you approach your interview day, wondering about the best attire to wear and the types of questions you will be asked.
Experience has taught us that the best thing you can do to have a successful interview is to prepare for every scenario that might be thrown your way, including the universally dreaded interview question:
“What is your greatest weakness?”
There is so much to unpack in this interview question.
Why do interviewers ask such an uncomfortable and probing question, and how are interviewees supposed to answer? Is the question some sort of trap to quickly eliminate candidates?
Isn’t the point of a medical school or residency interview to prioritize strengths that the right candidate will cultivate in the best program? Why would interviewers want to know about problem areas in candidates?
While answering “what is your greatest weakness?” can feel intimidating, it doesn’t have to be. In this blog, we will review the true purpose of the “what is your greatest weakness?” interview question and how to answer like a pro, setting you apart from all the other candidates.
We will cover a step-by-step approach in crafting a clear and effective answer so that you are prepared well before your interview. We will also share a sample answer to the “what is your greatest weakness?” interview question and break down what makes it successful.
Our tips will help you navigate your interview like a true professional on the path to success.
The purpose of the “what is your greatest weakness?” interview question is less nefarious than it appears at first glance. Interviewers have an extremely valid goal in mind when they ask this of candidates.
Interviewers want to see the best candidates as real people who acknowledge their shortcomings and work on improving them. Fundamentally, interviewers ask “what is your greatest weakness?” for the following reasons:
Additionally, it is a common interview tactic to ask a question that is meant to make candidates feel uncomfortable at first. Interviewers want to see in real-time how candidates handle situations under pressure, nerves, and stress.
If you can go into your interview expecting to be asked “What is your greatest weakness?” and have a thoroughly prepared answer, you will have control of yourself, your answers, and the situation.
How you comport yourself with grace and professionalism, especially under pressure, will leave a lasting impression on the interview panel. Furthermore, preparation and remaining cool and collected are desirable qualities to have for aspiring physicians.
Think of “what is your greatest weakness?” as an opportunity for you to honestly reflect on your professional and personal life. If you can get beyond the discomfort of the question and give the interviewer an answer that is insightful, reflective, and candid, you will have a great interview experience and connect with the admissions committee.
The biggest takeaway to remember is that your answer should clearly illustrate the steps you took to overcome your weakness. Your answer should demonstrate trackable progress and put you in a positive light instead of solely focusing on your weakness. In other words, you shouldn’t say something like the following:
“My greatest weakness is time management. I sometimes struggle to meet deadlines, and in the past, I missed an especially important deadline for work. I am working to improve my organizational skills and time management.”
This is not the best answer to give for various reasons. First, it primarily focuses on the weakness itself: time management and organization. Yes, this answer is honest and forthright; however, it simply states the candidate’s weakness without really addressing what the candidate has done to correct it.
The answer is too vague and raises more questions. After missing that important deadline, what did the candidate do? How did the candidate communicate their failure to their colleagues or supervisor? What has the candidate done since missing their deadline to ensure that another one will never be missed again?
How exactly did the candidate “work to improve organizational skills?” As you can see, giving more weight to your weakness rather than your specific areas of improvement leaves room for your interviewer to doubt your strength as a candidate.
To answer “What is your greatest weakness?” like a pro, we recommend the following step-by-step approach:
Brainstorm a list of weaknesses that are relevant to you and your experiences. Think about experiences you have had and projects you have worked on in the workplace, in school, in volunteering, and in your extracurriculars.
Be honest with yourself and think critically. Here is a list of general weaknesses to help you get started thinking in the right direction:
Once you have brainstormed a list of weaknesses, select one that you can expand upon in detail for your answer. It is advisable to select a weakness that will allow you to tell a focused and clear narrative that cites specific examples of your growth.
Also, it is important to be honest here and pick a true weakness, not a weakness that is really a strength. (Please refer to the FAQs to read more about this topic and reasons why you should avoid disguising weaknesses as strengths.)
After selecting your weakness, you can begin to assemble your answer to maximize your success. Be mindful of keeping a professional and concise format. Be clear and specific and avoid vague language. Be sure to include what you learned and how you worked on your weakness. Your answer should also demonstrate reflection and maturity.
As you assemble your answer, it is helpful to think of it as telling a compelling story. There should be a beginning, middle, and end.
The beginning should include clearly stating your weakness. The middle should include supporting details and evidence of what you did to overcome your weakness. The end should neatly wrap up your narrative and finish on a positive note. Later in this blog, we will provide a sample answer and review its successful aspects.
After assembling the initial draft of your answer, rehearse it out loud and practice. Rehearsing the answer out loud will allow you to hear what it will sound like to the interviewers. Rehearsing makes it easier to spot any hang-ups in flow, areas that need clarification, and areas that can be expanded upon with further details.
Rehearsing out loud is also beneficial to gauge the length of your answer. Striking the right balance with the length is important. Avoid going on for too long, but give enough detail that you answer the question thoroughly and hit all your key points.
Lastly, the more you rehearse your answer to “what is your greatest weakness?” the more comfortable you will feel in answering it at your interview. It will come naturally because you will have prepared in advance, making you more at ease and confident during your interview.
Pro-tip: Rather than rehearsing your answer with the goal to memorize and repeat it word-for-word, focus instead on the content of your answer and remembering the key points. You don’t want to sound robotic in your interview, or indicate that you have memorized your answer, so be mindful and maintain your natural cadence.
Rehearsal is about practicing and revising so that on the day of your interview, it is smooth sailing.
The following is a sample answer to “What is your greatest weakness?” This sample uses public speaking and verbal communication as areas of improvement.
“My greatest weakness is public speaking. I have always been timid, and as a result, my verbal communication and public speaking skills were not cultivated. One day at work, I had to present a procedural manual that I worked on to the head of the department, my supervisor, and my colleagues.
I was so nervous on the day of the presentation, that it interfered with my ability to share vital information with the team. I avoided eye contact and spoke too quickly throughout the presentation, wanting it to be over. After that meeting, I decided to proactively work on my verbal communication and public speaking skills.
I realized that if I want to be a successful physician, I need to be able to effectively communicate with patients and colleagues with confidence and empathy. I scheduled a one-on-one meeting with my supervisor to openly discuss honest feedback on my performance at the meeting and brainstorm ideas on how to improve.
My supervisor stated that she would be happy to help in any way, and together we decided that I could open our biweekly staff meetings. For the next several months, I started staff meetings by opening with greetings and presenting the meeting agenda to the team.
When I became comfortable speaking for a couple of minutes at a time, I extended my time presenting by introducing members of the team before they shared their notes, and then I gave closing remarks. Additionally, I joined the local Toastmasters chapter offered by my workplace, where I regularly foster my public speaking skills in a supportive and challenging environment.”
This answer is detailed, clear, and professional. It starts out by honestly addressing the candidate’s weakness and giving an example of how the weakness impacted the candidate’s performance at work. Then, the candidate demonstrates the steps they took to overcome the weakness.
The answer ends on a positive note, and the tone is a good balance of confidence and humility. The answer shows self-awareness, reflection, and maturity. It also shows that the candidate has a growth mindset and will proactively work on areas of improvement rather than remain stagnant as a professional.
It cannot be emphatically stated enough to please never do this. Never reframe your weaknesses as strengths because this indicates insincerity. It is completely transparent and obvious to the interviewers, and it will backfire and hurt your chances of having a strong and successful interview.
Interviewers see candidates do this very thing all the time, and in fact, this method will almost guarantee that you will not be invited to another interview or extended an offer of acceptance. Trust us when we say that every single one of us has weaknesses—it is what we do with those weaknesses that tell a lot about our character.
Having strong character and exhibiting honesty are two crucial qualities for medical students, residents, and physicians. So, we recommend that you put your best foot forward, address your weakness, and show what you did to improve.
You can address a weakness from your personal life as long as it remains appropriate in a professional setting. In other words, try to avoid events that are too personal or heavy. Use your best judgment here. You can also cite a personal example and demonstrate how your trackable progress can transfer to a professional setting.
A good personal anecdote might be how you improved your critical thinking skills when you ran into a plumbing issue while renovating your bathroom. Or perhaps how you performed poorly in your competitive doubles tennis match due to poor communication, and subsequently prioritized teamwork drills and better verbal communication to go on and win your next doubles tennis match.
Avoid bringing up weaknesses that are red flags or that will prevent you from succeeding in medical school, your residency, or your role. We urge you to use your best judgment here and practice caution.
Your weakness should not disqualify you as a candidate altogether. Remember, after selecting your weakness, the focus should then be on your areas of improvement rather than the weakness itself.
Always be professional and courteous. For your answer, you don’t want to be boastful or arrogant. Show humility as you progressed from your weakness. Alternatively, you don’t want to be too timid or underestimate yourself either.
Striking the right balance between confidence and grace is the best tone to adopt in your interview. Practicing, rehearsing, and setting up mock interviews will help you iron out any wrinkles in your demeanor and tone.
Remember the reason behind interviewers asking this question of candidates, and remember that they ask this question of all candidates. Try not to define your self-esteem by a weakness. Admitting your weakness to the interviewers is not so they can privately tear you apart over it. It helps to look at your selected weakness objectively.
Also, the interviewers will remember your methods of self-improvement rather than your weakness itself. You will likely see positive cues from them like supportive body language because interviewers love hearing about candidates actively working on themselves.
The interviewers are there to accept an individual who will continue to grow and learn, so demonstrate that you are that shining individual.
Rehearsing and participating in mock interviews are proven methods to increase your chances of success at an interview. You can ask a trusted colleague, mentor, teacher, supervisor, family member, or friend for their honest feedback.
You can also schedule a free consultation with one of our admissions experts to help you with your interview and getting into your dream program.
The interview question “what is your greatest weakness?” is designed to evaluate candidates who are self-aware, mature, and driven to improve as a strong professional. A successful answer will reveal a true weakness, be honest, and discuss what the candidate learned from the experience.
By using our guide to answer “what is your greatest weakness?” you will be well on your way to leaving a lasting impression on the interview panel and advancing in your career.