What are your strengths and weaknesses? This is a classic interview question. So how do you answer it?

My advice, as with any interview question, is to consider: why is the interviewer is asking me this?

Habit might be one reason. This is straight out of the interview training playbook. So, it gets reeled out time and again. On that basis alone, there is no excuse for any candidate to be unprepared to answer it. It should always be on your list of questions to prepare for.

So, what’s the purpose of the question? My view is that it is all about testing your understanding, self-awareness and self-perception.

A great answer is going to demonstrate that you really understand the skills, knowledge and behaviours needed to succeed in the job you are being interviewed for. It isn’t a random generic question. Rather it is a brilliant opportunity to stake your claim and really differentiate yourself from other candidates. Showing that you have what it takes to be successful.

Your starting point is to go back to all the information you have gathered on the role from the job advertisement to a role description and any other supporting materials. What has the employer highlighted as the “essential” or key requirements of the job? Your strengths should speak directly to some or all of those requirements. Basically, proving you are a great fit. For example, if the job is all about dealing with customers bring out your strengths in areas like communication and relationship building.

Don’t talk about skills or experience they haven’t asked for – and which aren’t directly relevant to the role you’ve applied for. For example, if the job has no people management responsibility don’t talk about what a great boss you are. It runs the risk that the interviewer will question why you are applying for a job that doesn’t play to your strengths. That may in turn sow seeds of doubt about whether the job will really interest and motivate you.

And don’t just talk about skills and knowledge. Talk about behaviours too. They are hiring a person, not just a bundle of attributes. Your cultural fit can often be as important as your technical prowess. For this research the Company’s values. Most organisations now have values statements, and you can usually quickly work out how that translates into behaviours they’ll want to see.

For example, if you go on the Chiumento website you’ll see one of our values is Energetic. There is a good description of what that means. If your strengths include working at pace and having the resilience to meet demanding deadlines tell us!

Everyone has weaknesses – nobody is perfect. What an interviewer wants to know is how self-aware you are of your development needs. That can, played well, establish a level of honesty and authenticity that will set you apart. What makes this even stronger is if you can demonstrate how the job you are being interviewed for will allow you to meet those development needs. That will go a long way towards persuading the interviewer that you have seriously considered why you want this specific job, not just any job.

The message you want to send is: “I can do this job, it plays to my strengths and gives me the room to grow so I won’t be looking to move again in a years’ time”.

Talking about the feedback you have had from a current, or recent manager can also be a great way to respond to the part about weaknesses. Firstly, it says you are receptive and then you can go on to demonstrate how you’ve used that insight to own your own development. That last point is really key – especially if you are an experienced candidate. Talk about what you have done to begin addressing your weaknesses.

Not being genuine about weaknesses can have the opposite effect. “I don’t have any” or “I can’t think of any” are never good answers. At worst they can smack of arrogance and a raised ego. They also suggest you may have a problem with being given feedback – either you don’t accept it, or simply ignore it if it doesn’t fit with your own self-image.

That final point is worth stressing. Your answer to this question tells the interviewer a lot about you as an individual. Painting yourself as a “superhero” by only talking about “super strengths” can worry employers. Raising the question: what’s hiding behind the carefully manicured mask you show to the world? Nothing, for me, is worse than leaving an interview feeling I haven’t seen a genuine, open and self-aware candidate.

Ultimately my top tip is therefore to use this question as an opportunity to be authentic. There is no point presenting yourself as something you aren’t during an interview. You’ll only get found out once you start the job. Yes, an interview is ultimately a sales pitch. However, nothing angers a buyer more than discovering after they’ve made the purchase that what they bought can’t do what it claimed to do. That goes straight to the heart of trust – and once that is lost it can be a long, long road back.

‘The classic interview questions…’ was written by Ian Gooden, CEO, Chiumento Ltd. If you like what you’ve read why not follow us on LinkedIn and read all our future musings on the world of work.