How to talk about your weaknesses without getting rejected

by     9 Comments    Posted under: International, Interviews

Interviewer: So, what would you say was your greatest weakness?

Interviewee: I think I interview very badly and fail to convince people of how good I really am.

That’s a real example that resulted in a rejection despite an otherwise reasonable interview performance.

It’s a tricky question to have fired at you in many ways. Firstly, it doesn’t crop up in every interview so it’s often a surprise and hence poorly prepared for by those who try to ‘pre-script’ their answers.

Secondly it can be tricky to come up with an answer that gives the interviewer what they’re looking for without sounding false or harming your chances.

Why would they ask such a useless question?

From my own experiences, 95% of answers to this question are non-replies that tell you nothing about the candidate.
The remaining 5% will say something very honest but badly thought out such that it may well raise serious doubts about their suitability for medicine.

International applicants with English as a second or third language often fall short here because, well, they’re often just too honest and fail to spin the weakness into a more complete answer.

However, there are ways of using this question to your advantage and delivering an answer that makes you stand out above the other bores the panel have had to put up with.

Remember though, that there is no consensus on what a good answer to this question is, despite what is being taught lately.

More and more candidates come out with those stock answers telling us on the panel that they’ve all been to one of the generic medical application courses that seem to be a rite of passage these days.

When thinking about how to answer this question, remember that your weakness has to be:

A. Legitimate
B. Doesn’t rule out a medical career

To start with there are too basic approaches one can use.

1.¬†Tell them you’re too much of a hardworker, or a perfectionist, just too nice, or take your work too seriously. In other words try and convince them your weakness is simply a strength that needs to be tamed. (It’s surprising how many 17 year olds can deliver this answer without any sense of irony.)

2. Give a genuine weakness such as, meeting deadlines or public speaking and then talk about how you’ve recognised this weakness and worked to improve it.

Both of these approaches can work if you know what you’re doing. If you get them wrong you can alienate your interviewer or worse still reveal that you are totally unsuited to training for clinical medicine.

With option number 1, if I were interviewing you and you simply said, ‘I work too hard’ I would take that as an invitation to probe further. I have heard of interviewers suggesting that you give another weakness rather than a fake one so be careful.

However, if you’re good at wording things carefully under pressure, you could say that being too much of a perfectionist is common amongst students applying for competitive areas such as medicine and has advantages but you’ve recognised that there is a downside.

For example not meeting deadlines or losing sight of the bigger picture. Furthermore you are aware that in medicine, whilst there is no room for error, one must always keep the whole picture (or patient) in mind whilst focusing on the detail. One cannot really be a perfectionist in the true sense because one is always faced with the psychosocial complexities in any clinical situation and the need to tailor treatment to the whole patient. Perhaps follow this up with an example from your work experience. This is always a good route away from your weaknesses and onto more comfortable ground.

With option number 2 the bulk of your answer will be taken up with examples of how you’ve been working on your weakness. You can work backwards here and try to engineer a ‘weakness’ answer that relates to courses or classes you’ve been taking or some voluntary work you’re doing.

There are some examples below but first some real life examples of what NOT to say:

As nice as they may seem your interviewers will be looking for a good reason to reject your application. Don’t drop your guard and let them kill off your chances of becoming a doctor.

– I expect too much of others (bad attitude, too self regarding)

–¬†I am disorganised (will fail A2 or degree or preclinical course)

– I have chronic fatigue syndrome (or other unsuitable pathology)

– I’m very shy (usually a genuine answer but doesn’t give any room for discussion and might indicate unsuitability to some)

– Chemistry and biology (why?)

Two good examples to work from

“…I realised that I had very little contact with very elderly or mentally ill patients and found communicating with them a challenge during my work experience on the medical ward. Of course this is an integral skill for any doctor and I felt it was an area I needed to work upon. I decided to volunteer at Sunbrookes nursing home once a week and have been doing so for the last year. I have learned alot from the nursing staff and patients as well as their families. I have realised that communication is challenging in some situations and although my confidence and ability have increased significantly I’m aware there is still alot to learn…”

“…So I would say my main weakness is really being too detail orientated at times and perhaps losing sight of the bigger picture. I didn’t pick up on the disadvantages of this trait in a clinical medicine environment until my week at the facial reconstruction unit. My work experience actually opened my eyes to the fact that doctors must often focus away from their area of expertise in order to best treat the whole patient. The plastic surgeon I was shadowing was considering a patient for ear reconstruction. She had suffered a canine attack that had left her with severe physical as well as mental scarring. Although he was convinced he could get an excellent cosmetic result and was keen to add her to his list, he realised that she may not benefit from the surgery until her post-traumatic psychological pathology was treated first. Referral to a psychiatrist was therefore made and surgery was delayed. The surgeon and I had a chat afterwards about the importance of looking at the whole patient and not getting too consumed with the detail of one specific problem, whatever ones speciality…”

Your work experience will certainly have shown you aspects of medical practice that you can tailor into a ‘my main weakness’ answer.

Practice making one up on the spot under the pressure of a mock interview. If you can do that well you can be sure you’ll be fine in other areas of the interview too.

And whatever you do, please don’t become the easy rejection of the morning.


9 Comments + Add Comment

  • Thanks for this.
    I was asked about a weakness and gave a stock answer about being too much of an idealist etc. Was stopped and probed for more examples of weaknesses.

  • I would imagine the most important thing here is NOT the actual weakness given but the sentence or two that follow. It is here that you get to sound balanced and intelligent and if skilled enough, steer the discussion onto more comfortable ground like you say.

  • Very informative Leo,

    Having had some, albeit limited experience in this regard, I’d venture that you can give pretty much any response to this question and the response you’ll get is highly dependent on your interviewers and whether you’ve managed to get them on your side early on.

    I’ve had both good and bad responses using the same stock answers in different interviews.

    • Probably right, but it’s an answer worth preparing for. Under pressure many candidates say something silly and fail to make any good follow up points.

      The reason behind this article is that this is a very badly answered question on the whole (hence differentiates candidates well) and so the advice above should help you shine above the competition quite easily.

  • I’ve read that saying something funny works well as nobody really expects a valid weakness to be given anyway. As you say, you can jeopardise your chances by being too honest!

    Any thoughts?

    • I’ve also read that and heard of success from others.
      My own view is that it is very risky and highly dependent on the panel members who can often contain some very uptight individuals indeed.
      I’ve seen attempts at humour go pear shaped and I’ve been interviewed and had my own efforts to be funny go disastrously wrong, such that I was unable to recover the interview.
      I wonder if anyone else has examples?

  • Is coming from an underprivileged background such as a poor performing school a worthy weakness to mention?

    Surely it shows you’ve had more of a challenge that the typical applicant etc

    • Good point Syma but I think the examples in the article are safer.

      However, in the current political climate you could play your idea well depending on how you word it. If it comes out wrong it could sound terrible though.

      Perhaps say that you come from a non-medical family background and a school which had no tradition of getting students to medical school. Therefore you had fairly limited insights until you went on work experience and after that your desire to read medicine meant that you overcame any other obstacles without much hardship. That then allows you to focus on your commitment and passion for medicine that enabled you to get here.

      A point of caution. Don’t focus on the hardship too much. Let them read between the lines. It’s hard for everyone these days – even those from public school – and nobody likes a whinger.

  • Truly unique info for med school interviews.

    This is the sort of thing you ought to cover more of. Standard interview advice doesn’t help beat the competition whereas this most definitely does!