On How My Greatest Weakness Interview Response Has Changed, Thanks To The Recession

The interview question job seekers most frequently hear (and consequently dread), “What is your greatest weakness?”, is becoming more and more difficult for me to answer. Not, of course, because I am without faults, but because I have been forced to confront my biggest faults and fears on a daily basis during the job search in publishing, particularly the sort of faults interviewers and future bosses want to hear about:

– A need for order (since I’m a compulsive organizer)

– Fear of not meeting expectations or living up to my full potential (linked often with “caring too much”)

– Fear of rejection

– Dislike of talking about myself incessantly (is that a flaw? In interviews it is since at least 50% of the interaction is about me.)

These are not at all unique weaknesses, but I also doubt any of my interviewers care to hear about my more obscure faults like a fear of heights and ladders. Or listening to a CD repeatedly until I get so sick of it I can never listen to it again. (For the record, I don’t think of my reliance on overt sarcasm as a weakness. Or my brutal honesty. Those are just part of the package.)

So what do I tell an interviewer when they inevitably ask this question? In one of my first interviews, I answered “compulsive organizing.” She asked why I considered that a fault, because she thought it a virtue. I replied, “When you think of a handwritten planner or the internet as messy, it becomes a fault.” She laughed.

On one of my other early interviews, I replied instead, “my fear of not meeting my boss’s and my own high expectations.” At this point, I had been job-searching for about a month, and I was quickly recognizing that even my greatest and most borderline OCD systems of order were breaking down. Not because I wasn’t still ridiculously good at organizing things, but because I realized how difficult (read: impossible) organizing my job search and application process was becoming. Since I didn’t like sending out generic cover letters or resumes (unless the job itself wasn’t very specific or the company wanted a general letter and resume), I now had folders of sent CVs and letters, a few unmarked. Online was worse. Since most companies require applicants to create an account on their employment website and work off a blank application, I had a ridiculous number of accounts across a broad spectrum of websites. Some companies required email applications. Others only allowed for snail mail. Some wanted you to follow up with a phone call. Some had automated response forms, while others never got back to you to confirm they received your application. So many different systems. It’s not like college or law school where all of the applications were practically identical and there is a common application for all.

No, this is the “real world.” And it’s messy. Confronting my fear of messiness wasn’t pretty, but I found a way to sort through the madness. I was still a neat freak, but I no longer panicked at the thought of the disorder involved with the process. I decided to be flexible and devise a new way to track all of my applications and all the unique (some quite archaic) systems companies use.

So when it came to the question at this interview, my main flaw was clearly no longer “compulsive organizing,” since I had been forced to conquer it. No, I supposed I had moved on to my slightly less problematic flaw of a “fear of not meeting expectations.” But my interviewer didn’t think that was a real weakness: “That just means you work hard and care about succeeding.”

Although it can signify something more positive, it is an awful fear to have. I’m sure many of my peers share it, at least the privileged ones among us who were raised on a conveyer belt – or by parents who assumed we would work hard, get good grades, go to a good college, find a high-paying job, go to grad school, marry, and have kids, all by the age of 30 (more or less). Many of us have been expected to excel since birth. Even more of us have been constantly told by parents, relatives, and teachers that we’re smart and talented. The underlying assumption is that we cannot and will not fail. So applying for jobs and being rejected by ones you really wanted is then especially heartbreaking. When facing rejection, not only are we letting ourselves down, but our parents, family, and friends, as well as their very high expectations for us. When I got my first few job rejections, I was crushed. I felt somehow cheated. I was perfect for that job. I had a great connection with my interviewer. It was a perfect fit. I wondered and analyzed (over-analyzed) what might have gone wrong. Should I have emphasized my role in changing the quality of my college paper more? Was it a mistake to have mentioned my disdain for vampire sagas?

After my third crushing rejection, I started to wonder if it wasn’t me, but the economy. Too many people are competing against me, that’s it. They probably had more internships than I did. Maybe they went to an Ivy, I postulated. As I faced my fourth rejection, I actually asked the interviewer (rejecter), “if you don’t mind my asking, what else could I have done to get this job offer?” She seemed slightly surprised by my question, but replied: “Had four years of full-time work experience.”

Now, keep in mind that these interviews were all for entry-level jobs in publishing and marketing, two highly competitive fields, recession or no recession. Of course, these are also industries hit hard by the recession. OK, so now I knew it wasn’t (necessarily) my personality, appearance, or awkward giggle that wasn’t sealing the deal. It was the economy and the competitive industries. That helped my self-esteem some, but it didn’t help quell my fear of not meeting expectations or living up to my full potential. How could I do either if I needed to have a job in order to get a job? Although this dilemma has continued to plague me, I soon began to accept it, realizing that there are other ways to achieve experience. And in the meantime, I have to hope as the economy improves, someone will recognize my potential and “take a chance” on someone who actually fits a job description. This someday being when highly-qualified, more experienced people can keep their higher-tiered jobs.

Although I can’t imagine myself using my “fear of rejection” flaw as a response to a question at an interview (I mean, that’s awkward given they are in a position to accept or reject you), I have also grown less fearful about the prospect of being rejected. I’ve even taken started to take chances by applying to jobs I might previously have thought wouldn’t hire me based on their reputations for hiring former interns or others from within. My thought process now is, Why not apply? What’s the worst they can do, reject me?

The idea of rejection doesn’t give me a nervous tick anymore or make me second guess myself. So if you want to be blunt (and possibly a bit unfair), you could say that I have, like most job seekers, lost my fear of rejection but taken on an elevated self-esteem. (Case in point: I still hate talking about myself incessantly, but I have been speaking in first person for 99% of this article. So maybe I am, like with all the other difficult parts of the job search process, coming to terms with that as well since it’s necessary for interviews.) In fact, the whole job application process itself is quite arrogant. By clicking the “submit” button on a job application, the applicant is telling the employer, I am qualified enough for that job. You should hire me and no other. What is that but presumptuous? I guess that is one negative trait all of us job-seekers have been picking up with this constant daily process of search, write, submit.

This form of arrogance is quite different, however, from the type my generation is purported to have – the privileged assumption proliferated by magazines and newspapers that Generation Y believes we are good enough for all jobs and that any company should be grateful to have us. I haven’t seen much of this exaggerated form, thankfully. But newspapers and magazines once loved to tell us this was Generation Y’s ugly stereotype (as USA Today wrote in 2005 – pre-Recession – “They’re young, smart, brash. They may wear flip-flops to the office or listen to iPods at their desk. They want to work, but they don’t want work to be their life.”) by assuming an entire generation was the privileged child of helicopter parents. This is not reality. Some recent articles have praised the Recession, if not for all of the ugliness it has caused, including job loss and home foreclosures, but for the fact that it has made Generation Y “grow up” and learn about hardship. (Nothing like trivializing the long-term effect this will have on my generation’s future employment or its effect on the less privileged.) I wouldn’t say this is true. Problems have escalated for the less privileged, while the highly privileged have still excelled. It’s the middle class who has been forced to learn hard lessons earlier.

I would never say (or admit) the Recession or competitive job market has personally changed me for the better, or that this is a worthwhile means for me to grow and come to terms with my shortcomings. I wouldn’t wish this upon my future children. I’m sure I would have come to terms with all of my weaknesses at some time or another, just maybe not this soon, not all at once, and not within such a frighteningly short period.

In fact, the job search’s influence on my faults has also had a surprisingly negative, rather than positive effect. Now my interviews are just that much harder to navigate now that I have lost all four of my trusty answers to that infamous question. I guess it’s time to dig deeper.

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Claire S. Gould

Claire is a social justice communications nerd by day and a bookish feminist blogger by night. She runs the popular blog Bibliofeminista as well as Today in Women's History, a project celebrates a woman in history every day. Outside of work, blogging, and volunteering, Claire enjoys consuming caffeine, making and appreciating art, watching classic films, and endlessly discussing progressive politics.

5 thoughts on “On How My Greatest Weakness Interview Response Has Changed, Thanks To The Recession”

  1. In fact, the whole job application process itself is quite arrogant. By clicking the “submit” button on a job application, the applicant is telling the employer, I am qualified enough for that job. You should hire me and no other. What is that but presumptuous?
    That’s my huge hurdle when I’m in the job search. I look at the list of qualifications they want and there’s always something I don’t have or know: a specific program, a degree (I’m on an extended break… extended going on 8 years). My husband always tells me that those lists are just what they want in an ideal world, and that you should never apply for a job you’re only qualified for, but I can’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t be applying for one thing or another.

    1. I hate that one! It’s so loaded! I mean, most people are just looking for some steady income right now, so do you give the honest answer and say what you really want to do, or a BS answer about wanting to spend the rest of you life behind a reception desk at Sproket’s Widgets?

  2. Also, thank you for writing this; I’m in the middle of a job search now (just sent off another copy of my resume!), and it’s good to know that I’m not alone in just wanting to organize my job applications but not having any information on what’s going on once they receive it.

  3. My standard response is that I am geographically challenged. I am completely and wholly dependent on my GPS (Google Maps will work in a pinch, and I have it on my phone in case my GPS fails). At one of my previous jobs, they always had me read over any directions they were going to send out. Why? Because if I could make sense of them, then anyone could.

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