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How to talk about weaknesses in MBA essays and interviews

How to talk about weaknesses in MBA essays and interviews

“I have my flaws. I sing in the shower, sometimes I volunteer too much, occasionally, I’ll hit somebody with my car.”

– Michael Scott, Regional Manager, Scranton Branch, Dunder Mifflin Paper Company.

In two delightfully short sentences, Michael Scott from The Office, with his trademark humor, summed up the contradictions and complexities involved in confronting that most confounding of all corporate questions – tell us about your weaknesses.

Talking about weaknesses in your MBA essay and interview is like walking a tightrope. Talk too less and you end up looking arrogant, like Michael Scott. Talk too much and you start sounding like an agony aunt column in an adolescent magazine, also like Michael Scott.

Is there a sweet spot somewhere in between that is just right and that isn’t Michael Scott?

Yes, there is, and we are here to tell you how to hit it.

Why do you need to talk about your weaknesses anyway?

Most MBA essays have a section that requires you to talk about your strengths and weaknesses. Alternatively, there might be a section where you are asked to describe a situation where you failed or talk about a time when you received criticism for your work and how you handled it.

The same set of questions could be posed to you in an interview as well.

Strengths are easy to talk about. You know what you’re good at and you can talk about it endlessly. Talking about weaknesses is the tricky part.

The admissions committee judges your answers to evaluate two things – how self-aware you are, and how well you bounce back from failure. The point to really understand here is that you are applying to a school. A business school, yes, but a school nonetheless. A school is a place where you go to learn things. And you only learn things you do not know yet, or which you aren’t very good at yet.

To put it simply, the admissions committee wants to hear about your weaknesses so that you enter school and learn to improve upon them.

It follows that what the admissions committee wants to see in your essay or hear from you in the interview are two things – an awareness of what your weaknesses are, and a capacity or a will to improve upon them provided the right guidance and environment.

Knowing this is the key to crafting a great response to the adcom’s questions.

So how do you put this knowledge into actionable items?

Below is a 7-point checklist on what to do and what not to do when talking about your weaknesses in MBA essays and interviews.

  1. Don’t take it personally
  2. Be original
  3. Don’t hide your weaknesses
  4. Don’t try to turn a positive into a negative
  5. Don’t dwell on your weaknesses too much
  6. Avoid freudian slips, red flags, alarm bells
  7. Take it easy

Let’s try to understand what each one means.

How to Talk About Weaknesses in MBA Essays and Interviews

 

1. Don’t Take it Personally

Your MBA essay is not your personal diary and your interviewer is not your therapist. While it’s a good habit to keep a diary and try therapy for self-improvement, your MBA essay/interview is not the right place for these.

When the adcom asks you to talk about your weaknesses, what they have in mind are your weaknesses or failures in a professional setting. They aren’t very interested in your character flaws or your life struggles unless they have a direct bearing on your professional performance.

So what you are expected to describe here are situations at your workplace, or examples from your academics where you struggled.
 

2. Be Original

This one’s a little obvious but it bears repeating. Only talk about weaknesses that you really have. Do not try to mention a weakness simply because it sounds cool, or because you heard someone else talk about it and get through.

Remember how in school, when we were asked our hobbies, half the class would say listening to music and playing cricket?

And then there would be one wiseguy ( it was almost always a guy for some reason) who, refusing to be dragged down to the level of average Joes and plain Janes possessing mundane hobbies, would come up with a hobby no one had ever heard of, simply to sound cool. Like lepidopterology.

Don’t be that guy in your MBA essay.

It is perfectly fine to have perfectly ordinary hobbies like listening to music and playing cricket. It is also perfectly fine to have outrageously unheard of hobbies like lepidopterology. Just make sure that whatever you say, you mean it. If you talk about a certain weakness, you need to make sure that it is something you’ve lived through.

Oh, and a lepidopterologist, by the way, is a butterfly collector.

Read more on the best extracurricular activity for college admissions.

3. Don’t Hide Your Weaknesses

Remember how Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones advised wearing your weaknesses like armor so no one could use them against you?

He had a point.

Everyone has weaknesses. If you try to hide yours, the admissions committee will see right through it.

Instead, be honest and talk about your weaknesses openly. You can even use them as an opportunity to show how you’ve grown and changed over the years.

For example, let’s say you have a weakness in math. You can talk about how you used to struggle with math in school and how you had to work hard to improve your skills. You can talk about how you’re now much better at math and how you’ve even been able to help other people improve their own math skills.

This shows that you’re honest about your weaknesses and that you’ve taken steps to improve upon them.
 

4. Don’t Try To Turn a Positive Into a Negative

This is a classic mistake, related closely to the previous point that a lot of candidates make. It involves describing as a weakness something that is not usually considered a flaw.

For instance, when you mention things like being a perfectionist, or being too kind, or working too hard, what you are in effect doing, is dressing up desirable qualities to pass them off as weaknesses.

This feels disingenuous, like trying to stick colorful feathers on a chicken to pass it off for a peacock.  Your interviewer can easily turn it around into a sticky situation and trap you.

Imagine the following exchange:

Interviewer: What is your biggest weakness?
You: I think I am too kind.
Interviewer: I don’t think kindness is a weakness. I think it is a strength.
*awkward silence*

To avoid this trap, instead of saying you’re too kind, you need to phrase it to convey that you lack the firmness to deal with people or that you’re not very good with people skills.

In other words, call a spade a spade.

5. Don’t Dwell on Your Weaknesses Too Much

This follows directly as a counter to the previous point. When talking about your weaknesses, don’t overdo them. You need to keep a balance.

For example, let’s say you’re asked about a time when you failed. You don’t want to spend the whole interview talking about that one time you failed.

Instead, you want to focus on what you learned from that experience and how it made you a better person. This shows that you’re able to learn from your mistakes and that you’re not afraid to fail.

What you want to emphasize here is that you’re aware of your weaknesses and that you’re taking steps to improve upon them.

6. Avoid Freudian Slips, Red Flags, Alarm Bells

This one follows directly from the previous point. When you talk about your weaknesses, make sure you do not reveal more than is necessary.

An example?

Suppose you say something like you have trouble being fully functional at work until you have had your fourth cup of coffee.
Or
You say that you have trouble waking up most mornings and reporting to work.
Or
You say that you prepare all your PowerPoint presentations after 7 PM with a sundowner in hand.

All these are behavioral traits that can be viewed as being symptomatic of deeper mental or physical health issues. They are best kept away from an MBA essay or interview.

7. Take It Easy

Finally, don’t spend too much time figuring out the perfect weakness.We know this is a kind of a long and somewhat intimidating list, but once you sit down with a pen and paper to think things through, it will all come together naturally.

Remember, that everyone has weaknesses and that you’re not alone in this. Give it a good thought, but it shoudn’t sound too stressed.
 

 

Industry insider tips to answer the weakness question in Interviews

Some business schools do not specifically ask about strengths and weaknesses in their MBA essays. So how does the admissions committee judge these aspects?

“We practice holistic admissions and evaluate candidates across a wide array of behavioral-based evidence in their application packages,” says Erin O’Brien, assistant dean and chief enrollment and marketing officer in the University at Buffalo School of Management.

“We choose to explore a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses as part of our interview process, so that we can probe their responses in a deeper and more thoughtful way than limiting it to a written personal statement,” she adds.

We took the opportunity to dig a little deeper, and Erin had some interesting insights, advice and tips to share.

MCB: What advice do you have to applicants who are apprehensive about revealing their vulnerabilities during the interview?

Erin: Let’s face it, interviews for any graduate management program can be scary. While it’s a delicate balance, it’s also OK to reveal vulnerabilities during an interview – personally, I think it shows authenticity. So many interviews sound the same, and sometimes vulnerabilities can help positively differentiate you from the rest of the candidates. They have the power to show honesty, self-awareness, and a focus on continuous improvement – traits we strongly desire in our students. They can also show the human side of a candidate, beyond quantifiable academic performance statistics.

But, it’s best to be planned and directed when sharing vulnerabilities. As you prep for your interview, ask yourself how will sharing my weakness also provide evidence of something more positive – can I use it to frame resilience or persistence, skill or competency growth? Can I weave it into my motivation for applying to my graduate management program? And, make sure you include how you’ve worked to overcome this weakness or vulnerability, even if you haven’t quite solved it yet. Show how you have made the effort to improve. If you have actual results or behavior-based evidence of success, highlight them.

I think it is important to have guard rails, though, in this type of response. There are potential pitfalls if you choose to reveal a weakness or vulnerability that may be baseline required skills for entrance into the program. You’ll want to avoid those types of responses. Also, as with every answer in a graduate management admissions interview, don’t make anything up – be truthful and honest.

MCB: What are some of the top traits your team looks for in candidates that can help them get an admit in spite of weak areas like a low GMAT score or low GPA?

Erin: I tell candidates all the time, no one thing can rule you in or out. Just because you show up with a great standardized test score or outstanding undergraduate GPA, you still need to bring a portfolio of both cognitive and non-cognitive skills with you into your application. We want to see evidence of strong work experience, be it professional post-baccalaureate, volunteer or internship. We want to see behavioral-based evidence of skills like leadership, teamwork, communication, resilience, creativity, etc. We want to see positive progression, motivation and the ability to self-manage and adapt. These are all equally or sometimes even more important than GPA or test score.

Look at your application as a whole, an entire portfolio of elements. Draw a line between what may be a plus or a minus. If you have a minus, like a lower GPA or a lower test score, make sure you have a plus above the line that far outweighs any negative impact.

For example, if you have a lower GPA, but your undergraduate career was more than five years ago and you now have outstanding work experience showing lots of leadership potential, that’s going to minimize the negative impact of that GPA in our admissions decision-making. If you volunteered in a global experience, leading a team of others in a social impact project, that may far outweigh any negative impact from test scores.

Here’s an insider pro tip: you’re far more interesting than your GPA or test score. Tell us all about it. Chances are it will improve your potential of admission.

MCB: What is your advice to those who have career related issues including frequent career switching, career gaps or lay-offs?

Erin: My advice to applicants with resumes that may have gaps or frequent switches is really a call-back to my previous responses above: you are far more interesting than any single application data point.

Let’s start with lay-offs. Lay-offs happen – look at what’s happening in the tech world now. What I would want to know, as your interviewer, is, how did you pivot? This is a great opportunity to show resilience and creativity.

For gaps or career-switching, what is the story behind the gap or switch pattern? Was it intentional, e.g., did you purposefully make lateral moves to gain a wide variety of experience? Was it a condition of the industry in which you operate, e.g., were you in start-ups? What did you do with the gap time? How did you make it constructive and progressive? Was the switch or gap unintentional, e.g., is it a potential weakness?

Be truthful and honest…this may be an opportunity to showcase your adaptability and motivation for pursuing a graduate management degree, to hurdle the career plateau on which you found yourself switching job to job without advancement.

In the end, relative to all three questions and responses above, many applicants think business schools are looking for a homogenized portrait of traits and characteristics in the admissions process. Unfortunately, I think that’s a condition of being in a publicly-ranked market where applicants are trying to make themselves look like the “ideal” candidate.

However, that couldn’t be further from the truth! We are building a balanced cohort of different thoughts, perspectives and experiences for our programs. How boring would business school be if it were filled with only those who had the same profile – high test scores, similar experiences, the same type of work backgrounds.

How much more interesting will it be if you are in a cohort teamed with people who have vastly different opinions, points of view and backgrounds from yours, where you can learn new things from each other? Personally, I’d much rather be in that class.

 

To Sum Up

Talking about your weaknesses is a complex task that requires self-awareness to understand and nuance to express. It is for this reason that MBA essays and interviews want to hear it from you.

Even if you haven’t been asked to talk about your weaknesses in the MBA essay, it’s good to have a few examples of your weaknesses ready to go, so that you’re not caught off guard in the interview.

By being honest and prepared, you’ll be able to talk about your weaknesses in a way that will show the admissions committee that you’re aware of them and that you’re taking steps to improve upon them.

You also want to make sure that you don’t dwell on your weaknesses too much. Instead, focus on what you’ve done to improve upon them.

A word of caution: Often, this question on weaknesses works in conjunction with other topics in the application essays or interviews. This is where it gets trickier. So make sure you understand the implications of what you’re saying, to avoid conflicting with your other answers.

MBA Crystal Ball has top admission consultants to help you answer this and other questions in your MBA application in the most effective manner. Drop us an email, if you need professional help: info [at] mbacrystalball [dot] com
 
Also read:
How to write great MBA essays
Common mistakes to avoid in MBA application essays
How to answer questions on the long term and short term goals
Many more top MBA essay tips
Best admissions consultant for ISB for winning ISB essay tips

Image credit: The Office


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