The interesting thing about weaknesses is that they are not all created equal. When it comes to job search, some weaknesses are truly problematic (e.g. you have no formal training, experience or skill applicable to the position to which you are applying). Then, there are perceived weaknesses that can actually turn out to be strengths. To illustrate, let’s take a look at the story of “Jenn.”
Not too long ago, I had the privilege of working with Jenn, an international student for whom English was not a first language. When I first met her, Jenn shared that she felt quite self-conscious about her ability to speak English, which surprised me because I would have guessed that she studied and spoke English regularly in her native country. Though she has an accent, (and who doesn’t?), she was very easy to understand. I was surprised to discover that she learned to speak English only two years ago, when she arrived in the United States to begin her college career. As we continued our conversation, I encouraged her to re-think this perceived weakness (i.e. not being a native English speaker) and look for ways to re-frame it as a strength.
Jenn was applying for an internship with her college’s development office. A big part of her responsibilities would include expressing the value of her college education to potential donors. Jenn wondered if the fact that she was not a native English speaker would be a problem. Instead of being ashamed that she did not sound like a native English speaker, I suggested that Jenn be proud of and emphasize how quickly she learned to speak the language. (Keep in mind, Jenn is very easy to understand.) I further suggested that Jenn point out to the employer that, rather than being a detriment, her language skills would provide her with a concrete example of the ways her college education has benefited her.
Please don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that language skills are unimportant. My point is that if you are a job seeker, you should be aware of any weaknesses in your work history or skill set. Know what employers may identify as weaknesses, then ask yourself if the weakness is truly a problem. If so, begin taking steps to address it. If not, begin to identify ways to re-frame the weakness in a way that would benefit a potential employer. (This requires that you’ve researched the employer and are familiar with their needs.)
Here are a couple of additional examples of how a perceived weakness might be re-framed as a strength:
Perceived weakness: You have a liberal arts degree
Ideas for re-framing: Many employers understand the value of a liberal arts education, but you still need to be comfortable articulating its utility. Emphasize your ability to assess situations from multiple perspectives. Give examples of creative problem solving. Know why reading Plato, studying history, or writing about Jamaican politics might benefit this employer and/or their customers. Point out hands-on experience you gained through internships, volunteering, student organization involvement, etc.
Perceived weakness: You took a few years off after college before entering your industry/field
Ideas for re-framing: Describe the ways in which your time out of school has helped confirm your choice of career. Provide examples of how you kept your knowledge and skill set current. Know how your breadth of experience could benefit potential employers.
Perceived weakness: You worked in [retail/customer service/food service] rather than getting an internship related to your field
Ideas for re-framing: Don’t just say you needed the money! Even if this is true, be aware of how your experience can be a potential benefit to future employers. Emphasize your ability to multi-task. Discuss working with diverse populations. Highlight taking on increasing levels of responsibility.
Again, some weaknesses are going to be problematic no matter how you think about them or present them to employers, but take the time to take a second, or even a third or fourth, look at your weaknesses. Are there any that may only be perceived? Can any be re-framed as a benefit to a potential employer? If you’re honest and thoughtful in your analysis, you may find you have a few new strengths to add to your repertoire.