A guide to assessing a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses for recruiters and hiring managers

A guide to assessing a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses for recruiters and hiring managers

All hiring managers like to believe they approach every interview with the utmost professionalism and laser focus.

But let’s be honest: If there was one question you’d zone out for when conducting an interview, you know which one it would be.

“What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?”

It’s cliché and an invitation for a pre-rehearsed answer. However, it’s one of the most important job interview questions you can ask. 

In this blog post, we’ll show you how to overcome this dilemma and assess candidates’ strengths and weaknesses accurately without being bored by canned answers.

Table of contents

How to use this guide

This guide is chiefly for hiring managers and recruiters who want to accurately assess candidates’ strengths and weaknesses in job interviews.

If you’re one of those candidates, this is still an informative read, but there’s a short section just for you at the end

If you’re a hiring manager or recruiter, good news – you’re in the right place. In this guide, we cover how to identify the strengths and weaknesses you’re looking for and give you tips for learning about them in an interview. You can also skip to the end to gain insights into the candidate’s perspective.

However, you’ll definitely want to read this article from top to bottom to get the most out of it.

Candidate strengths and weaknesses: a guide for recruiters and hiring managers

Knowing a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses is essential in determining whether they are a good match for your company. Before you even exert the effort to come up with creative ways to figure out these strengths and weaknesses, you also need to know the following… 

What strengths and weaknesses are you looking for in a candidate?

You first need to know what you’re looking for before you can accurately assess candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. To do that, you need to make sure you’re clear on the expectations of the role on offer (including the job description) and the business you’re hiring for.

It’s useful to start by identifying your organization’s core competencies, especially as an in-house hiring manager.

A core competency area is something your company does that defines its proposition. When they were originally defined in 1990, core competencies had to meet three requirements:

  1. They must apply to a wide variety of markets
  2. They need to benefit the customer
  3. They must be difficult for competitors to imitate

This list helps you identify the strengths that set great candidates apart from the rest.

Next, take a look at your goals over the coming weeks, months, and years, and perform a skills gap analysis to determine where you currently fall short.

Let’s say you’re looking for a social media manager. The core skills you need might include:

  • Copywriting 
  • Design
  • Customer service
  • Adaptability 
  • Project management
  • Platform knowledge

However, suppose one of your organization’s core competencies is creating engaging in-person events, and you want to translate this to the digital space. In that case, an extra-valuable strength might be audience management.

7 tips to ask better questions, get better answers, and hire the right talent

Most candidates have googled “how to answer common interview questions.” If they’re smart, they probably know not to answer a “What is your biggest weakness?” question by saying, “I’m just such a perfectionist” or “I am too detail-oriented.”

Instead, they might say something slightly different but equally humble-braggy, like, “I focus too much on details, and it can cause me stress when meeting a deadline.”

Still, the result is basically the same – these answers don’t provide a deep look into the candidate. 

But that’s not how it has to be. Here are seven tips to gain valuable insights into candidates’ strengths and weaknesses during the interview process.

1. Use pre-interview testing to inform your interview approach

The best time to start gathering information on your candidates’ skills is before the interview stage even starts, and the best method is using pre-employment exams

These online tests replace the usual CV-screening process as the first stage of job applications. They offer many advantages:

  • Subject-matter experts write questions that accurately measure relevant skills
  • They’re standardized, so you can easily compare and filter candidates
  • You can create a test that hits all the key areas you identified for the role

Skills assessments are one of the best measures for predicting job performance. According to a Google study, they’re more accurate than looking at a candidate’s work experience, checking their references, and even evaluating their interview performance.

A graph showing the predictors of job performance.

Instead of spending half the interview probing into whether they can actually do the things they say in their CVs, you can prioritize assessing the unique strengths and soft skills they can bring to the role.

Here’s an example of a test question you might set for that social media manager you’re looking for.

social media manager test screenshot  by TestGorilla

2. Use a structured interview approach

In a traditional, unstructured interview, you usually don’t have much of a plan. You might have some notes written down, but you probably don’t have specific questions planned out.

This approach has the advantage of making your conversation more spontaneous and organic. It’s a good way to find out unexpected things about the candidate. At later stages in the interview process, it can also be a good way of assessing how candidates would fit into your culture.

However, we advocate using structured interview techniques, especially in the earlier stages of candidate selection. In a structured interview, you create a template and:

  • Ask all candidates the same questions
  • Ask all questions in the same order 
  • Score each answer based on predetermined criteria
A graphic explaining what structured interviews are.

This method ensures that you ask every candidate about the list of strengths you’ve identified at the start of your hiring process.

It’s a great way to reduce bias in your hiring process and promote diverse hiring, especially when paired with pre-interview testing. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, it’s one of the best methods for achieving these aims.

HBR’s recommended best practices for reducing bias in the interview stage are to:

  • Score each answer directly after hearing it. If you leave scoring until later, you’ll just remember the most vivid examples, which don’t always equate to the best answers.
  • Compare candidates horizontally – that is, by comparing everyone’s answers to question one, then to question two, and so on. This helps you identify and compare exactly where candidates’ strengths and weaknesses lie.
  • If you have more than one interviewer, get them to submit their assessments before meeting to discuss candidates so that peer pressure doesn’t affect their answers.

Standardizing interview questions makes your shortlisting process easier and reduces overall bias. Imagine you’re conducting unstructured interviews for a role you know requires strong collaboration skills because the hire needs to work across two teams. 

You have an instant rapport with Candidate A. You talk a lot about their interests, and they seem like a good culture fit. (Look out for more on the pitfalls of this approach later.) You’re pretty sure they’d be a good team player based on the personality traits you observe, but you have no real evidence supporting your hunch.

Candidate B, on the other hand, is more serious. You ask them directly about collaboration skills, and they give you a good answer, but you’re not sure they’d gel with team members. 

How would you compare these two candidates? Probably by wasting time on further interviews, right? We rest our case.

3. Use a mix of situational and behavioral questions

Behavioral interview questions focus on what candidates have done in the past. They start with phrases like “Tell us about a time when…” and “What’s your process for…”

On the other hand, situational interview questions are all about hypothetical situations: what your candidate would do if they were confronted with a particular scenario. They start with phrases like “Imagine you were…” and “What would you do if…”

Take our earlier example of social media management. Here’s what behavioral and situational questions might look like if you wanted to test influencer management skills.

Question typeStarter phrasesExample for a social media manager role
Situational“Imagine you were doing x…”“What would you do if y problem occurred…”What criteria would you use when looking for appropriate influencers if we were to implement a brand ambassador program?
Behavioral“Tell us about a time when…”“What’s your process for…”Tell us about a time when you successfully leveraged an influencer partnership to improve brand awareness.

It’s never too soon to start implementing this strategy. Your peers are probably already doing it, and if you’re struggling for inspiration, don’t worry. We have lists of questions for pretty much any role you can think of.

4. Prime the question 

We can dance around it all we like, but sometimes you’re going to have to ask cliché questions like:

  • “Tell me about yourself.”
  • “Why do you want this job?”
  • “What’s your biggest strength?”
  • “What’s your biggest weakness?”

…and so on.

But just because you ask a cliché question doesn’t mean you have to get a cliché answer.

By priming the question – in other words, setting expectations so that candidates don’t just reach for easy answers – you can get responses that speak more directly to the things you want to know.

Here are ways you might prime the questions we outlined above.

Cliché interview questionWays to “prime” the question
“Tell me about yourself.”“…Something that I don’t know from your resume.”
“Why do you want this job?”“What personal goals will this role help you achieve?”
“What’s your biggest strength?”“…Something that you think other people in this role or industry don’t have that you do.”
“What’s your biggest weakness?”“I don’t want to hear an answer that turns it into a strength. I want to know where you need the most growth so that we can help you get better if we hire you.”

We know some of the above phrases are quite intense. But when presented right, they’ll not only jolt the candidate into giving a more thoughtful, spontaneous reply but also show them that you actually want to understand who they are.

5. Dig into the answer 

When asking broad questions, it’s a good idea to follow up with more probing questions to dig deeper into the candidate’s answer. Remember, you want to:

  1. Verify that there is evidence for their answer in their work history
  2. Assess their humility, self-awareness, and capabilities for self-reflection and self-criticism

Here’s how you might do this for a data analyst position.

Initial questionAnswerPotential follow-up questions
What’s your biggest strength – something that co-workers in this role might not have?I have strong presentation and communication skills. I’m proficient at translating complex data concepts into actionable insights.Tell us about a time you received recognition for these skills. Give us an example of a complex finding you translated for a layman audience.
What’s your biggest weakness? Rather than describing something that’s actually a strength, tell us about something that we could help you improve if we were to hire you.I only have a beginner’s knowledge of Python programming. I would need support and training to progress to bigger and more complex projects.Tell us about a time this caused issues in your work. How did you handle this? What proactive steps have you taken to fill in your knowledge gaps?

In your follow-up questions and throughout the interview, it’s essential to link candidates’ strengths and weaknesses not just to the role or team they’ll be joining but to the business as a whole.

This means assessing how much their strengths address the core competencies you identified at the outset of the hiring process and whether they would thrive within your company’s working setup.

For instance, you might ask a candidate who appears to have strong team-building and management skills to name three strategies they’ve implemented to run teams effectively in a hybrid environment. 

It also means considering whether you have the upskilling resources available to address their weaknesses. You might ask candidates if they’re familiar with your employee development programs and which parts interest them the most.

Perhaps most importantly, link questions to your company culture and values. One way to do this is to hire for culture add rather than culture fit. This is when, instead of aiming to replicate the strengths you already have in your team, you aim to diversify your organization’s overall skill set and ways of thinking.

Evidence shows that creating a diversity of thought in a team leads to deeper thinking than is possible in a homogeneous one – a phenomenon called “cognitive elaboration.”

This can lead to greater innovation and keeps your company culture from stagnating, especially when supported by pre-interview testing.

7. Look beyond the individual questions

Finally, make your questions multitask. 

Look at how candidates answer the questions and score candidates’ responses horizontally (comparing the content of their answers to each question individually).

For example, if you want to test a candidate’s ability to prepare, you should tell them the questions you’ll be asking beforehand. This might go against standard advice, but if preparation is a key strength for the role, it enables them to show you their proficiency in this area.

On the other hand, if you’re hiring for a role that requires candidates to think on their feet, use behavioral questions as a guide for how they respond to real-time problem-solving.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • How do they break down the problem? Do they work backward from the desired outcome, or do they work their way through step by step?
  • How do they communicate the solution? Do they tell you their whole thought process, or do they work it out silently before presenting an answer?
  • Do they ask questions, or do they try to work the problem out on their own?

If you’re conducting a video interview for a virtual role, this can also provide you with a chance to learn more about the candidate’s remote working skills.

For instance, you might focus on emotional intelligence questions, how they react to distractions, or how they compensate for the artificiality of a Zoom meeting.

We know this is a lot to compute on the spot, so when you’re crafting your structured or semi-structured interview questions, prioritize those that might be able to serve this dual function. 

Finally, don’t book interviews directly back to back – make sure you have time to jot down your overall impressions of each candidate while they’re still fresh in your mind.

Candidate strengths and weaknesses: a guide for job seekers

Maybe you’re not a hiring manager but a stressed-out candidate, and you want to make sure you’re prepared for your next interview. 

Here’s a crash course on how to shine in your job interview’s strengths and weaknesses section.

Why do recruiters ask these questions?

Obviously, recruiters want to know your strengths and weaknesses so that they can predict whether or not you’ll excel in the role. But let’s break down what that actually means:

Why they want to know your strengthsWhy they want to know your weaknesses
To assess how well you’d succeed in the role; To see which skills gaps you plug in their team; To find out if you could add to the company’s culture or promote innovationTo see if another member of the team could compensate for these areas; To ascertain if they have the necessary upskilling resources to help you grow

How should I answer “What is your greatest strength?”

Look, we’re not going to be one of those advice articles that gives you a cookie-cutter “examples of strengths” and “examples of weaknesses” answer. 

If you’ve read the rest of this post, you know that there’s no “right” answer to this question and that how you come across depends on many factors, including: 

  • The role’s requirements
  • The company culture 
  • The skill set of the team you’re joining

The best advice we can give you is to be honest, think critically about not just what your strengths are but which ones set you apart from other candidates, and finally, give clear examples of when you’ve actually shown this trait. 

How should I answer “What is your greatest weakness?”

You’ll find lots of advice online telling you to turn this question to your advantage. “Choose a weakness that’s secretly a strength” – like being a perfectionist, being too passionate or independent, or the boldest example answer of all: “I don’t have any weaknesses. My confidence helps me overcome anything.”


Here are ways you can describe your weaknesses to employers without putting them off:

  • Be prepared with examples of how you overcame this weakness when it tripped you up in your previous job.
  • Emphasize any formal training or mentorship you have undergone, whether inside or outside of work, to help you build strength in this area.
  • Research any development opportunities the company offers that would help you.
  • Set out your development targets in this area and how this might map onto your future at their business – for instance, using their learning and development opportunities to develop the necessary skills to move into a cross-functional role.

Use interviews as part of a holistic candidate selection process

We’ve talked a lot about how to find out what you need to know about candidates. But you’ve also answered a lot of your own questions too, including:

  • What strengths and weaknesses do I need to look for?
  • What preparation can I do pre-interview to discover these strengths and weaknesses?
  • What questions do I need to ask?
  • What other signs tell me more about candidates’ strengths and weaknesses?

That’s pretty good going!

Now, it’s time to learn about optimizing your candidate selection process.

Or you can get started on writing your first structured interview.

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