How to talk about your weaknesses without getting rejected
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:
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.
Tags: Interview, language, weakness
3 reasons your personal statement is making you look foolish and what to do about it
“Nothing gets our back up more than an unrealistic attitude to what a career in medicine is all about. We want to recruit competent future doctors, not disillusioned, depressed dropouts”
(Former admissions tutor at a UK medical school)
I’ve seen a great number of personal statements and one thing is clear. It is very easy to separate the clear winners from the clear losers. Apart from these there are those ‘in between’ statements who may get just about qualify for an interview but are highly likely to get shot down and rejected on the basis of one or two misjudged sentences.
The plan is to get shortlisted of course, but be aware that a large percentage of your interview will be based on your personal statement. Interviews will be stressful and that ridiculous line in your application will come up at some point of the interview. Don’t shoot yourself before you begin.
Mistake number 1: Unviable reasons for choosing medicine.
I’ve seen alot of statements recently that hinge around one pivotal life event such as a family bereavement (or worse still 9/11!) leading to a sudden desperation to become a doctor. This may make your statement easier to write, particularly if you’re finding it difficult to define your real reasons, but they rarely stand up to scrutiny.
So if you had surgery at a young age or your mother is on dialysis, mention it very briefly as a reason that sparked your interest but not as a sole cause. Better to mention how various aspects of a medical career appeal to you such as an interest in science, working with people, being able to provide effective interventions to solve problems etc. True or not, these are realistic and easy to justify at interview. Remember, your success in getting into medical school does not depend on having the most unique and awe-inspiring reason for wanting to be a doctor. If you are still struggling here, check out our article on how to explain why you want to go to medical school.
Mistake number 2: Poor English
Obviously poor grammar and spelling are a disaster and if you send off your application form with either of these problems you deserve to fail.
More commonly, applications are technically fine but are worded badly or use convoluted sentence structures. This often happens following multiple revisions of a statement by numerous well meaning people who know little about eloquence or sentence structure.
Keep your sentences short and sharp. Avoid cliches. Each clearly seperate paragraph should deal with a specific area of your application. Remember George Orwell’s rules
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Mistake number 3: Lies
Lies are more common than you might believe. They are also quite easy to spot, particularly under the glare of an interview. If you get found out you will lose out on the whole application for the current year and possible future years too, as word travels upstream quite fast.
More importantly, people who lie have usually misunderstood the whole point of the application process. Quite apart from any ethical considerations, there should be no need to lie. It is quite easy to make a half achievement from year 7, sound good enough to your reader by careful wording and some thought to what the admissions tutors are looking for. See the personal statement guide for examples of how to do this.
There are plenty of other mistakes people make, but the above are very common and really make you impossible to differentiate from the many many fools in this game.
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