Investment Banking Tough Interview Questions: How To Answer the “Greatest Weakness” Question

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Weakness Interview QuestionKatie Couric: What one personal flaw do you think might hinder your ability to be president?

Barack Obama: I don’t think there’s… a flaw that would hinder my ability to function as president. I think that all of us have things we need to improve. You know, I said during the primary that my management of paper can sometimes be a problem.”

-Pre-Election Interview Between Barack Obama and Katie Couric

Ah, the “greatest weakness” interview question.

If even Barack Obama – one of the world’s greatest masters of spin – can’t even come up with a good answer to this one, what hope do you have?

It’s one of the most difficult and controversial questions in interviews, but if you follow the guidelines here you’ll at least be able to give a better response than Obama – and you’ll land an offer or 2 in the process.

Why Weaknesses?

This question – and its many variants, such as “What are your 3 greatest weaknesses?” and “What constructive criticism have you received?” – is a silly one to ask in interviews because:

  • 90% of the time interviewees give non-answers that tell you nothing about their abilities.
  • The other 10% of the time, they give a legitimate weakness or say something ridiculous that sinks their chances, even if they could actually do the job well.

But that doesn’t mean you won’t get the question anyway – bankers, after all, are from rational.

It’s arguably the toughest “fit” question to answer because:

There are 2 schools of thought on how to answer the weakness question in interviews:

  1. Give a BS answer like “I work too much” or “I’m too much of a perfectionist.”
  2. Give a legitimate weakness, like saying that you sometimes lose focus when working on extended projects, or that you have trouble delegating work to others, and then show how you’ve been working to improve yourself.

Which One is Correct?

Neither one – or at least, neither one is the best way to answer this question.

Giving a non-answer like the examples in #1 won’t necessarily sink your chances, but the interviewer may stop you mid-sentence and call your bluff, or tell you that you should give a real weakness rather than a fake one.

Some suggest that you should give a non-answer like this because the “weakness” question is just a test of your BSing abilities, which are critical in banking.

I don’t agree with that because the entire interview is a test of your ability to spin the facts and make yourself look better – there’s no need to ask a question like this just to test your ability to spin.

Giving a legitimate weakness that affects your ability to do the job could go either way – occasionally the interviewer will appreciate how you gave a real weakness, but more often than not they will doubt your ability to do the job if you say something that hits too close to home (e.g. you have poor attention to detail).

And the last thing you want to do in an interview is plant a seed of doubt in the mind of the interviewer.

What NOT to Say

As with fashion, cover letters, and grades (bankers like to weed out people with negatives), this question is more about avoiding a bad response than giving a good one.

You should avoid non-answers, answers that show a lack of self-respect, joke answers, and legitimate weaknesses that impair your ability to be a banker:

  • “I work too hard!” (non-answer)
  • “I’m a perfectionist and expect too much of others.” (non-answer)
  • “I go to a non-target school. / I’m not a finance major.” (lack of self-respect)
  • I have chronic back pain / other physical problems.” (TMI)
  • “I can’t multi-task well.” (please give up on being a banker right now)
  • “I’m not good with numbers.” (you will get tossed out of the interview)
  • “I’m too shy.” (this just sounds weird)
  • “I have no weaknesses!” (non-answer / joke answer)
  • “I voted for [Name] / I’m [Religion Name] religion” (this shows poor judgment)

You may think these sound ridiculous, but I’ve heard variations of everything here mentioned in real interviews and mock interviews.

I know someone will now leave a comment below and say that they gave one of these answers in an interview and it actually worked – and that may happen sometimes, depending on whether your answer was just bad or really bad.

Reading the Interviewer

If the interview is going well and you’ve been joking around and talking about non-work-related topics for awhile, your chances of getting away with a joke answer go up.

But you must make sure that your delivery indicates that it’s a joke – if you say it completely straight-faced and don’t laugh afterward, they may assume you’re serious when you triumphantly shout, “I have no weaknesses!”

Unless you’re extremely skilled at interviews and reading people – and if you’re a university student, there’s a 98% chance you’re not – I would stay away from these answers and try a different approach instead.

Criteria for “Less Bad” Answers

There’s still no good answer to this question, but there are answers that are “less bad” than others.

Here’s what you need for a solid answer:

  1. Your weakness has to be legitimate – no perfectionism, chronic back pain, or claiming that you have no weaknesses.
  2. But it can’t affect your ability to be an investment banking analyst or associate – so please don’t say that you can’t work long hours, that you easily forget about details, or that you have trouble working in a team.
  3. And it also has to be something that you’ve been actively working to improve.

Take Me to the Examples, Please

Most advice stops here and doesn’t present sample responses you could give in an interview. So we’re going to fix that by providing not 1, but 3, example answers you could give.

Before you leave a comment saying, “OMGWTF that answer is stupid!!!!” realize that none of these answers is perfect, or even “good” – rather, they are “less bad” alternatives to the really bad answers above.

“Sometimes I Get Too Hung Up on the Details and Don’t See the Bigger Picture.”

The main problem is that this could come across as a non-answer depending on how you phrase it – there’s a thin line between “getting lost in the details” and “working too hard.”

If you want to use this one, you need to give an example of how this affected something real – you were so focused on getting the numbers perfect in one part of the project that you didn’t pay enough attention to the live presentation and lost the audience’s attention in the beginning since you weren’t organized.

But since then, you’ve been working to better allocate time and keep your presentations organized.

This one is good because it’s legitimate, or at least quasi-legitimate, and it doesn’t hurt your ability to be a banker as much as poor attention to detail or inability to multi-task would.

The main downside is that some bankers will see this one as BS and ask you for something real – at which point you could go into a specific example like the one above, or give another sample response here instead.

“I Don’t Have Much / Any Investment Banking or Finance Experience.”

Some bankers will see this one as a non-answer because no one entering the field has experience – but plenty of incoming bankers have had internships before.

The bigger risk is that it may come across as “too real” – so you need to follow-up and talk about how you’ve been getting up to speed and learning a lot on your own, via friends, training programs, and other sources.

You could also point out while no one has full-time experience, some people have had internships where they learned the ropes.

You have to be really careful with the wording because you don’t want to discount yourself – don’t say, “I was an engineering major and not a finance major, so everyone else knows more than me.”

Say, “I haven’t had as much finance experience as other people, so I’ve been working to get up to speed and learn more on my own.”

There’s a subtle difference between this answer and the “I’m not a finance major” one in the Responses to Avoid: the answer here relates to experience, which is at least partially beyond your control, while the other one relates to your major, which is more within your control.

“I’m Not Good at Public Speaking.”

This is a legitimate weakness that hurts your ability to advance in some fields of business – like sales or executive positions – but which is not critical for entry-level investment banking roles.

You do have to communicate via email, on the phone, and in-person all the time as an analyst or associate – but you rarely, if ever, present to large audiences in-person.

Once again, some interviewers may call your bluff and say it’s not a real weakness because public speaking is not critical as a banker – in which case you can use one of the other suggestions above instead.

For this one you should also mention something more specific than “not being good” at public speaking – you get too nervous, you go on for too long, or you don’t properly allocate time – and then say how you’ve been improving (practicing, classes, Toastmasters Club, etc.).

One-Time & Non-Recurring Questions and Footnotes

You won’t always get the exact “What’s your greatest weakness?” question. Other variations include:

  • “What are your 3 greatest weaknesses?”
  • “What are your 3 greatest weaknesses? I know the first 2 will be BS, so give me 3.”
  • “What would your friends say about you?” (Strengths and weaknesses)
  • “What flaw do you have that could hurt your ability to do this job?” (The Obama question)

None of these is much different or more difficult than the original question.

Explaining your strengths is easier than giving your weaknesses (give a strength that’s highly relevant to IB, like quantitative ability, and then a specific example of when you used it), so there’s not much to say there.

For the questions where you’re asked to give multiple weaknesses, you could give 2 “non-answers” for the first 2 weaknesses, and then give a real weakness for the last one – if they expect you to do that anyway, you might as well play along.

You might get called out on the “Obama” weakness question if you say something like public speaking, so be prepared with something that’s more relevant to banking, such as lack of experience.

Your Greatest Weaknesses?

So what’s your greatest weakness?

Hopefully your answer doesn’t start with “None” or include “the management of paper.”

And you might just get the offer, even if you still can’t win a US presidential election.

About the Author

is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys learning obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, and traveling so much that he's forced to add additional pages to his passport on a regular basis.

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146 Comments to “Investment Banking Tough Interview Questions: How To Answer the “Greatest Weakness” Question”

Comments

  1. nite says

    Im going to attend interview for post of service engineer
    Is this worth:
    1)most of the time i dont prefer to speak in loud voice because when i speak louder i get stammering problem more(im a stammerer)

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Try your best to speak slowly and calmly – you don’t need to speak too loud to get your message across.

  2. Kat says

    Would it portray me in a bad light to say that I put too much pressure on myself to succeed which causes unnecessary stress? When I have a lot of things on my plate like multiple exams, papers, work, and other commitments I push myself to succeed in everything and become incredibly stressed. In the end, I typically have been able to balance everything and achieve everything I set out too achieve, but I’m hell to deal with for the week or so where I’m feeling anxiety.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Yes it is a decent response. You may want to elaborate on how your weakness cause trouble in teamwork situations, how you’re aware of the consequence, and what you’ve been doing to “improve” your weakness.

    • Brent says

      No, this is a terrible response because it communicates that you lack time management skills and the emotional maturity to deal with the stress without it affecting the way you interact with others. Nobody wants to hire somebody that is unpleasant and easily irritable during peak workloads.

  3. Jeff Charles says

    Could i say something along the lines of…” i am hesitant to ask for help” i have a phone interview for a position at target and i’m trying to find a good legitimate answer

    • M&I - Nicole says

      You can say that you’re a very independent person and you like to rely yourself to find solutions to problems. While this is a good thing, it can sometimes be a con because of XYZ reason. And knowing that you’ve been taking XYZ steps to work on that

  4. jonathan says

    Hello M&I,

    One of my weaknesses is that I am too critical of things sometimes, how do i spin this into a strength?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      You can just say that while you produce great work given your high expectations of yourself and others, you can be perceived as too critical at times. You realize that so you are [Talk about what you're doing to "rectify" this in one brief sentence]

  5. Fernando says

    What about time management? Saying that led to subpar grades but over the last semester I achieved a 3.9 GPA , juggled through two banking internships and pledged a fraternity? Would that be a good way to spin it

  6. says

    Thanks.
    To be honest, its a horrible question that deserves good preparation.
    Unless you’re lucky and the interviewer doesnt care too much for your answer and understands its a tough question, there are good chances you will not pass the interview if you fail to answer this properly.

    I interviewed for a BIG 4 firm, it was actually my first serious interview ever out of university. The whole day of exercises went well. At the end of the day, I was exausted but the hardest part came: An interview with #1 and #2 of the local agency. These guys were extremely serious and seriously evaluating every answer I gave, there was no “winging it” or anything like that.

    Then came the weakness question. Give us your top 3 strength and then top 3 weaknesses. Strengths I managed to wing it.
    Weaknesses I honestly couldnt give a good answer. Again I was out of university and a total interview rookie.
    The best I could say was the perfectionist line, which honestly to me sounded like a real weakness of mine at the time. The two directors seriously started arguing with me. One of them said “Thats not a weakness” with a serious air of contempt. I then seriously attempted to find other weaknesses, and ended up blurting out that I could be stubborn, which I think was the final nail in the coffin.

    After a whole great day of interviews, decent/average numerical tests results, I am absolutely certain this was what made me fail. Its vicious and disappointing.

  7. Mario Puzo says

    I love your site, but this is the first article I thought you folks could have done better with — I thought some of the ones you shot down aren’t -that- bad, and that there could be some more room for diversity. Granted, it’s a very tough subject and you’re the expert here.

    Would it be valid to say ‘I tend to be blunt at times, to the point of not being politically correct if I’m not careful’ ?

    (I have a tendency to make off-color jokes. On the other hand, I like to think of myself as impartial and give compliments as often as put-downs.)

    Anyway, I think it’s impressive you answer every comment. Thanks for the great site

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Yes, Mario, this is a valid answer, though I’d also add how you’ve improved over the years so it mitigates the negative effect of your politically correct comment.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Yes this is a decent one, though may not be as believable. They may ask you to elaborate or give another weakness.

  8. Brent says

    I’m not an HR professional, but I’ve never had a problem with this question. The general principle that I follow is the following based on what makes sense to me in the logical spaces of my mind: Whenever you are asked to talk about your flaws, make sure they are flaws that are born out of lackluster habits or poor guidance, and not flaws born out of bad character. Never speak badly of your character. This distinction is crucial because when your flaws are born out of character (which we all have, but don’t want to talk about), they are extremely difficult to change, if at all. However, when your flaws are born out of bad habit or poor guidance, they can be changed, sometimes from one day to another.

    Here are some of the things you can say in response to this question:

    You can say that you could improve the way you manage your time. The way you manage your time could be following lengthy to-do lists, and you would like to evolve that into weekly planning, or perhaps eventually monthly planning to have a better vision of what you want to accomplish during the month. But that you find that difficult because things come up and you have to fit them into your schedule immediately, although you are working to improve your ability to predict these exceptions.

    Another thing you can say is that you are sometimes perceived as introverted and disconnected from other colleagues because you are generally quiet in the workplace. But this is more of a misperception because during the first few weeks of work, you like to listen attentively and understand the way “things work” at the company, before actually giving opinions about procedures or trying to make helpful suggestions.

    You could also say that sometimes it takes you longer to submit assignments because you like to think deeply about the different possible solutions before deciding on which path to take. You think this comes from academia engraining in your head the urge to find various solutions to the same problems. And that you think this urge may be a hindrance to your productivity in the long-run. But that you are trying to find the balance between acting quickly on business problems but also making sure that the decisions you are making are the most effective. You think that your ability to do this will come with more work experience.

    You enjoy helping your colleagues with ad-hoc projects on your spare time, but find that most of the time they will keep asking you for more and more until you can no longer keep up with your own work. And that you find it difficult to say no sometimes. But you are working on the delicate balance between fulfilling your own job responsibilities, being available when your colleagues need you, and knowing when to put the “do not disturb” sign on your desk when appropriate.

    Whatever you do, don’t say that you can be stubborn, or annoying, or a perfectionist, or that you get annoyed at people, or that you can be unethical “sometimes”, or that you are willing to lie if it helps the company. Hope this helps.

  9. A.J says

    How about saying…My biggest weakness is that i tend to use a bit of sarcasm or pun in my sentences…this with a smile ????

    • M&I - Nicole says

      This is not exactly “professional” – you need to talk about your professional weakness and be able to spin it so it seems like you’ve overcome that weakness and that it doesn’t really affect your work

  10. Nik says

    I’ve given 4-5 interviews so far (unsuccessfully), and my answer to this question is that I tend to get lost in the little things, the little details and sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. I am working to change this by giving a few minutes to plan out how much time needs to be given to each aspect of a project before I move on or re-strategize.

    Bad answer?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      It’s a decent answer. I’m not sure how you conveyed yourself so it’s hard to say which question/which area led you to not perform well in interviews

      • Nik says

        All these interviews were between 2 firms. One said they have hired someone else. So I believe it was a matter of them finding a better suited individual for the position than me. The other one called me for yet another round. Waiting in their lounge right now! Interview in 15 minutes.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      I wouldn’t be too personal…personal enough that it is professional. Always talk about something work related.

  11. Cindy says

    I have been out of the interviewing world for some time and going back on the job hunt! I could use some feedback for the answer I came up with to “What are your weaknesses?”
    When under pressure I sometimes tend to doubt myself and can overthink a final decision but I have been working on learning to trust my instinct and not to second guess myself because sometimes there are no right or wrong answers.

    I can come off a little strong when I am requesting something from someone but I in no way demand or boss people around, and I have acknowledge that I need to soften my tone because others may percieve it wrong.

    • says

      That is probably OK, it’s a decent weakness but may or may not be that relevant depending on the roles you’re going for. I think you’d have to also emphasize that being in a team setting helps you make those final decisions and avoid second-guessing yourself, which is perfect for this company because…. [Insert reason here and highlight the strength of the team.]

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Cindy, the first part is decent. However, for the second part, I’d leave out “I in no way demand or boss people around”.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Yes but I don’t think this is as relevant and they may press you for more info i.e. what exactly is your weakness, they may ask?

  12. Hans says

    Hi, thank you for this article. it is very useful

    I thinking to answer that answer with ” Im not to good in english” ( I’m interviewed in Indonesia, a country in south-east asia. The interviewer most likely will be indonesian people also)

    is this will be a eligible answer?

    thank you for your attention

    regards

    • M&I - Nicole says

      You can just say that English is your second language so there are times when your communication skills can be improved.

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