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Ask the Hiring Attorney: How do I answer questions about my strengths?

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Strengths

Q: I’m really worried about being asked about my strengths in a job interview. I hate to sound boastful and I’m not really good at tooting my own horn. How can I answer this question without feeling or sounding arrogant?

A: “What are your greatest strengths?” is a common interview question that makes job candidates struggle.

The question creates a two-fold problem.

Some job candidates aren’t accustomed to considering and articulating their strengths. Just thinking “I’m really great at…” makes them, like you, feel arrogant. The idea of actually saying to an interviewer, “I’m really great at…” makes them squirm.

Other job candidates are more at ease thinking about their strengths. They may even feel fine talking about them in a comfortable setting, for example, when surrounded by friends and teammates. But they’re savvy enough to know that they risk appearing to be arrogant when saying, “I’m really great at…” in a job interview.

So how can you address a job interview question that seems to be a trap designed to make you feel arrogant, seem arrogant, or both?

Take a step back.

What is the interviewer really trying to get at when she asks, “What are your greatest strengths?”

Most job candidates assume the question means, “What do you think your strengths are?” That question does indeed lock you into some form of answer like “I’m great at…”

But in fact, the question could be answered differently depending upon whose perspective the interviewer is asking about. Does the interviewer care what you think your strengths are? What your classmates, roommates, or parents think? Or does she care about what your professors and supervisors think?

In most instances, the interviewer will care most about what your supervisors or professors think your strengths are. So re-frame the question in your mind as, “What do your supervisors think your greatest strengths are?”

This is much easier—and more relevant—question for you to answer. You can then re-frame your answer as, “Well, I’ve been praised for…” Or you might try, “My supervisors have complimented me on…” These answers allow you to be truthful and forthright about your strengths while taking away the worry of feeling or sounding arrogant.

 A version of this article was originally published by Bloomberg Finance L.P. Reprinted with permission. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Shauna Bryce Shauna C. Bryce is a graduate of Harvard Law School with 20 years in law and legal careers. As a nationally recognized lawyer career coach, she works one-on-one with executive-level attorneys in Global 100 law firms and multibillion-dollar businesses in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, as well as regularly presents to groups of lawyers, career coaches, law students, and others. Her advice column, Ask the Hiring Attorney®, inspired by what general counsel and partner-level clients said they wish they had known while they were in law school, was originally published by Bloomberg Law. She’s the author of the How to Get a Legal Job® series and Bryce Legal® Career Advice for Lawyers blog.