Recommendation Letters – The “Weakness” Question

by on November 19th, 2010

I want to address the one reference letter question that terrifies almost all applicants and some references too: Tell us about the applicant’s weaknesses. My clients ask me what is a “good” weakness to pick that will satisfy the admissions officer without hurting the candidacy as a whole. There is no magic “get out of jail free” answer to the infamous “weakness” question, so stop searching for one. That said, I do have some advice for you that you can pass on to your references if they desire some direction on how to approach this question.

First off, your references should steer clear of any character weaknesses like stubbornness or an inability to control one’s temper.

Second, there is no “get out of jail free” answer but there is a common pitfall: the biggest pet peeve of admissions officers is the “strength disguised as a weakness” answer. For example, “Stan simply can’t say no to new projects and takes on too much work.” Oh no, how do we stop Stan the work horse?! Stop and smell the roses, Stan. Sit down in this comfy chair and relax; you’ve earned it.

Nope. Not a good answer.

On the other hand, an appropriate answer could be the flipside of a strength. For example, if you are an extremely results oriented person, you may rush past the sometimes painstaking process of building consensus for decisions.

The best answers have the quality of a well-intentioned constructive criticism from a mentor who wants to see you succeed and sees a way to guide you a step closer to well-deserved success. For example, they might point out an advanced leadership capability that you haven’t had a chance to develop and need to given your increasing level of responsibility in the company.

If your reference wants some guidance from you, feel free to share the parameters of a good answer. If they are open to sharing what they come up with this might be a great opportunity to guide them and/or to receive some valuable feedback on where you have room to improve.

Whatever you and your references come up with, ideally the weakness will be those that you have started to address and have shown improvement on. That would be a great message for your reference to include in his or her answer.

The reason that there are no magic words to answer this question is that the a great answer is tailored to you, your experiences, and yes, your opportunities for growth.

I hope you find this advice helpful and that it reduces some of your anxiety about the dreaded recommendation letter “weakness” question. If not, find yourself a nice, comfy chair and read the article once more. You’ve earned it.

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  • Thank you for your insight.

    However I have a very basic question. I thought I just need to ask my managers for general recommendation letter. But, from what you stated above, are recommenders supposed to answer some specific questions?
    How do I make my recommender aware of this? Please correct me if I am wrong. When schools say provide us with 2 recommendation letters, it is upto the recommender to decide what he wants to write and how long he wants to write. Is my understanding correct? Please help.

  • I too have the same understanding as Renu (above). Not sure if we should influence the recommender in any way. Please reply

  • Many programs do ask references to respond to specific questions. The school's application policies and procedures should make this clear. Typically, you, the applicant, will be asked to submit contact information about your references in the on-line application system. References will then be emailed instructions on how to access the questions the schools would like answered and how to submit their responses to the school, which could be via an online submission or by mailing in their letters.

  • Hi Tyler,
    I understand that addressing the weakness on a recommendation is a 'must'. My recommender has provided me a nice recommendation w concrete examples. She has not disguised a 'strength as a weakness', however I wonder if the brief 'weakness' that has been described is infact detrimental to my overall app: "(me) excels at one-on-one or small group leadership or mentoring opportunities, however her biggest challenges came in larger group dynamics. She has a strong desire to be liked and has a sensitivity to peer group acceptance. When she runs into conflict with others or her ideas and strategies are challenged, she can get discouraged and emotional and if she gets frustrated it can take her time to re-group and move forward."
    Will the adcom take into consideration my overall great recommendation with this one 'weakness'? (Perhaps my fears are unwarranted?)

    • Hello Gauri,

      Great question! I think your reference's answer to the weakness question could be viewed negatively without some fine tuning in its execution. Assuming your reference is open to suggestions I would ask for two adjustments. First, I don't like the words "emotional" and "frustrated". The ad comm might wonder if you have the maturity to cope in an MBA classroom where it is not uncommon for your ideas to be challenged by your classmates.

      I would take out the the words "emotional" and "frustrated" and just say something along the lines of "she has a tendency to become discouraged or to take criticism of her ideas too personally, and it can take her time to...."  

      The second adjustment would be to end this answer on a positive note. Your reference might point to some progress in responding to this issue after receiving guidance and/or to state that he or she has confidence that you will be able to address this weakness as part of your MBA training where your ideas will often be challenged by others.

      I hope my advice helps.

      Best of luck!

  • Hi Tyler,
    Thank you for your feedback, it certainly helps and will assist me in addressing this with my recommender. :)

  • Hi Tyler,
    Could you please suggest how can we address the weakness of a detail oriented person. Although it is necessary for my profession but for my further growth details need to be carefully edited based on target audience.

    Thaks for your help in advance

  • nice post

    see more

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