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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