The Tuesday Q&A: Addressing Strengths and Weaknesses

by on January 8th, 2013

Question:

When the adcom asks about our strengths and weaknesses in an essay, how do we address that? Which weaknesses can be highlighted in such an essay? And how should be these presented to make a positive impact? What things should NOT be highlighted in this essay?

Answer:

Sure, folks. A great question, and one we love to answer.

Strengths are easy. Focus on leadership if you can, because everybody (Not just HBS!) loves leadership. Call yourself a natural leader, and prove it. That’s a surefire smart move. As for your second strength, find something that allows you to tell a great STORY. Refer back to your greatest hits, and support your second or third greatest hit with a smart strength. Done.

Weaknesses, of course, are a touch harder. Why? Well… why would anyone wanna discuss something negative in their application? So, the trick is to pick weaknesses that somehow shed light on your strengths. Actual weaknesses, mind you. You wanna find stuff that shows that you are mature enough to recognize that you’re not perfect. Of course you’re not, and admitting it is a sign of strength. So what kinds of weaknesses? Ones that shed light on your strengths. Ones that make sense, given your strengths.  Here are some examples:

Strength: “I am a great leader.”

Logical Weakness: “Sometimes I overlook some of the details.”

Why does this make sense?  Because that is a LOGICAL weakness, given the strength we have discussed. You’re a “big picture” guy, a great speaker. So from time to time… a detail slips through the cracks. That makes sense. Better yet, it makes you seem even MORE like a leader. It makes your background seem even more strong, focused.

Another example:

Strength: “I am a great communicator.”

Logical Weakness: “Sometimes, I avoid confrontation. I am afraid to make people hate me, afraid to say ‘no,’ to yell etc. ”

Of course, sometimes to be a successful leader, we have to be able to come down on people, to be firm, etc. By admitting this, you not only reinforce your strength as a great communicator, but you show the ability to criticize and improve yourself, another great leadership trait.

So that is your goal: connect some weaknesses to some strengths. The best weaknesses will highlight your strengths, as we have indicated above. And of course, they will be actual weaknesses, and not cop outs. : )

Best of luck,

Jon Frank

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