Most MBA applicants find this to be the most difficult question to answer.
As professionals and entrepreneurs, we are trained to put our best foot forward in order to sell our businesses and ourselves. We think and rehearse how to best present our strengths, while hardly spending any time considering our weaknesses. Understandably, addressing this question during one’s MBA application essay or interview usually proves to be quite a challenge.
Asked to identify his weaknesses, a typical MBA applicant will ask him or herself two questions:
1) What should I avoid mentioning?
Everyone worries about giving an answer that will reveal a fatal flaw to the admissions committee and hurt one’s chances at being admitted to an MBA program. Thus, a frequent mistake is to answer this question using a fake weakness – saying something like, “I am too smart,” or, “I work too effectively,” does not really answer the question and will just irritate your audience. Presenting yourself as unrealistically perfect will also diminish the genuine strengths you have, and create doubt in the accomplishments you have discussed throughout the essays or the interview, as it makes you appear incapable of an honest self-assessment.
Another similar no-no is to blame somebody else for your weakness. Do not attribute a weakness solely to your work environment, personal circumstances, or ethnicity – this comes across as a reckless generalization and will not add any value to your case. It will also only shift the conversation into a negative tone and counter the strong, optimistic vibe that you want to be associated with.
2) What exactly are they looking for?
Admissions committees are looking for applicants who will greatly benefit from attending their school’s MBA program, and who can contribute to the experience of other MBA participants. Using this as a guide, the weakness question should be used to demonstrate character traits of self-awareness, ability to learn from failures, and open-mindedness to effectively use feedback and criticism.
An applicant should identify specific skills and knowledge gaps that he or she will need to work on in order to reach her post MBA goals – ideally, specifics of the target MBA program in terms of courses, culture, or community should be matched to these potential growth areas.
Executing this answer properly will put forth an honest reflection that shows genuine interest in a school’s MBA program and convinces the admissions committee that the applicant has really researched the school’s offering. Effectively demonstrating your potential to gain from, and contribute to, an MBA program through your personal story will help convince the admission committee of your fit with their school. Filling in details of how you have addressed your identified weakness or how you are in the process of doing so will also help show how proactive you are, and how you will greatly benefit from this particular MBA program.
A final tip: whenever you are asked about strengths and weaknesses in one question, whether in an essay or an interview, you must allocate time and space as evenly as possible between talking about the two. Most applicants spend 2/3 or more of the space they are given for strengths leaving little room to develop the weakness portion of the answer. This type of answer will look like it was just glossed over, and that the question was not answered adequately – it will also not allow you to make a proper case as to why you will benefit from the program.
A good answer to the “weakness” question strengthens your case to be admitted to your target MBA program even as you identify a real weakness. Skillfully weaving stories of your personal experiences, self-reflection, and vision through discussion of this weakness will make your profile unique and compelling to the admissions committee.
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Written by Edison Cu, a Veritas Prep Head Consultant for INSEAD.