By: Ryan Kelly
Your Achilles heel. Your hamartia. Your kryptonite. The fatal flaw, the chink in the armor, the tragic foible, the blemish on your otherwise impeccable character.
There are a lot of synonyms for your “weakness,” but not many good ways to discuss the topic during medical school interviews.
Even though “What’s your greatest weakness?” has become a cliche over time, it’s still frequently asked, and for good reason. In the case of medical schools, they want to gauge whether candidates have self-awareness and can openly discuss their potential areas of improvement.
Like many interview responses, it’s not as much about what you say, but how you say it. In order to be a Savvy Pre-Med, you’ll want some rhetorical tricks up your sleeve for when the weakness question inevitably rears its ugly head.
Disclaimer: DO NOT turn your weakness into a strength
This technique is as tired as the weakness question itself, and medical schools will see through it like cellophane.
“I’m too much of a perfectionist.”
“I work too hard.”
“Sometimes I care too much about the well-being of others.”
Because of their transparency, these answers betray a lack of self-awareness. You’re trying to hoodwink your interviewer, to answer the question dishonestly. This is precisely the opposite of what doctors strive to do. Everyone has weaknesses; the question is whether you know yours and can talk about it appropriately.
The following rhetorical tricks can help when discussing your weakness. Let’s take a sample weakness of not being very detail-oriented. It’s a reasonable weakness, one that could hurt you as a doctor, but it’s perfectly okay to discuss, especially if you use our techniques.
“When given a choice between A and B…”
“When given the choice between big-picture planning or delegating individual tasks, I would definitely choose the former. I prefer to brainstorm ideas and think big rather than micromanaging. I love people, and I dislike burdening them with tasks, especially when I wish I had more time to help. As a result, I’ll sometimes take on too many roles, or oppositely, leave people to their own devices when a stronger touch is needed. [INSERT PERSONAL EXAMPLE].”
When discussing a weakness, it’s smart to put it in comparison with another common role or skill that you perform well. That way your strength lingers in the background of your answer, while still showing recognition of where you could improve.
You’re not turning the weakness into the strength, and you’re not skirting the question. You’re just framing your answer in a more palatable and interesting way.
Where would Batman be without Robin? Sherlock without Watson? Would Apple be the same if Jobs never met Wozniak?
Okay, you get it. Our tip about sidekicks correlates well with trick #1. When presenting an example of your weakness in action, mention that you often seek out people with complementary skills and qualities, so that the team can compensate for each other’s deficiencies:
“My ideas are big and ambitious, so I often seek out support to handle small details and unanticipated hiccups. It’d be a stretch to call me a ‘visionary,’ but I do have a tendency to get so caught up in an idea that I overlook issues, which can sometimes undermine the whole effort. I’ve come to recognize the need for more foresight, but I also strive to surround myself with a team of diligent troubleshooters in the case of surprises along the way.”
You shouldn’t dwell in the past, and neither should your answers.
A smart move is to focus your response towards your current ways of addressing the weakness. If the schools are trying to gauge self-awareness and maturity, what better way to show medical schools those qualities than proactive steps towards better future outcomes?
“Whenever I got an idea in the past, I would dive right into it without considering all the implications and requirements for my grand schemes. You can guess how most of them turned out. I would either get bogged down in the small obstacles or watch as the project unraveled in multiple directions. After learning hard lessons, I always made a point to call an informal meeting with my advisor and a few close friends. I’d feed their brains with coffee and scones, and then pick those brains for potential issues with my new idea or project. I don’t just seek counsel from this friendly think-tank; I also constantly learn from them so I can be a more anticipatory leader.”
Remember when I said “Don’t turn your weakness into a strength?” Well what if you flipped the script?
Imagine opening your response by discussing something that has been a consistent skill throughout your life. You could share a few meaningful examples, and then surprise the medical school interviewer by suddenly revealing how your trusty strength became a weakness in a certain situation.
“As a tutor for disadvantaged students, I took pride in my flexibility. I only worked with a handful of teens, and they all desperately needed help. Most had commitments to sports or other extracurriculars to boost their college chances. This meant I had to meet some of them on weekends, or at 8pm, or sometimes even on the carpool ride to school. My willingness to accommodate their lives was a big strength, and my students loved me for it, but this approach failed miserably when I suddenly had to train hundreds of new volunteers at my clinical internship. When I made adjustments or exceptions for people’s schedules, they were grateful and appreciative, but it was unsustainable. In my attempt to accommodate everyone…”
You can probably imagine where the response goes from here. The whole goal with this trick is to discuss strengths and weaknesses as being dependent on context. Like the yin and the yang, your strengths and weaknesses will be fluid and closely related, rather than opposites.
It’s well-documented that people hate the word ‘moist.’ It doesn’t bother me at all, but it proves the power of a word’s connotation, evocation, or emotional charge.
Think about the difference between ‘affectionate’ and ‘touchy-feely,’ or between ‘effusive’ and ‘blabbermouth.’ Words that are closely related can give off much different vibes.
Let’s consider some common words that might come up in a weakness response:
‘Stubborn’ -----better word-----> ‘Unwavering’
‘Perfectionist’ -----better word-----> ‘Meticulous’
‘Disorganized’ -----better word-----> ‘Improvisational’
‘Idealistic’ -----better word-----> ‘Principled’
‘Emotionally attached’ -----better word-----> ‘Overcommitted’
‘Shy’ -----better word-----> ‘Reserved’
‘Weird’ -----better word-----> ‘Eccentric’ or ‘Unconventional’
‘Procrastinator’ -----better word-----> ‘Externally motivated’
When discussing your weakness, you want to find the right word choice. This will help you avoid red flags. However, you should also be careful not to sugarcoat things with overly fanciful language. The goal is not to make your point more convoluted, or deceitful. Just better.
Don’t be afraid to use multiple rhetorical tricks at once. Many of them overlap and could easily work together. The key is finding an approach that best suits your weakness, and practicing until you can deliver your answer confidently.
The weakness question can make you stand out, for better or worse, but I hope my tips help you be remembered for the right reasons! Good luck!