5 Ways to Talk About Personal Strengths in Interviews
In 2015, long before she became the head of engineering at the eco-friendly grocery delivery company Zero Grocery, Frankie Nicoletti found herself at the Hack Reactor bootcamp in San Francisco with an accounting background and only $600 in her pocket. She signed up to explore opportunities in tech, but like many new coders, wasn’t sure about how she would fit into the Silicon Valley ecosystem.
One of the first things she was asked to do at Hack Reactor was write down her elevator pitch — 10 times. When she finished, she was told to throw away her paper and write the pitch another 10 times.
How To Talk About Your Personal Strengths In An Interview
- Assess your skills and trust your abilities
- Ask others for feedback
- Have evidence to back up your claims
- Stick with what’s relevant
- Don’t be overly humble
Nicoletti said the experience was oddly freeing. “It had somehow managed to remove all of the gunk in my brain,” she said. “Once I got through that, I stopped doubting what I had to say and could tell the whole narrative of my strength and resilience.” With a refined elevator pitch and a strengthened confidence in her skillset, Nicoletti secured her first tech job at SolarCity as a software engineer.
In an industry as competitive as tech, speaking about your capabilities confidently can be tough. Especially if you are comparing yourself to others around you. Regardless of whether you’re an engineering lead or a recent bootcamp graduate, you have unique personal strengths that others don’t. If you can talk about them cohesively, you’re a step closer to ending a job interview with an offer.
It can take a while to sound natural when talking about your accomplishments and strengths — but it’s okay to fake it until you make it. “It always helped me to roll up to interview with some sort of energetic music playing. When I was interviewing for my first job in tech, the song I’d play was ‘Uptown Funk’,” Nicoletti said. “You’ve got to come in with that confidence, even if it’s artificial, because it’s a big part of what is being tested in interviews.”
Assess Your Skills
Low confidence might seem like a problem that you should be able to overcome on your own. But when studies show that issues like low self-esteem and imposter syndrome affect marginalized workers and women of color the most, it’s clear that there are outside factors to consider.
“Imposter syndrome is environmental, not internal. It comes from what’s happening around you, not just some chronic lack of confidence,” said Nicoletti. “Tech gets away with that a lot more than other industries, because we don't have the standard success markers. People can sometimes try to feel superior by putting others down, so you can get toxic environments.”
As a woman competing for roles in tech, Jourdan Cobbs, Talent Acquisition Specialist at logistics tech company Forager, explained that sometimes it’s hard to accept recognition for her work. “I’m the kind of person who just wants to be doing things behind the curtain, so it is hard for me to talk about myself,” she said.
“Imposter syndrome is environmental, not internal. It comes from what’s happening around you, not just some chronic lack of confidence.”
Cobbs said that when preparing for interviews, it helps to sit down and assess her accomplishments objectively. Make a list of moments you’re proud of in your career, and then write down three or four skills you relied on to accomplish them — it will boost your confidence in your abilities. It will also start to build trust with your interviewer.
“Interviewing is all about convincing other people you can do this job,” she said. “I think it’s a general consensus among hiring managers that we like people that can concisely demonstrate what they’re able to do.”
Before you second guess yourself or start to feel inadequate, pause and give yourself a reality check. “You should treat imposter syndrome like a question,” said Nicoletti. “If you’re asking yourself, ‘Am I good enough?’, what you should really ask at that point is, ‘Does my code run?’ If it does, then you have your answer.”
Ask Others for Feedback
It’s tough to step back and judge your own skills impartially, but you don’t have to do it all by yourself. Ask a friend or peer what they think your strengths are — seeing yourself through their eyes might teach you something new.
In a professional women’s group Cobbs was previously a member of, she and her peers did an exercise to provide this kind of insight to each other. “We all sat in a circle, wrote notes to every other member with their strengths and areas of improvement, and put them into envelopes with their names on them.” When it came time to read through the notes in her envelope, Cobbs was surprised by all the positive and constructive things her friends had to say about her. “I learned new things about myself, and it really helped me prepare for future interviews,” she said.
Have Evidence to Back Up Your Claims
In a job interview, be prepared to pull from data or concrete anecdotes to illustrate what you would bring to their team. Numbers and statistics are essential, but according to TextNow’s SVP of Engineering Andy Shin, it shouldn’t be your whole story.
“You need to understand the ‘why’, not just the ‘how.’”
“As you start to move up in your career, one of the most important interview skills is not just highlighting your skills or accomplishments but communicating how your work impacted the project or benefited the company,” he said. “You need to understand the ‘why,’ not just the ‘how.’ What will separate you from others is the ability to explain not only how you built or fixed something, but why your actions led to the ultimate success of the team, project and company.”
Stick With What’s Relevant
Just like when you are writing a resume or cover letter, the strengths you share in an interview should tell a story and be specific to the role. You’ll leave a more effective impression on the interviewer, and it also makes their job easier. “HR managers don’t have a lot of time and may interview several candidates. Focus on highlighting achievements that relate to the job,” said Stephen Twomey, the co-founder and CTO of SaaS company Kennected. “You’ll show you value their time and know how to focus on critical information — both essential to most jobs you interview for.”
“Explain how your skills and experiences will make their company better.”
Every job has its own unique requirements, but there are more general skills that employers expect from candidates, like flexibility and collaboration. Review your work history and note times where you’ve exemplified these qualities. For instance, if you’re applying to a software developer role that requires lots of cross-collaboration, come to the interview prepared with a story about a time you worked with a past team to execute a project successfully and explain what you learned.
“It comes back to impact,” said Shin. “Don’t just tell them what you did, tell them why it was important. Show your future employer that you understand how your role affects the company’s larger product, business and mission. Explain how your skills and experiences will make their company better.”
Don’t Be Overly Humble
Don’t worry too much about sounding arrogant; hiring managers want to hear about your successes. When you’re trying to sound humble, it’s easy to diminish your accomplishments, said Twomey.
“The majority of us have to worry more about the undersell than the oversell. If you understand why you’re sharing the information — it’s vital to figure out your fit at a company — then it’s really not a brag,” he said. “Put yourself in the employer’s position. Do you want to hire someone who believes in their abilities or is unsure of them?”
Feeling like you have to be humble isn’t always entirely a self-confidence issue — it can be informed by a lot of factors, including the environment you’re in. Nicoletti explained that the pressure to be modest and reserved is much more intense for tech workers from marginalized backgrounds. “A lot of people have been told their whole lives not to take up space, to be quieter and to shrink themselves,” she said.
“Put yourself in the employer’s position. Do you want to hire someone who believes in their abilities or is unsure of them?”
Her advice for overcoming self-conscious feelings? Take it easy on yourself. “You’re only bragging if you’re talking over your interviewer, or putting other people down in the process, or not answering the question that you’re there to answer,” she said. “Building confidence, even if it’s faked, will get you a lot further than being modest or timid. You have to be as confident as you think your competition is.”