There's a great episode of The Office where perpetually bumbling manager Michael Scott is interviewing for a job at the corporate headquarters. And in an effort to impress the boss, Michael says,
"Why don't I tell you what my greatest weaknesses are? I work too hard. I care too much. And sometimes I can be too invested in my job."
In case you're not an Office fan, Michael didn't get the job. It wasn't just because this answer was bad; you see, Michael's a big dope. But an attempt to position your weaknesses as strengths is just a hack thing to do in a job interview…or on a college application like that for Gonzaga University.
Gonzaga asks the following question on the Common Application supplement.
What has been your most significant failing, and what did you learn from the experience?
A lot of students we've met are inclined to make one of two mistakes with this answer:
1) To try and position the failure as evidence of a strength, like, "I was spending so much time volunteering that it actually affected my academics," or…
2) To make excuses for something rather than own the outcome, like, "I received a low grade in US history because of a personality conflict with the teacher."
Even the most successful people in the universe have made mistakes (many of them have even suffered catastrophic failures in their lives). So colleges don't expect that you're going to be perfect. But they will notice when an applicant acknowledges his or her failure, accepts responsibility and learns from it.
So think of the honest answer to the question. What was your biggest failure? How did it happen? What did you learn from it? Show that you're a mature, confident student who can discuss those things and apply the available lessons.
What does that sound like? (And it should go without saying that you should not, repeat not try to mimic these answers–I'm just giving you examples.)
"I'm not proud of some of the decisions I made to ignore my academics during my sophomore year. Playing sports and trying new activities and, frankly, spending a lot of time goofing off with my friends were absolutely not worth the price my GPA paid."
"I did something stupid when I was a freshman and I got suspended from school. It's honestly embarrassing to admit today what my 14-year-old mind thought was a good idea that day in April 2006."
"Not being picked to be the lead in the school play is hardly a tragedy. But it felt like one at the time. I really thought I was born to play Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and I was shocked I didn't get the part. Looking back, the hard truth was that Steven O'Donnell nailed the audition. I didn't. It was a hard lesson to learn, but an important one; rejection is a part of acting, and if I'm going to be a drama major, I can't come apart at the seams every time I'm not the star."
There you have it. Own up. Tell the truth. Accept responsibility.
And whatever you do, don't be Michael Scott.
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