How to Address Weaknesses in a Character Reference
Many character references are free-form letters-that is, the reference is allowed to speak to the qualities of the candidate that he or she knows best. However, for some applications (graduate school, employment), a reference may be asked to answer a series of specific questions about the candidate instead. One of these questions is the one that everyone dreads.
What are the candidate's strengths and weaknesses?
Now, if you know how to write a character reference, you know that talking about the candidate's weaknesses makes for an instant disqualification. The rationale is usually that if the reference can't even come up with good things to say then there must be something really wrong with the candidate.
Don't panic. In this case, the question is specifically being asked, so don't dodge it. And don't do that thing where you try to make a strength look like a weakness. That's as good as not answering the question because people will see right through it. Worse, it will make you seem like a less credible source. So things like "Jenny cares too much about her patients and it makes everyone request her services over the other doctors" or "Carlos works too hard and never gives himself a break" are out.
So what do you do? The first thing to remember is not to swing too far in the opposite direction. Be honest, but be tactful. You don't want to throw the candidate under the bus. Don't mention problems like losing their temper, laziness, cruelty, lying, or cheating. Instead, focus on a weakness that can be connected to a related trait that's thoroughly positive.
One example of this might be, "Tamara is very deadline-oriented and always gets things done on time, but when she's stressing over a time crunch it can lead to her overlooking some of the minor steps in a procedure. She's still working on how to slow down and make sure that the little details are correct before she turns in her work."
In this sample you've identified a weakness (overlooks minor details) but moderated it by highlighting a positive quality (meets deadlines). You've also pointed out that this is a weakness the candidate is aware of and that they're working hard to correct.
Index of Character Reference Letter Examples