One of the interview questions that job seekers dread the most is the one that they’re most likely to receive right out of the gate.
“Tell me about yourself.”
It seems like an innocuous request. But if you’re not prepared for it, it can be enough to shatter your carefully-cultivated professional poise.
In the competitive world of business, the way you respond to open-ended questions is everything. An impressive answer will set the tone for the rest of the interview. It will also provide a critical first impression of you to your interviewer.
The last thing you want during a high-stakes sit-down is to hit a mental speed bump and end up breaking into your best Porky Pig impression. Or worse, go blank and find yourself struggling to offer up basic personal details.
So how best to navigate the minefield that is, “Tell me about yourself”?
It’s time to figure out who you are and how to present that person to prospective employers.
Why Do So Many Interviewers Ask This Question, Anyway?
If you’ve ever frozen up after being asked to describe yourself, you may be wondering why it’s even necessary to bother with such trivialities.
What difference does it make what you think of yourself? What matters is what they think. And the hiring manager can find out everything they need to know about you by reading your resume, right?
Part of the reason hiring managers love these sorts of common interview questions is they make excellent icebreakers. Personal questions give both interviewer and interviewee a chance to warm up to one another before getting down to business.
But there’s another, more immediately relevant reason why this type of question gets asked so often. It’s to see how you’ll react when given a vague prompt with no one “right” answer to repeat back automatically.
In other words, it’s a test of your so-called “soft skills.” These are the skills that don’t always get highlighted on your resume, like your ability to communicate effectively, take the lead, conceptualize in abstract, non-linear terms, and improvise when the situation calls for it.
Viewed in this light, how you answer, “Tell me about yourself” can say a lot more about you than your words alone can.
Variations on a Theme
“Tell me about yourself” is a familiar overture in interview settings of all kinds. But the question occasionally takes other, sneakier forms.
Sometimes, it’s, “What kind of person is [your name here]?” Others, it might be, “Give me a little background on yourself” or, “I’m eager to learn more about you.”
Despite the differences in wording, these and other potential variations are all designed to coax out the same core information: who are you and what makes you right for this position? It’s therefore worth acquainting yourself with some of them so you can be on your guard if they arrive.
Delivering a Knockout Answer
As mentioned, there’s no single correct response to a question like, “Tell me about yourself.”
Ten candidates will supply ten very different answers. None of them, strictly speaking, will be wrong (except for the ultimate cop-out, “What do you want to know?”).
The best answers, however, will have one central element in common: a strong narrative backbone.
Recruiters, business coaches, and other experts agree that the most effective strategy is to use the early stages of the interview process to tell a story about yourself. And all stories need a beginning, middle, and end.
In this case, you’ll start with the present. Give your interviewer a brief overview of your current role, being sure to highlight the skills and strengths it’s helped you to develop. This is a good time to mention any notable achievements or accolades you’ve garnered along the way.
Once you’ve done that, back up a bit and focus on the past. Summarize your last job and recap the events and decisions that brought you to where you are now in your career path. Here’s where you relate your relevant work experience and explain how it would translate to the position you’re seeking.
Finally, bring your story to a close by turning to the future—what you hope to achieve in the new job and where you see yourself going within the company and industry at large. Try to tie the specifics of your vision into the broader culture and values of the company as you understand them.
By connecting the dots between past, present, and future with well-considered personal insights, you’ll find that you’re able to put forth a compelling, eloquent answer with unexpected ease.
Tips for Answering Gracefully
What you say matters, of course, but how you say it is equally important. Here are a few tips for clearing this tricky hurdle and maintaining your momentum on future job searches.
Tailor Your Response to the Company
Your prospective employer doesn’t just want to know what makes you good at what you do. They also want to know that you can do it in a way that complements their unique philosophy, mode of operation, and workplace dynamics.
The answer you provide should make it clear what you have to offer. At the same time, it should show them that you’ve done your homework and judged that you’d be a sensible fit for their company and vice versa. Think of it as a kind of performative cover letter.
Devise a Loose Template to Follow
Before you go in for your interview, take the time to lay down a framework for the story you’ll be telling. You might draft a rough outline or jot down a few bullet points with key phrases relating to how you want to portray yourself to the company. What attributes do you want to emphasize? Which anecdotes are worth sharing?
Having an idea of what notes to hit and when to hit them will help you flesh out the skeleton of your narrative organically when the time comes.
Contrary to popular belief, company recruiters don’t want to deal with mindless automatons. They want to talk to real people with real thoughts, feelings, and opinions.
Don’t be afraid to express yourself authentically. It’s okay to reveal some of the enthusiasm, passion, and creativity you’ve got simmering beneath the surface. These things are assets, not liabilities.
Mistakes to Avoid
While the aforementioned “dos” can all make your answer more impactful, the following “don’ts” could hurt your chances of getting hired. Be wary of committing any of these all too common faux pas.
Resist the Temptation to Memorize Your Answer
A template and a script are two very different things. The first is a useful tool for constructing complex chains of thought. The second is a rigid constraint that actually makes you a clumsier communicator.
Reciting a rehearsed speech word-for-word won’t make you sound polished. It will only cause you to come across as stilted and unnatural. And it will leave you vulnerable to curveballs if you’re asked anything you’re not expecting and haven’t planned for.
Stay on Topic
Now is not the time to chronicle your entire life story or ramble on about your love of breakroom snacks. Remember, you’re there for one primary purpose, which is to paint a picture of yourself as the ideal candidate for the position.
Be informative, but keep your answer concise and to the point. You should be able to make your opening statements in a few short sentences. After that, you can move on to more concrete lines of inquiry.
Don’t Repeat What’s on Your Resume
In most cases, your interviewer will have a copy of your resume in front of them. Regurgitating what’s on it would therefore be a waste of both of your time.
Instead, treat them to a glimpse of the qualities you possess that aren’t spelled out on your resume. Your ambitions, interpersonal skills, and character are all worthy of discussion.
Anyone can make themselves attractive on paper. It’s interviewees who shine in face-to-face encounters that usually end up getting hired.
Sample Answers for “Tell Me About Yourself”
Curious about what a solid answer sounds like? Check out these examples. As you do, consider how you might craft a similar response in your next job interview.
“For the last two years, I’ve been working as a junior project manager at my company. Having so much resting on your shoulders can be daunting, but I thrive on challenge and I’ve learned so many valuable lessons from my time in the position.
Before my promotion to my current job, I did four years as a team leader. That role prepared me for the pressures of directing large groups of people and organizing output for major campaigns. I got to see how every facet of a project comes together, and now it’s my job to make sure it all happens smoothly. That’s so cool to me.
I believe your company would be the perfect place for me to apply the skills I’ve gained to even bigger projects and networks.”
“Right now, I’m in school studying to become a vet tech, and I do some dog sitting on the side.
I’ve loved animals ever since I was a kid, and the thought of being able to work with them every day makes me so excited. Actually, seeing my first childhood pet get sick was what motivated me to get into veterinary medicine. I was amazed by how knowledgeable and compassionate the staff at the clinic was, and I decided I want to be that for others.
I look forward to earning my certification so I can take a more active role in helping animals in need. I want to make sure they get to enjoy long, healthy lives with their owners.”
“To be honest, I never pictured myself working in publishing. I always wanted to be the next great American author. I’ve spent the past seven years working on various stories and have succeeded in getting a few of them into print.
It wasn’t until I began to get more involved in the publishing process that I realized how fascinating it is. It’s really allowed me to make full use of my literary sensibilities. As you might imagine, it requires creativity, a critical eye, attention to detail, and no small amount of design savvy.
Nowadays, my goal is to see my name in the acknowledgments rather than on the cover.”
Job interview questions as broad as, “Tell me about yourself” can easily perplex even the most qualified job seekers.
But it’s possible for an astute applicant to turn a potential stumbling block into a great opportunity to leave a lasting impression. All it takes is the right mindset and a little preparation.