MagsNJ recently wrote “I always struggle answering the famous question during an interview ‘Tell me a little about yourself.’ Any suggestions??”
Glad you asked, Mags. I’ve been meaning to talk about how to answer the “Tell me about yourself” question. It’s an all-time favorite interview question (although many people hate it) and can be asked in various forms including “What would you like me to know about you?” “Describe yourself” or even “Tell me who you are.”
But the dastardly “tell me about yourself” question may also come at you first thing in the interview, like a fast ball without warm up, in the form of “So tell me why do you think you’re right for the job?” or more bluntly “Why should we offer you this job?” Boom. And now the relentless “what’s your answer” spotlight is glaring at YOU…while you still try to kick your bag under the table and get comfortable in the hot seat.
Luckily, all forms of this question helping them figure out why the heck they should in fact hire you can be answered using a similar approach. So here’s my take on MagsNJ’s question:
What I Want To Hear If I Ask You To Tell Me About Yourself
In other words: How do you sum up your entire life in just a few minutes at most knowing your answer can make or break your chances to get the job you really want but no pressure intended I’m sure?
Some people think tell me about yourself is a lazy question that puts all the pressure on the interviewee right off the bat, since many interviewers like to open with the question. Maybe so, but since I’m one of those folks who likes the question (although I often talk a bit about the job first), here’s why I ask it: Basically, I want to see how the job candidate views herself or himself. And I want to get a feel for the candidate – what they might be like to work with as well as how they think and communicate.
But if handled well, the question also gives candidates a chance to set the tone of the interview – or at least what I follow up on. So choose things you bring up wisely. If you don’t want me to probe more about your uncle in prison, don’t bring him up. Then again, if you helped put him there and you’re interviewing for a law enforcement job…it certainly would make you more memorable.
So what should you tell me about yourself?
Truth is…there’s no one right way to answer this or any interview question since different interviewers have different things they’re looking for. An answer I might love could turn another interviewer off completely – and vice versa. This is where the magic of matchmaking takes over – on both sides – and it doesn’t pay to get too nuts about figuring out the “right” thing to say.
An aside about sample answers: I’ve seen sure-fire interview answers on other career websites that would absolutely kill a person’s chances if they used those exact words – or at least keep you from standing out from the rest of the candidates. Read sample answers if you like as a guide, but in the end, your best bet is to come up with original answers that sound and feel exactly like you.
So when you do answer the question, remember to be natural and tell me only the parts about yourself that paint a picture of someone who fits the job you’re interviewing for. In other words…while your childhood may be fascinating, unless something about your youth clearly relates to the company or the work you’d be required to do (coal miner? I did that as a child! ) , probably best to start with a strong simple statement about yourself (again related to the job and type of person they’re looking for) and expand with a synthesized work history that shows how miraculously every thing you’ve done up to now has led you to this precise moment and prepared you perfectly for this job!
Now of course I am exaggerating a bit…it has to be believable. But that’s the gist of it. Where possible, be specific. Actual dollar amounts or numbers can be useful, just don’t overdo it – they want to hire a human they can stand to work with. Use things you’ve created or made happen that are clear and easy to remember.
If you’re relatively new to the art of the interview, stick to the main message of “why you fit well with this job” and show what a lovely, adaptable, self-motivating, results-oriented, creative, problem-solving person you’d be to work with by the examples you share.
And remember…if they say “tell me a little” they mean it. Don’t go on and on! Stick to the strongest parts of your career story and edit the rest.
Take Time to Prepare for this Question
No matter who you are, it’s probably a good idea to prepare for this question ahead of time. But please do NOT memorize your answer since this is the time to really show yourself as you are so they can decide if they want to work with you the person and not some scripted interview robot.
To prepare, make a list of key points and/or categories about the job you’re interviewing for and then do the same for your work history. Just like when you create your resume and cover letter, you’ll want to make a note of where they mesh. You can also make notes of things like your degree or any volunteer work that shows why you’d fit this particular job. Then choose just a few talking points that paint the best picture for this particular job.
After that, practice the talking points (friend, family, mirrors, tape recorders are all good for this), saying what you most want to say all in a few minutes. Remember to practice relaxing and smiling too. This should help you feel more comfortable telling your story. And when you do this for real at the interview, don’t worry if you leave things out…the prep work is just to help you narrow down and target the scope of your answer. The way it comes out at the real interview is the most natural to you anyway, and that’s what you’re aiming for.
Should you bring up other interests?
Most of the time – and we’re only talking about a few minutes tops for this entire question – you should be telling about past work experiences that have led up to who you are now and make you a great fit for this new position. But…if there is a special experience or strong interest that you think would help you stand out from the crowd of interviewees – I used to slip in that I rounded up cattle on horseback – this might be a good time to throw that in too, as long as you keep it short and within context. Let them ask for details if they’re curious.
But you probably only want to do this if it helps you paint the “I’m perfect for THIS job” picture…and definitely not if it diverts from your message. Anyone who’s been an IT project manager knows why rounding up cattle is right on point. ;-) Plus…it’s memorable and was offered as a quick aside. On the other hand, going on and on about being a world-class video game player in your spare time is probably not the best move at this point. In fact, bosses prefer to think you won’t be spending your work days playing Tetris!
BIG HINT: If you do bring up other things, make sure you talk about the work this particular job calls for with the same enthusiasm as your other interest. Nothing hurts your case more than when an interviewer sees your eyes light up and energy soar when you talk about side issues and yet you only show moderate enthusiasm for the work you’re actually being interviewed for or other work-related things you’ve done in the past.
Another case where a side interest might be worth mentioning is if the person you’re interviewing with has something in common with you – maybe a sport or the same charity. (That’s why research beforehand is so critical.) But this can be touchy, so watch to see how they react when you mention it – and if they don’t chime in that they share the interest, just go on with your answer without skipping a beat. They may remember it for later and bring it up, but you also never know what people consider private. Still, worth a shot if it’s really something you both love.
The fine art of conversation
Questions like this are about the fine art of conversation – while still keeping on message of course. Things like the interviewer’s tone, body language, and the way s/he responds to what you say – as well as how you respond back and your own body language and tone – all enter into the picture. But if conversation is not especially your strength, don’t worry…you can still do well on this question. Just do your prep work in advance of the interview day and stick to the points that are most comfortable for you to talk about – and hopefully still interesting.
In fact, with questions like this, less is often more. If you pack your answer too full (like this article ) or try too hard to stand out by telling all kinds of fun stories or amazing feats, you risk annoying the interviewer and losing track of your basic overall message which is:
“I’m a great job match and someone you really want to work with.”
By keeping to short, clearly- and pleasantly-presented versions of each job-relevant point you want to make about yourself, you actually leave room for the interviewer to ask for more information. In fact, your answer to this question can be a way of planting interesting seeds for the interviewer to follow up on – directing them to the topics you’d most like to expand upon should they feel like pursuing it. So think about that too when you pick the points you want to touch on.
Hope that helps!
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About the author…
Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, Career Nook and on Google+.