Job Interview Question: How To Handle Tell Me A Little About Yourself

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!

More Tips on Job Interviews & Questions

Job Interviews: Where Do You See Yourself Five Years From Now?

Job Interviews: What’s Your Greatest Weakness?

Job Interviews: What’s Your Greatest Strength?

How to Answer Why You Left Your Last Job When You Actually Quit

10 Impressions You Leave Behind After a Job Interview

7 Things NOT To Do in an Interview (I Didn’t Think I Had to Tell You)

18 Practical Tips to Help You Ace that Interview

The Single Most Important Thing in Any Job Interview

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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, and on Google+.

Comments

  1. Nice post Ronnie! It’s an oft-asked question but it’s a good one for the hiring manager to ask in order to see how well the candidate’s “written story” in the resume and cover letter match what he or she articulates in the interview. Keep it focused on your skills and background so the hiring manager can see how they can get the job done and serve as assets to the company.

    Also, the more relaxed you appear to be in answering the question can speak volumes about your self confidence.

  2. O the Humanities! says:

    I feel better after reading this post. I have an interview with a disability law firm tomorrow and I feel as though my innards are being turned inside out, upside down, and lopsided all around. I’m something along the line of an I(S+N)TJ, so conversation is extremely exhausting for me, especially when I have to talk about myself; I prefer to just get to work and get it done. I hate having to prove how good I am because I’m always doubtful about my own abilities even though everyone has always told me what a bright person I am and everything I’ve done has turned out well. (I’m extremely wary of praises because they unnerve me and serve only to perpetuate my doubts and fears.)

    I like this post because it sounds genuine and not the usual superficial “Just be confident! Think positive” talk (because, clearly, I didn’t get that memo of obviousness) people always use to toughen you up before the interview. This post empathizes with the readers and that, for me, is important because oftentimes I tend to feel as though I’m the only one weathering these rough waters of the sea of anxiety.

  3. I’m waaaay behind on answering comments O the Humanities! but I’m sneaking in to give you a big hug and wish you well. You made me smile. Oh do I have stories about me not being good at accepting praise! You are definitely NOT alone. ;-)

    And if I may enter the world of zen for a moment…you don’t have to prove anything to them, just be (yourself). Even if inside you think that isn’t enough, this as a chance to experiment with it anyway.

    Best of luck!! Please let us know how it goes.

    ~ Ronnie Ann

  4. O the Humanities! says:

    Hi Ronnie Ann,

    Thanks for your response. Thank you for your support, also.

    My interview with this law firm did not last as long as the one at the previous firm — I only lasted for about half an hour. The interviewers were nice enough but the questions, standardized and dull. “What do you say are some of your strenghts?” or “Why do you think you would be good for this job?”

    I was caught off guard by these questions because I expected the same depth and dynamic that I experienced with the previous law firm. I answered to my best ability and that was really all I could do.

    What is most interesting about this interview is that I was made aware of how irrelevant all my previous employments truly are. The lead interviewer told me, flat out, that the only reason he interviewed me because I mentioned that I was an IN/STJ in my cover letter. Then, he asked me what I knew about Myers-Briggs. I explained to them what kind of person I am according to all my readings and understanding of the subject.

    This sobering realization that my work experiences in college are utterly useless has made me extremely bitter and sad. I didn’t have a choice in college. I had to work almost full time at crappy jobs so that I could pay for my expenses and tuitions yet I am still heavily indebted with student loans. I had no time for internship opportunities. And now I’m being told that what I learned when I worked at these menial jobs are completely unmarketable and incompatible with even the most mind-numbing desk job.

    I have a strong feeling that I won’t get the job but I sent off my thank-you letters to both interviewers anyway and hope for the best. I am just finding it much more difficult now to be positive and optimistic. How do you prove to people that you are sharp enough to work for them when they think that your work history is not good enough for the position you are applying for?

    :( I guess, I will just try to get into a good grad school and be a professor. At least I will have enough autonomy in what I do. Corporate America sucks! (No offense, people, but it does suck!)

    – O the Humanities

  5. Hi O!

    First let me tell you how sorry I am that the interviewer appeared to be such an idiot. Some people (and firms) are snooty, small-minded and short-sighted. All companies are not like this. Some actually recognize the transferable skills of the types of jobs you had and can make the mental leap to how not only those skills but your obvious resourcefulness and determination can be a great asset to their firm.

    Now of course we never know what people are really thinking no matter how it appears. This person may have written you off or…may just have been waiting to see how you respond. The Myers-Briggs thing may have been your chance to show some of who you are and hopefully you hit a home run? (Hard to have full perspective as the interviewee.) As I’ve experienced with some interviews (on both sides of the table) they are mostly looking to see how you handle yourself – and how you see yourself!

    So maybe use this experience to redouble your efforts and from now on come armed with a strong answer to this kind of questioning. From this point on…while you obviously can’t control how your answers are received…please don’t ever let anyone minimize your experience in your own mind. You don’t need to defend…you just need to talk about it the way I did above. The right employers will totally get that. I know that first hand. ;-) And the wrong ones…you’re better off dodging that bullet.

    Then again…if grad school calls and you can manage it, certainly worth considering. But what you learned from this experience will always be applicable, even when dealing with grad school colleagues and interviewing for that professor job! ;-)

    Best of luck, O! Please let us know what happens.

    ~ Ronnie Ann

  6. By the way, O…you mention the questions “What do you say are some of your strengths?” or “Why do you think you would be good for this job?” and suggest these have less depth than other questions.

    May I offer another point of view? They actually get at the heart of what interviews are really about – and offer you a chance to hit a home run and even direct the interview in directions that highlight your best aspects.

    Here’s my recent post on the second question and an older one on the strengths question:

    Job Interview Questions: How To Handle Tell Me A Little About Yourself

    Job Interviews: What’s Your Greatest Strength?

    ~ Ronnie Ann

  7. Best advice EVER. Well, all your is really! I cringe at that question. I want to answer “I can do this job. ‘Nuff said, OK?” …ok that last was *not* good advice. I shall refer people to this post!

    • Thanks Muse! Much appreciated – especially coming from you. I figured it was time I took a turn at this question. No matter how tempting, it’s pretty much always about the job. Kind of reminds me of the old joke “I’ve been doing all the talking; so now let’s talk about you. What do YOU think of me?”

      ~ Ronnie Ann

  8. Alejandro(Alex) says:

    Great tips: This is a Universal question that could actually make or break an interview. It is actually not a technical question that the interviewee might have all the answers for. It is mostly a free flow question that could take you anywhere. It is Important that candidates follow your advice answer that are short and to the point.
    Thanks,
    Alex

    • Thanks for your insightful comment, Alex.

      Ronnie Ann covers the bases so well in the post. I think some of the main issues in acing the “Tell me about yourself” query are:

      — Preparing your answer in advance and making sure you stick to why you’re a good fit (based on the preparatory research you’ve done on the company and industry).

      — Keeping your answer short, interesting and to-the-point.

      — Practicing ahead of time until your answer flows naturally and colloquially.

      — Realizing your answer can set the tone of the conversation and help you “own” the interview.

      — Smiling, avoiding a monotonous tone, and projecting confidence.

      — Realizing there’s no one way to answer. Many “scripts” will work well.

      Meg Guiseppi
      Member, Work Coach Cafe Team

  9. The tell me about yourself question probably isnt the place to expand then on why you left your job? Maybe just say I transitioned from my last job to some great temp jobs. And focus on those top areas of your career skills. THanks!

    • chandlee says:

      Taja,

      Make sure you answer the tell me about yourself question with information that addresses the question, “Why this position?” If this position is in a field other than the one you worked in before, you can say you left your last full-time job because you wanted to pursue opportunities in the new field.

      Good luck!

      Best,
      Chandlee

  10. I love this post it has been helpful. Cos i attended an interview not too long ago.

  11. Thank you so much for the post! It helped me a lot! ;)

  12. I am a high school student applying for a college tutoring job. However, I meet all of the qualifications. For the tell me about yourself question, should I even mention the fact? Also, if I’ve tutored before and the student I was working with made a C in the class despite my help, should I mention this, if asked? Could I say “I don’t want to disclose her grade.” Then give an explanation about how hard I worked with her but she was a busy student (had a part time job, member of a sorority, several leadership positions, didn’t really like science, etc.)? Thank you for your help!

  13. “Tell me a little about yourself” is not a question but a demand. Beware of any potential employer who can’t demonstrate knowledge of this fact without being prompted first.

    Now, a person who construes the demand as a question may give you an opportunity to probe for thin skin. If you discover touchiness, you’ve learned something important about the employer’s work environment.

  14. I had an interesting experience at an interview last week with this question. They asked me about myself and I felt I answered the question perfectly, following the guidelines of this post and what I had practiced. After I answered, again feeling very confident, the interviewer just stared at me blankly and said, “Ok… But what about hobbies and interests and things like that. We will learn about your qualifications easily.” For that one individual I focused on the job, with a little about me, but he wanted the complete opposite.

    • chandlee says:

      Jeffrey,

      Don’t let it get you down — what it means is simply that your interviewer wanted to learn about you as a person, too – and that isn’t a bad thing. If the job doesn’t come through — and I don’t think you should assume it won’t based on this one question — be prepared to throw in an interest or hobby next time.

      Good luck and all the best,
      Chandlee

  15. hkkalrashed says:

    Hello i really need some help from you because you had this moment with the interviewr would you plz tell me what should i answer if the interveiwer ask me ( tell me a little about your self )

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