A job seeker writes:
“I always struggle answering the famous question during an interview, ‘Tell me a little about yourself.’ Any suggestions??”
And I’m glad they asked. This is an all-time favorite interview question (although many people hate it) and can be asked in various forms:
- “What do I need to know about you?”
- “Describe yourself”
- “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. The interview is off to a great start! And now the relentless “I’m SO nervous!” spotlight is glaring right at you, even before you’ve had a chance to get comfortable in what has become a very hot seat.
Luckily, all forms of this question can be answered using a similar approach…
Why Does the Interviewer Ask This Question?
So how do you sum up your entire life in just a few minutes, knowing your answer can make or break your chances to get the job you really want? (No pressure!)
Some people think tell me about yourself is a lazy question that puts all the pressure on the interviewee right off the bat. 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.
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.)
What Does the Interviewer Really Want to Hear?
Truth is, there’s no one right way to answer this or any interview question; 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.
So when you do answer the question, remember to:
- Be natural and poised
- Focus exclusively on 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, it is probably best to start with a strong simple statement about yourself 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!
Of course I’m exaggerating a bit… your answer has to be sincere and believable. But that’s the gist of it. Wherever possible, be specific! Actual dollar amounts or numbers that demonstrate your impact are incredibly; they want to hire someone who knows not just the work they did, but the impact the work had on the business.
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.
What Does the Recruiter Really Expect from You?
No matter who you are, or your level of experience in the workplace, you must prepare for this question ahead of time. That said: please do not memorize some generic answer, which is just as bad an idea as sending a generic resume or cover letter. This is the time to really show yourself as you are, and how you’ll fit into the existing company culture! So don’t act like an interview robot; the recruiter expects a unique answer that applies to this job, not some scripted interview robot.
To prepare well for the “Tell me about yourself” question:
- Make a list of key points and/or categories about the job you’re interviewing for
- Make the same list for your work history
- Make a note of where those two lists mesh
- Also note things like your degree or any volunteer work that speaks to your qualifications for the work
- Most important: Boil all that down to the most important talking points that paint the best picture of you in this particular job
Finally, practice the talking points (friends, family, mirrors, and video 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 will 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.
Does the Recruiter Care About Your 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.
If you do bring up other interests and passions…
Make sure you talk about the work this particular job calls for with the same enthusiasm. 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.
Ultimately, questions like “Tell me about yourself” are about the fine art of conversation. 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. So relax, and enjoy the conversation! And remember, you’re only real job when answering this question is to make it clear:
“I’m a great job match and someone you really want to work with.”
Good luck, and happy interviewing!
For this post, YouTern thanks our friends at Work Coach Cafe!
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+.