Although “Tell me about yourself” is one of the most common interview questions, it often makes job interviewers ramble on endlessly, brag, say too much, or get tongue-tied.
Such a simple question, but so many directions you can take it. Why is it often listed as the first most difficult question in an interview? It shouldn’t be?
As I tell my job-hunting clients: think like a marketer. Use this, and all questions, to promote yourself while showing your interest in the job and the interviewers.
Don’t miss the opportunity because some interviewers insist on otherwise dominating the topics of discussion.
As always, do your research. Then prepare your general response. Then when you deliver your answer, do it with feeling and adjust as you go.
What is “tell me about yourself” really asking?
When an interviewer asks, “tell me about yourself,” they’re usually looking to see how you’ll fit in. This is an indirect way of understanding why you have the correct qualifications for the job.
It may seem like a freebie to talk about your hobbies and personality, but it’s not.
Interpret it as: “Tell me things about you that I can’t see on your resume. Tell me what it’s like to work with you.”
Use it to show your human side, and touch on topics you specifically want to bring up. Focus on the job and the company, and use examples to show how you’ll fit.
First impressions count, and this question is where you can add to yours
Interviewers are human beings, and they often make their decisions within the first minute. This includes the greeting, eye contact, and handshake. Or online, it includes your expression and surroundings, as well as your voice and composure.
Interviewers have their biases and you can’t control them, but what you can do is use the interview to recover from, or make up for, anything your first impression didn’t deliver.
“Tell me about yourself” is one of those questions that give you the second chance to make a first impression.
If it’s the first question you’re asked
If this question is the first question, then it really is part of your first impression. Use it to introduce yourself. Give a brief mix of fact and feeling, your features and benefits.
“I’m Tokyo-born and now living in Beijing. My most recent role is as an events coordinator, which I love because I’m naturally social. But I’m also organized, and in this job, I can manage groups of 100 or 200 attendees, offline or online. I’m someone who thrives when I can get to know people and their needs, and create solutions for them. My coworkers also often ask me for advice on networking and project management. These are characteristics you mentioned in your job posting, so it seems like a potentially good fit.”
If it’s asked later in the interview
Now you can use what you’ve learned thus far.
“Here in Beijing, I’ve been fortunate to organize events for hundreds of people from around the world. This means I get to use my social skills, language skills, and my love of organization. You mentioned that you are seeking someone who can see through events end-to-end. That means you need someone who can both deal with people and with organization and numbers. As in my work with ABC Inc., I do best in roles like this, where I can take ownership and lead people on a personal level.”
Tailor the answer to the position and company
If you put in your homework reviewing the job needs and company culture, you’ll be able to adjust your answer appropriately.
Add in specifics about the company and job as you answer this question “about yourself.”
“I’m naturally a planner and a thinker. I’m quite analytical even with planning trips or managing my own finances. My friends usually ask me to make plans when we go out to dinner, and I take that responsibility very seriously, like a challenge. I know you’re seeking a data-driven marketing manager, and as an analytical person with marketing experience, that fits really well with who I am. I’m the type of person to look at things rationally, with specific goals in mind. Your mission also emphasizes ‘make mistakes, but learn from them,’ and take that as an analytical challenge. I love people and emotions as well, but I like to make sense of them.”
Keep it reasonably short
Don’t waste the interviewer’s time citing every detail and accomplishment. They’ve already seen your resume/CV, and probably your LinkedIn page. It’s also likely that you’ve already had questions about your job history. No need to repeat it. This is about what’s not obvious in your application documents.
Be engaging and entertaining while getting your point across to show why you should be hired.
Your interview also provides managers with insight as to how you will speak to bosses, clients, co-workers, and in meetings.
They don’t want an employee who rambles for 10 minutes each time an open-ended question is asked.
About 1–2 minutes is reasonable. Any longer and the listener may start to lose attention while you may start to lose steam.
Also, and another reason not to memorize a script, is that you should watch the audience while you’re speaking.
If someone looks distracted or bored, then get to your main points. If they show interest during one part of an answer, give some more detail.
“Tell me about yourself” is not “tell me your life story.” It should be a sharp and engaging talk that piques the interviewer’s interest and allows follow-up questions.
Inject passion into your answer
Maintaining professional answers shouldn’t stop you from speaking about why you’re passionate about the position. Passion helps engage the interviewing team and sets you apart from the competition.
Really, it does. I’ve interviewed countless professionals through practices and as someone doing the hiring. Very few people show evidence they have prepared and very few are interesting.
Hiring managers don’t want robots, they want humans. If a candidate is truly connected to their mission and they’re targeting their next role at this company, this question is a great place to communicate this passion.
Keep your answer professional
Regardless of the question, you must always keep their answers professional.
While this may seem like a no-brainer since the interview is a professional setting, it’s critical to reiterate. Especially in international settings, there are nuances and some people are more serious and impersonal than others.
You can talk about activities you enjoy, but relate them to the job and the company.
For example, if you’re a black belt at karate, you can discuss how you apply it gives you discipline and self-restraint. You always respect whom you’re dealing with, but of course, you also like to win.
Know your audience
This is marketing thinking. You probably can’t sell ice to Eskimos. In the same way, an IT manager is likely less interested in soft skills, while a sales manager may be less interested in your Python coding ability.
The interviewers could slip in some type of “tell me about yourself” at all stages during the process. This doesn’t mean the same answer needs to be given each time.
For instance, when speaking to a recruiter or manager who isn’t highly familiar with the job’s day-to-day workings, focus on the bigger picture.
When speaking to a potential direct boss, get a little more detailed and technical. If you’re speaking with a C-level executive, tie your answers to the company’s history and mission, and/or its leaders.
Answers can also be improved by making them specific to the company and role based on the information gathered throughout the process.
Practice but don’t memorize
Never wait until this question is asked in a live interview to test out an answer. Thoroughly consider what information should be conveyed before the interview and practice it.
One effective method for doing this is to leave a voicemail or recording then listen to it an hour later. See if the answer sounds credible and effective. Now with online interviews so common, you can also record yourself online. Then you’ll answer get to critique how you look.
It’s also always helpful to practice with others to get real interpretation and feedback. Also, a practice buddy can provide answers to what they would say in this situation. Practice will make the answer much stronger and confident.
Plan but don’t over-plan; have an outline
But there’s a balance between practicing and memorizing the answer. It needs to be authentic so having a few bullet points of discussion will help any candidate respond.
For younger and newer people in the workforce, recruiters may be a little more understanding of a memorized answer. But it’s a major red flag for a candidate with more experience. If you’ve been with a few companies and doing your job for a couple of decades, you’re expected to show creativity and familiarity with yourself and your abilities.
If English isn’t your first language
This is true of non-native speakers of English as well. I’ve worked with many Japanese and Korean candidates who want to prepare and memorize a script.
This canned and expected response may maintain a professional environment in their own cultures, but it will seem robotic to most Westerners. They want to see your personality so they can imagine how you’ll fit in with the company culture.
If you were previously laid off or fired, the “tell me about yourself” question isn’t the time to discuss it.
Save that discussion for when you’re asked about it. Let the interviewers take the lead. As you answer “tell me about yourself,” cast a positive light on the jobs that led you to this interview.
If you had a small failure, it’s fine to reveal that, and then use it to illustrate how you learn from mistakes and they make you stronger.
Commonsense for all interviews is to never badmouth the previous employer. It shows what you may do if they hire you. If you had a bad experience, you can talk around that gracefully.
“When I was with XYZ, Inc. they have very high OKRs that weren’t based on data. They were quite arbitrary. I discussed ways we might make them more achievable and I was grateful that they did listen to my ideas. Eventually, we were able to compromise. I try to always create win-win situations like this, even if I don’t totally agree with someone.”
Keep the tone throughout the conversation positive.
“Tell me about yourself” is your wild card
Use it well. Don’t let it place unnecessary pressure on you to be wildly creative or impressive.
There are few other questions in a job interview that allow you to freestyle like this one. As with all questions, customize it to the job, but use this opportunity to let your prospective employer learn a bit more about the real you.
If you want to rehearse interviews or if you need a resume, CV, or LinkedIn profile that gets you the interview in the first place, get in touch. I specialize in global job candidates and non-native English speakers of English.