How to answer the dreaded “Tell me about yourself” question in an interview
Regardless of your industry, your experience level and your job type, some interview questions are almost guaranteed to come up. At the top of this list is the classic “Tell me about yourself…”
This question is almost always asked first, straight right after some chit chat about traffic or the weather. Since it’s often the first real question to be asked in an interview, it’s your big chance to make a first impression with a well-rehearsed answer.
View this question is an opportunity, an opening for you to set the tone and emphasise the points that you most want your potential employer to know about you. It’s an opportunity to create a bold impression with your strongest selling points. Don’t waste the opportunity by diving into a nervous stream of consciousness, rehashing your resume or expressing your love for scrapbooking.
This is also an opportunity to show that you can handle tough questions in a pressurised situation. Be aware of your body language, your posture, eye contact, hand gestures and your overall demeanour. Sometime the wording of your answers is less important than creating the impression that you’d be able to stand in front of the Board and successfully present the PowerPoint which will determine the success or otherwise of the project.
The Interviewer’s view point
When interviewers ask you, “Tell me about yourself”, what are they trying to achieve? Well, for the interviewer, it’s an easy and open-ended way to start the conversation, to break the ice, to allow your nerves to settle, and to assess your ability to respond concisely with an answer you’ve had time to prepare. Remember that in most cases the interviewer really wants to like you. Their life will be easier if they can find a great candidate quickly. Help them like you!
Do’s and Don’ts for answering “Tell Me About Yourself”
Don’t rehash your resume in fine detail — Many candidates nervously respond by launching into a recitation of their resume from the very beginning. That can turn into a very long monologue that starts with their oldest and least relevant experience. By the time you get to the good stuff, your interviewer has zoned out and is thinking about the cricket score.
It’s important to prepare a brief summary of the high points of each of your past positions. Make sure you emphasise the points that are relevant to the role you’re applying for.
Even if the interviewer specifically asks you to “walk him through your resume,” don’t take the suggestion too literally. You can still lead with your elevator pitch and then an overview of your most recent position. Leave plenty of opportunities for the interviewer to jump in and engage with you throughout the rest of the interview.
Find the balance between confidence and bragging – Try not to make the mistake of being too modest, nor too arrogant. Without bragging, provide a response that demonstrates your confidence and communicates your qualifications. Remember that by simply being in the interview you’re already ahead of the majority of applicants whose CV’s were discarded. You’re there because you deserve to be there.
Being comfortable with “selling” yourself is a tricky art, but don’t be too humble. Competition for any good job is fierce. Don’t rely on the interviewer to see past your humble exterior and figure out how great you are.
If you take time to prepare, you can find a way to present yourself to full advantage while staying true to your personality. For modest types, I recommend focusing on factual statements.
You don’t have to brag, don’t go with “I’m the best salesperson in the world.” Instead, you can say “I led my division in sales for the last three years and was able to bring in 50% of overall new business during that time.”
Don’t ramble. If, after you’ve been talking for a while, you think you might be rambling it means you probably are. Nerves are normal and they affect us you’re your response should be ideally less than a minute, and no more than 2 minutes.
You won’t be able to fit all of your great qualities and resume highlights into 2 minutes, so you’ll have be selective in what you include. Emphasise your past experiences that directly relate to the responsibilities of the role you’re applying for.
You could reinforce the number of years of experience in a particular industry or area of specialisation. You might also highlight special training and technical skills here. Focus on the qualifications in the job description and how you meet and exceed the requirements.
You can wrap up your answer by indicating why you are looking for a new challenge and why you feel this role is the best next step.
The “Tell Me About Yourself” formula
There are three components to answering this question:
1. Who You Are — Your first sentence should be an introduction to who you are professionally, an overview statement that shows off your strengths and gives a little sense of your personality too. This is not easy to do gracefully on the fly. It pays to prepare a bit in advance.
- Good: “I’m an innovative Finance Manager with 12 years of experience managing all aspects of the Finance function in a variety of industries. My roles range from preparing and presenting month-end data, to analysing expenses to develop cost-saving initiatives.”
- Bad: “Well, I grew up in South Africa. As a child, I originally wanted to be a game ranger, then later I became interested in playing cricket. I excelled in the games from early on, placing first in my fourth-grade Simon Says competition. Funny story about that…”
2. Expertise Highlights — Don’t assume that the interviewer has closely read your CV and knows your qualifications. Use your elevator pitch to briefly highlight 2-4 points that you think make you stand out. Make sure you only speak about tasks you’ve done that will be relevant in the eyes of your potential future employer.
- Good: “I have spent the last six years honing my skills as a Financial Controller for a global retail brand, where I have won several performance awards and been promoted twice. I love managing teams and solving problems.”
- Bad: “My first job was as an accountant preparing tax returns for people much richer than me. I learned a great deal in that role that served me well over the next 16 years. At the time, I wasn’t sure about my career path, so I next took a position selling cupcakes at markets. It only lasted for six months, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. Especially the chocolate ones”
3. Why You’re Here — End by telling them you want the position and why. Be concise and positive, don’t be too candid, uncertain, or negative.
- Good: “Although I love my current role, I feel I’m now ready for a more challenging assignment and this position really excites me.”
- Bad: “Because of the company’s financial problems and my boss’s personal issues (you know she’s going through a messy divorce), I’m worried about my job’s stability and decided to start looking for new opportunities.”
Remember that you will have time later to walk through your resume in greater detail and fill in any gaps that you don’t cover in this answer. Don’t try to squeeze in too much information or your interviewer will start to tune out, make sure you keep their attention with a concise and relevant response.
A good interview is a dialogue not a monologue. Keep your responses concise and give your interviewer the chance to dive in and ask questions later.
Practicing your answer over and over will be the key to success, use the mirror and a stopwatch as tools for success.