Chances are you’ve been hit with the “Tell me about yourself” question in job interviews.
That exact phrase may not be what is posed to you. It could instead be:
- Tell me something about yourself that’s not on your resume.
- Walk me through your resume.
- Tell me a little more about your background.
What makes this a tricky question for some is that it’s so open-ended. You can really go anywhere with it:
- What kinds of things should you tell?
- How specific should you be?
- How much should you tell?
What’s the best way to handle it?
Do you plan to just wing it, once you get there?
That simply doesn’t work well for most people.
Most of us can’t come up with a meaty response on the fly.
Why do interviewers ask “Tell me about yourself”?
Interviewers’ motive for asking it revolves not only around determining whether you’re qualified. They also want to get some indication that you’ll fit with the team or staff and the company culture.
According to LinkedIn’s Get Hired:
“Interviewers don’t ask to knock you off balance. It is an icebreaker, but from a more professional view, it offers you the chance to lead with your strengths and direct the conversation in a way most conducive to your preferences.
In short, the question sets the direction for the interview on the interviewee’s terms. But there is still a pop-quiz element to it. Recruiters want interviewees to show them that they can think on their feet. Creativity, abstract thinking and eagerness to take on problems are much-prized soft skills that a resume or cover letter can’t display reliably, and that no job can teach quickly or easily.”
This is typically the first question you will be asked in an interview. A strong response will:
- Help set the tone
- Show how enthusiastic you are about the job and the company
- Set the stage for a conversation that includes the many ways you’re a good fit for them
- Further generate interest in you, beyond the resume they already have in hand
How to approach this interview question
As with any part of your job search, your mission is to make it clear to your target employers that you have the skills, qualifications and personal qualities they want and need.
And, perhaps most importantly, your mission is to make abundantly clear the potential value you offer.
Always put yourself in their shoes. Tell them the things about you they need to hear.
How do you do this?
It’s all about formulating and practicing an answer to this question beforehand. So it’s really all about good job interview prep.
You should have already done plenty of research on the industry, market and the particular company where you’re interviewing.
Review your research to understand:
- What the company is looking for in candidates for the position you’re seeking.
- Some things about the company culture.
- Some things about the person (or people) conducting the interview.
Prepare your answer to “Tell me about yourself”
First understand that there’s no single right or wrong way to answer this.
And you may answer this differently for each employer you interview with, depending on the company and role you’re interviewing for. But some of what you say may be relevant for all your interviews, for any company.
You could provide an anemic, generic answer like:
“For the past 20 years, I have helped companies decrease costs, build revenue, improve team performance and manage risk.”
Although that doesn’t say much about you, it could possibly satisfy your interviewer(s).
But it’s such a short answer and does nothing to differentiate you from the many other candidates they’re probably interviewing.
Why take a chance that such a wishy-washy response will work (even if only moderately)?
Why not prepare a knockout answer that will draw them to you and stimulate their interest?
Good ways to answer “Tell me about yourself”
One way to approach this:
Tell them a particular career story about yourself.
Storytelling is a great tool to use throughout your job interviews because they do such a good job of helping people to connect to who you are, how you operate and how you get things done.
It helps them envision you already on the job, making a positive impact.
It helps to generate chemistry for you and give people a feel for your personality, which is what personal branding is all about.
And, when told compellingly, storytelling holds people’s interest and makes them want to learn more about you.
Here’s one way to start your story:
“Here’s something that I did for [your current or recent employer] that will give you an idea of how I get things done and add value.”
Ask yourself questions like these suggested in an Indeed.com article, to help you brainstorm ways to respond:
- What qualities make you a great fit for this position?
- Why are you interested in the company or the industry?
- What positive traits will serve you well in this role?
- Is there something unique about your background?
The Muse suggests structuring your response using this formula:
Present: Talk a little bit about what your current role is, the scope of it, and perhaps a big recent accomplishment.
Past: Tell the interviewer how you got there and/or mention previous experience that’s relevant to the job and company you’re applying for.
Future: Segue into what you’re looking to do next and why you’re interested in this gig (and a great fit for it, too).
This isn’t the only way to build your response, of course, and you can tweak it as you see fit. If there’s a particularly potent story about what brought you into this field, for example, you might decide to start with that “past” story and then get into what you’re doing in the present.
Whatever order you pick, make sure you ultimately tie it to the job and company. A good place to end it is to transition into why you’re there. You want to be absolutely certain your interviewer is left with the impression that it makes sense that [you’re] sitting here talking to me about this role.
Examples of how to answer “Tell me about yourself”
Job search and career expert Alison Doyle offered these thoughts:
Although it might be tempting to share a list of your most compelling qualifications for the job, a more low-key approach will probably help you to develop a personal rapport with your interviewer.
One option for your response is to share some of your personal interests which don’t relate directly to your career:
- Examples might include a hobby that you are passionate about like quilting, astronomy, chess, choral singing, golf, skiing, tennis, or antiquing.
- Interests like long-distance running or yoga that help to represent your healthy, energetic side are worth mentioning.
- Pursuits, like being an avid reader or solving crossword puzzles or brain teasers, will help to showcase your intellectual leaning.
- Interests like golf, tennis, and gourmet food might have some value if you would be entertaining clients in your new job.
- Volunteer work will demonstrate the seriousness of your character and commitment to the welfare of your community.
- Interactive roles like PTA volunteer, museum tour guide, fundraiser, or chair of a social club will help show your comfort with engaging others.
She further suggests that, after sharing a few personal aspects of your background, transition to mentioning some of your relevant professional skills.
This is where combining storytelling with providing specific examples of wins you made for your current and past employers will really pay off.
Be sure to quantify details and outcomes whenever possible. Use numbers to make a stronger point.
And be sure to write it in conversational words, to sound the way that you actually speak.
How NOT to answer “Tell me about yourself”
She also warns not to share too much or too little information:
The interviewer doesn’t want to know everything about you, but disclosing too little can make him or her wonder why you aren’t more open.
Avoid potentially contentious subjects such as political or religious leanings, unless you are absolutely positive that your opinions would be well-received by your interviewer.
Don’t talk about a hobby that might seem to be more important to you than your career. No employer wants to take a chance on hiring someone who will miss a lot of work or ask for extensive vacation time to pursue their passions outside of work.
Avoid sharing personal information about your family. There is no need to discuss spouses, partners, children, or any other strictly personal information.
I’ll add another to her list:
Don’t (in any way) badmouth your current or past employers, or air grievances you have with ANYONE. Doing this will lead potential employers to see how easily you may do this to them.
How to frame your answer
Job search expert Hannah Morgan suggests a few ways to frame your answer:
I am known for …(types of problems you solve)
With expertise in …(1-2 problems you have solved or processes/procedures)
My background includes…(specify industries, company cultures, and/or community experience)
One of the things I am most proud of is…(site an example of something you were proud to accomplish)
Based on what I know about this opportunity, I believe… (why you are interested in this role)
And, she says, keep it short and sweet . . . no more than about 1 minute.
Remember that this is just the start of the interview. You’ll have the opportunity to add more later in the conversation.
Practice your answer . . . but don’t memorize
Now that you know how you’ll answer this question in a particular upcoming interview, for a particular employer, spend a bit of time smoothing out your delivery of the answer.
If you practice, your answer will flow naturally and sound like it’s a part of you. You’ll be able to answer confidently and with purpose.
The same article in The Muse advises recording your answer (you can leave yourself a voicemail). Then play it back after an hour or so, to give you perspective. Does it should solid and credible?
Power posing before entering the interview will also help with confidence-building.
It’s very important to smile when you answer any questions, and when you’re listening to them.
You’ll have an advantage if it’s a remote interview, either via video or phone. You can refer to notes for all your answers.