There are some job interview questions that are guaranteed to come up in most (if not all) of your job interviews — regardless of your industry, your experience level, and job type. Check out this advice from Pamela Skillings with BIG INTERVIEW, one of our licensed Mays Career Management Center resource providers.
At the top of this list is the universal and much-dreaded classic: “Tell me about yourself.” Since it’s often the first question to be asked in an interview, it’s your big chance to make a first impression. In fact, we think this question is so important that we created an entire video lesson around it in our flagship product Big Interview. Watch it here:
This question (or a variation like “Walk me through your background”) comes up in just about every job interview and many job searchers hate it. They hate it because they get frustrated trying to decipher exactly what the interviewer is looking for. However, if you prepare properly, there’s no reason to dread this question. In fact, this question is an opportunity — an opening for you to set the tone of the job interview and emphasize the points that you most want this potential employer to know about you. Don’t waste the opportunity by simply diving into a long recitation of your resume. This also isn’t the time to mention that you love flamenco dancing and bingo (yes, I have seen candidates ramble on about hobbies and personal preferences many times and it’s a surefire way to make a weak first impression). Instead, try a concise, enthusiastic response that summarizes your big-picture fit for the job. In this article, we’ll show you the Big Interview Formula for crafting your perfect response to “Tell me about yourself.”
The Interviewer’s Perspective
When the interviewer asks you, “Tell me about yourself”, what is he trying to achieve? Well, for the interviewer, it’s an easy and open-ended way to start the conversation. His ultimate goal for this interview is to find out enough about you to decide if you’re a good fit for the job opening that he is being paid to fill. In most cases, he wants to like you. His life will be easier if he can find a great candidate quickly. However, he is also on guard because a bad hire will reflect poorly on his judgment and possibly be a mark against him when it comes time to ask for a raise or promotion or bonus. He is hoping that this question will get you talking. This question is almost always asked first, perhaps right after some chit chat about traffic and the weather. Your answer to this question will dictate the interviewer’s first impression of you, and will set the tone for the entire interview, letting you lead with your strongest selling points.
How Not to Answer “Tell Me About Yourself”
Before we jump into the Big Interview Formula for crafting the perfect answer, let’s cover some of the most common mistakes you might make when answering “Tell me about yourself”. (If anybody is giving you the following answers as advice — run the other way!)
- The Resume Rehash— Many candidates respond by launching into a recitation of their resume from the very beginning. That can turn into a very long monologue that starts with one’s oldest — and probably least relevant and impressive — experience. By the time you get to the good stuff, your interviewer has zoned out and is thinking about lunch.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to prepare a brief summary of the high points of each of your past positions. It is likely that you will be asked about your accomplishments and day-to-day responsibilities in previous roles. Ideally, this should come out in an engaging conversation, though, not a long monologue at the beginning of the interview. You’ll only confuse your interviewer with information overload. 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 segue into an overview of your most recent position, leaving plenty of opportunities for the interviewer to jump in and engage with you.
- Mr./Ms. Modesty— Many of my interview coaching clients make the mistake of being too modest. They reply with a humble or vague introduction that fails to clearly communicate their strongest qualifications for the gig.
Some of these clients are just humble people who aren’t comfortable with “selling” themselves. Others have never really had to worry about a strong pitch — they were always courted for new opportunities when the job market was stronger. Today, the 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, “I’m the best salesperson in the world.” Instead, you can state, “I led my division in sales for the last three years and had the opportunity to bring in more than $18 million worth of new business during that time.”
- The First Date Approach— This is not a first date. Your interviewer does not want to hear that you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain. Many recent grads misconstrue the question and talk too much about their personal lives and hobbies.
This is probably because many only have admissions and other school-related interview experience (clubs, programs, etc.). For these types of interviews, there is much more interest in who you are as a person. In job interviews, focus on who you are as a professional unless asked about hobbies or outside pursuits.
- The Clueless Ramble— I have watched a surprising number of smart candidates totally flub this question because of overthinking. Their answers sounds something like this: “You mean about my job experience or about my schooling or what kind of information are you looking for?”
I know that these candidates are aiming to please and that “Tell me about yourself” can be interpreted in many different ways. However, asking for too much clarification only makes you look hesitant and confused. Dive right in with the approach that we outlined for you above. If they are looking for something else, they will ask you for it.
How to Nail “Tell Me About Yourself”
Think of it as your elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a short summary used to quickly and simply define a product, service, or business and its value proposition. It answers the question: “Why should I buy/invest?” It should be concise enough to be delivered during a short elevator ride (to the 5th floor, not to the 105th floor). You need an elevator pitch for yourself as a job candidate — and it should be customized for different opportunities. Keep it focused and short, 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 high points into 2 minutes, so you’ll have to spend some time thinking about how to present yourself in a way that starts the interview on the right note.
A great answer will address the following:
- What are your primary selling points for this job? This could be number of years of experience in a particular industry or area of specialization. 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.
- Why are you interested in this position right now? 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 Big Interview Formula for Answering This Question
I’ll share the “Tell Me About Yourself” formula that I teach to my interview coaching clients (and Big Interview members). There are three components:
- 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 HR manager with 8 years of experience managing all aspects of the HR function — from recruiting to training to benefits — for Fortune 500 companies.” Concisely summarizes diverse background.
Bad: “Well, I grew up in Cincinnati. As a child, I originally wanted to be a fireman, then later became interested in dinosaurs. I excelled in the sciences from early on, placing first in my fourth-grade science fair. Funny story about that…” Way too much information.
- Expertise Highlights— Don’t assume that the interviewer has closely read your resume and knows your qualifications. Use your elevator pitch to briefly highlight 2-4 points that you think make you stand out.
Good: “I have spent the last six years developing my skills as a customer service manager for Megacompany Inc., where I have won several performance awards and been promoted twice. I love managing teams and solving customer problems.” The emphasis here is on experience, enthusiasm, and proof of performance.
Bad: “My first job was as an administrative assistant for Macy’s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I learned a great deal in that role that served me well over the next 12 years. At the time, I wasn’t sure about my career path, so I next took a position selling real estate. It only lasted for six months, but I sure enjoyed it.” Zzzzzzz. Nobody cares about your first job 12 years ago. You are starting with the least impressive part of your career and the interviewer is likely to tune out before you get to the good stuff.
- Why You’re Here— End by telling them you want the position and why.
Good: “Although I love my current role, I feel I’m now ready for a more challenging assignment and this position really excites me.” Concise and positive.
Bad: “Because of the company’s financial problems and my boss’s issues, I’m worried about my job’s stability and decided to start looking for new opportunities.” Don’t be too candid or you risk coming across as negative. This answer also makes it seem like you’re interested in a job, any job — not this job in particular.
Remember: You will have time later to walk through your resume in more detail and fill in any gaps. Don’t try to squeeze in too much information or your interviewer WILL start to tune out.
A good interview is a dialogue, not a monologue. Keep it concise and give your interviewer the chance to dive in and ask questions.
Practicing your answer over and over will be the key to success, so break out the mirror and a stopwatch, or get the full advantage of the interactive practice tool inside our Big Interview training system. (As a Mays Business School graduate student, you have full access to the Big Interview training system!)
Example Answers for “Tell Me About Yourself”:
“I have more than five years of experience as a technical project manager at top Wall Street companies. Most recently, I led the development of an award-winning new trading platform. I’m a person who thrives in a fast-paced environment so right now I’m looking for an opportunity to apply my technical experience and my creative problem-solving skills at an innovative software company like this one.”
Notice that the first line sums up her experience and name drops “top Wall Street companies.” It’s always good to mention high-profile employers by name. Most hiring managers will perk up because they assume that if you made it through the hiring process at other well-respected companies, you must be pretty good.
She then describes an impressive recent project that we can assume is very relevant to the work required in the open position. Next, she spends time talking about why she’s interested in this company/role, using the terms fast-paced, creative, problem solving, and innovative. This is great if those words are used in the job description and/or company values.
With this answer, the candidate is leading with some of her top selling points — experience at top firms, recognized stellar performance (award), technical expertise, problem-solving skills, etc. This will help him grab the interviewer’s attention and make a strong first impression.
It bears repeating that a strong first impression is critical in a job interview situation. Start the interview strong and end it strong and you might even get away with flubbing a few questions in the middle.
Craft Your Pitch
So now that you know how to approach it, I have a feeling that you’ll learn to love hearing the “Tell me about yourself” question. Take a few moments now to sit down and plan how you will respond in your next interview.
Polish your plan with one of our Mays Career Management Center career coaches. Make an appointment today!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As one of the country’s top interview coaches, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase. She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.