The Dreaded Interview Question: “Tell Me About Yourself”

The moment has arrived. You have prepped for this interview for days, thought about possible questions that might be asked, maybe even had a friend run you through mock interviews. You have put on the right outfit, timed the arrival perfectly, and you are now sitting in front of the guy in charge and waiting for the first question.

“Tell me about yourself.”

OK, that wasn’t expected. Does he want to know what you do in your free time? What your personal hang-ups and passions are? Your education? Career goals? There are so many possible directions to go in, and your nerves make all of them seem wrong.

This is a very common way to open an interview. How you answer it sets the tone for you and for the interviewer. If you feel you didn’t understand it or answer it well, you might not feel confident throughout the rest of the conversation. This discomfort can be contagious and set the interview spinning out of control. There are ways to handle this question, however, that are advantageous to you.

Why Interviewers Ask

There are a few reasons interviewers like to hear job candidates’ responses to this question. Sometimes, it’s just a convenient icebreaker and a way to get you to start talking while they get organized. Most often however, the purposes go a little deeper.

They want to see how you handle yourself when prompted in a less scripted way. Confidence is key here. It’s easy to be confident when every question has a simple response. “Where did you go to school?” has a linear response.

This is also a great way to see what you feel is most important. If you start off with “I love to ski,” it says you enjoy your recreational time and it may come across that you are unbalanced in your love for play.

Mostly, though, the interviewer is looking for a more comprehensive view of who you are and what you bring to the table. This can’t be easily answered with one question, but it’s a good starting place.

Definitely Don’t

There are some ways of answering this question that could prevent you from getting the job.

Don’t just repeat everything on your resume or cover letter. Sometimes the interviewer will even qualify this opening question with “Tell me about yourself, other than what I already know from your resume.” Be prepared to go in a little deeper than the sanitized lines of your resume.

Don’t tell your whole life story. The interviewer wants to know things about you that are pertinent to the job you’re applying for. Jane Cranston, a career coach from New York said, “The biggest mistake people being interviewed make is thinking the interviewer really wants to know about them as a person. They start saying things like, ‘Well, I was born in Hoboken, and when I was three we moved…’ The interviewer wants to know that you can do the job, that you fit into the team, what you have accomplished in your prior positions and how you can help the organization.”

Don’t ramble. Your answer should be concise and clear. Keep it to 1-1.5 minutes at the most. You have the rest of the interview to elaborate on your experiences and skills. Save some for later.

Don’t answer with, “What do you want to know?” Even though they need someone to fill the position, as the employer they have a lot more to lose if it’s a bad fit than you do in accepting the job. You can always find something else and still get paid for your time. Because of this, you are in the position of being the

Ways to Answer This Question

Melanie Szlucha, a coach with Red Inc., says to think of your response like a movie preview. “The movie preview always relates to the movie you’re about to see. You never see a movie preview for an animated flick when you’re there to see a slasher movie. So the ‘tell me about yourself” answer needs to directly fit the concerns of your prospective employer.” Like a movie preview, your goal is to tempt the employer to want to “watch the whole movie,” or hire you.

Here’s a formula to help guide your response:

  1. Start with your most recent employment, then mention past employment briefly if applicable. (“I’m currently a [position] at [company], where I [briefly explain relevant and impressive job duties].”)
  2. Mention your strengths and abilities. (“My real strengths are____.)
  3. Highlight 1-2 of your most important accomplishments/success stories that demonstrate the qualities they are looking for. (I think the best way to demonstrate these qualities is through a couple of experiences I’ve had…”)
  4. Finish with enthusiasm about this particular opportunity and explain why you want the job. (“Now I’m looking to…I’m very excited about the [name of position] position at this company because…”)

Your answer does not have to fit this format exactly, but do try and use a story or anecdote; demonstrating your quality through an experience is much stronger than just saying you “have great problem-solving skills.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Remember to keep your response to about 90 seconds. Have someone time you and listen as you answer the question at home in a comfortable setting. If you trust the person, have them give you feedback from the perspective of the company. What would they want to hear if they were looking to invest in you? It may seem that this will make you sound too rehearsed, but surprisingly it leads to better and more natural sounding answers.

For help with other common yet intimidating interview questions, click here.