When you are interviewing for a job, it’s likely that in every interview you will be asked the question, “Tell me about yourself.” The question can come in different shapes and forms such as: “Describe yourself, tell me why you think you’re right for the job, or why should we offer you this job?”
Despite it being one, if not the most common interview question, many candidates are still taken off guard as to how to answer it in the interview. Many candidates lose their focus, begin to ramble, or veer into uncharted territories of their upbringing.
Guess what? The interviewer is really not that interested in your life story. Or are they? (I suppose it depends on how interesting your life story is.) But, really remember why you are both there: to see if there is a mutual fit for the job.
The ‘tell me about yourself’ question is a tricky question to answer in the interview for a number of reasons. First, due to the simplicity of the question it can cause a job applicant to drop their guard and become more casual.
Second, unseasoned interviewers often don’t really know the reasoning behind why they’re asking this question. Many have been conditioned in observing other interviews and ask it out of habit as an icebreaker or wrap-up question, and every interviewer is looking for something different in your answer.
Why? Because they’ve all been trained differently in the art of interviewing. Some want to find a small personal connection to ease the stress of the interview, while others want to see how prepared you are. There is no one right way to answer the question, but there are some general guiding points that can help you navigate your response to help you stand out as a strong candidate.
First, understand that this is your chance to give your own elevator pitch regarding your personal brand. Try to keep your response to a short summary of your skills and qualifications, your recent experience, and a few highlights of your career and achievements.
Let me remind you again, the key is to pick a few highlights. Your best bet is to make a list of these highlights and accomplishments and what you think are relevant points about your work history and education. Then for each interview select the ones that are most relevant to the position and company you are meeting with. Don’t give the interviewer an exhaustive laundry list, give them an overview that’s easy to remember and reminds them why you’re a great fit.
Make sure you do your research on the company prior to the interview and align the highlights of your personal pitch to what the organization is looking for in the role–this will showcase that you understand what the role entails and that you have what it takes to succeed.
Avoid speaking about your personal life in great lengths. Some career and interview experts will tell you to avoid talking about your personal life at all, but this again goes back to researching your interviewer if possible and knowing the culture of the company.
A fun startup with a focus on work/life balance might like to know their employees have a personal life, while a buttoned-down fast-paced corporate office might just be focused on your work experience. If you do decide to include any personal information, keep it upbeat, try to relate it back to your skills and qualifications, and let it be something unique or fun that helps you stand out in a positive way.
For example, if you are interviewing for a creative role and you like to bake, stating that your former colleagues think you make the best chai-iced grapefruit cupcake this side of the state can show off that creative spark and that you get along well with others. Or if you are a state champion swimmer, mentioning your achievements can show your dedication and discipline to hard work deriving in results. But remember, know your audience and the culture: some companies like fun and quirky, while others like professional and straightforward.
If you’re asked this question at the beginning of the interview (which is most common), use your response as an opportunity to set the tone of the interview. If you touch base on some key achievements with a prior company, you may want to conclude your answer with a response about how you how to hope to deliver similar or greater results with the company you are interviewing with or that your passion for this type of work led you to apply for the particular position that you are interviewing for.
If the question comes up in the middle of the interview, gauge how the interview is going and take the opportunity to re-direct the interview if you feel the interviewer has missed out on knowing any great highlights as to why you’re a great fit for the role.
Try ending with a question or statement that shows you are up for the challenge of the new position, like, “I definitely think my prior experience makes me a great candidate, but I’d love to hear more about what you think makes a person successful in this role.” This will then give you an opportunity to address the interviewers follow-up remarks to your question to make sure you can touch on the things they are looking for.
If the question comes near the end of the interview take the time to re-cap your experience along with any important points you covered in the interview that peaked the interviewer’s interest–but don’t make it completely repetitive.
You can use different examples to emphasize your overarching ideas. Remember, though, to keep your answer succinct, and if there’s anything that you want the interviewer to know about you that wasn’t covered, this is your last chance to leave a great impression.
And again, while this interview question feels casual, your goal in the interview is to secure a job. Fight the urge to want to tell your life story or get personal and remember that the aim for both you and the interviewer is to establish if you have the right skills and desire for the job and if you’re a good fit for the organization. Make sure your personal statement always keeps this in mind, because the question isn’t really just about you, it’s about you and the position as a fit.