The Dreaded “Tell Me About Yourself” Interview Question
By Brian Sullivan
We’ve all been there. We are sitting in the lobby of a large office building, observing important-looking people with briefcases coming in and out of the elevator. They’re all strangers but, maybe someday, you’ll get to know them all. All you have to do is get through this little interview in a few minutes, and these folks will be your new watercooler buddies.
You’ve spent the last two days mapping out your route to the building, Googling the Top 50 Interview Questions, and researching as much as you can about the company and their admirable mission. You got to the coffeeshop across the street an hour early to remove as many variables as possible, ensuring you arrive the requisite 5-10 minutes ahead of the scheduled interview time, and you feel very confident wearing your best business professional outfit. A friendly Human Resources Representative approaches you and asks if you’re here for an interview. You answer “yes”, and can tell by the enthusiastic nod from your soon-to-be interviewer that you answered correctly. Shoot, this whole thing will be a walk in the park.
After a short elevator ride with the Human Resources Representative, the two of you walk down a hall into an empty conference room. You make yourself comfortable as she thanks you for meeting with her today. Suddenly, the air is sucked out of the room, the lights flicker, and the temperature rises at least 100 degrees when she utters the terrifying words: “So, tell me about yourself”.
All that preparation, all the rehearsing and researching… and for what? Nothing could have prepared you for this moment. You feel the perspiration on your hands and the frog in your throat. So long, best watercooler buddies who we never got to know!
Obviously, this is an exaggeration, but it isn’t far from the truth; of all the questions an interviewer could ask, the most basic and equally most complicated is the open-ended “Tell me about yourself”. This question goes by many names, such as “Tell me a bit about your background”, “I’d love to get to know more about you,” and the more informal “What brings you in today?”, but they’re all the same in essence: present your best self. No pressure, right?
Just like in the outlined scenario, it often feels like this question comes out of nowhere and, while we’ve readied many examples of navigating difficult client relationships or acing complicated projects, we never expect this particular question to be asked. Many of us decide we will just improvise an answer (pronounced “wing it”) once we get there but, under the heat of the bright lights, we often come up empty handed. That being said, while it can be tough, there actually are ways to prepare for this question, getting you one step closer to small talk at that majestic watercooler with future colleagues.
What NOT to Do
Before we delve into how to answer this question, I’ll provide some critical ways not to answer it. First, don’t brush the question off, or tell the interviewer that everything they’d like to know can be found on your resume. Not only does that come off as snarky, it also may be the case that the person conducting the interview is not the person who conducted the recruiting process. The interviewer may have briefly glanced at your resume on their walk from the printer to the lobby to greet you, but they may be unfamiliar with the intimate details of your background. You’ll appear impatient, impersonal, and assumptive about an interview process you don’t actually know. Not to mention, regardless if they’ve thoroughly studied your resume or not, they may be interviewing multiple candidates for this position, so giving them more information about yourself can only help separate you from the pile. Being standoffish about the question, on the other hand, only helps the interviewer narrow down the applicant pool, very likely not including you.
So, while suggesting the interviewer review your materials on their own time is not a good way to go, neither is the full pendulum swing the other way: going through your entire resume, point-by-painstaking-point. While they might not be able to recite your complete professional and academic experience like a youth spelling bee champion accurately spelling out “narcolepsy”, by touching on every bullet point on your resume, you will undoubtedly put them to sleep. You should use your resume as a guide when constructing your answer to this question (and you should limit bringing up too many roles or projects not found on your resume), but also don’t read it to them like a town crier sharing an urgent message from the queen.
Many of us in the customer service, client retention, or helping professions are eager to give others what they want. It’s a key component to success in those roles. However, this is not the time to respond to “Tell me about yourself” with “Well… what would you like to know?”. Part of them asking this question is to gauge certain qualities about you, in particular how much research you did on the company, how comfortable you are in this type of environment, how you respond under pressure, and how you interpret nonverbal cues to deliver the desired outcome without having to ask “What’s the desired outcome?”. This comes down to being equally personable and direct. Your answer should be informative, but concise. Being indecisive and sharing your entire personal history with an interviewer is not advised. I’ve personally had 30-minute interviews with candidates who took 27 minutes (no joke) to answer this question and, while they’ve typically been delightful people, they normally don’t end up progressing much further through the process.
To add more no-nos to the “kitchen sink” approach, especially when interviewing for a position in the US, telling an interviewer about yourself should be 90-100% professionally-focused; avoid sharing personal information as much as possible. This information includes (but is not limited to) hobbies, religious affiliations, marital status, dating history, family, kids, etc. There are exceptions to this. For example, when I was first applying to jobs Washington, DC, I had just relocated from the Midwest. All of my professional and academic experiences were completed in Michigan, so a quick mention of how I met my wife at Michigan State University and we decided to relocate to the DC area to be closer to her family gave my interviewers context of how life’s circumstances moved me several hundred miles to a new city, culminating with me sitting in their office for an interview. That being said, aside from a brief mention of my marital status, the remainder of my answer was about my background, education, and transferrable skills that they would find beneficial in accomplishing the firm’s long-term goals. If the personal information isn’t related to the position, it’s best to avoid it though; even this example is one I would use sparingly and only if it helps to illustrate a particular bit of context to your interviewer.
Additionally, it is important to recognize that some companies may hire an employee without an interview, others may have one interview before an offer is made, and some may have applicants participate in a series of interviews with various team members. It is possible the “Tell me about yourself” question may never be asked, or it might be asked five or six separate times, all from different stakeholders. Informing your second-round interviewer that you’ve already answered this question, or complaining that it’s being asked again (probably goes without saying) is not a good approach. Instead, having a practiced and consistent “elevator pitch” (more on this soon) is important to deliver a similar answer to all of your interviewers. However, over-rehearsing or memorizing your answer to this question will come off as stiff and mechanical. Variation in your answer isn’t bad, but giving answers that don’t line up (or potentially contradict) from one round to the next can sometimes be puzzle interviewers, making you either appear disorganized at best, or dishonest at worst.
Lastly, reading the room is important, especially when there are multiple rounds to the interview process, and tailoring your responses to your audience is definitely a good idea. Applying for a Java Developer opening, for example, and running through the laundry list of every software and programming language you’ve used to a Human Resources Assistant (whose inexperience with this technical jargon may prevent them from following along) may not be received as well as it might with the Director of Technical Development or the CIO. Sometimes, this approach could be appropriate because the job will be offered to the candidate that checks the most boxes on the recruiter’s required skills list but, in the majority of cases, it will feel automated and awkward. Instead of focusing entirely on what you did, convey the impact of what you did… in other words, why did your work matter?
Just to recap, when asked “Tell me about yourself” in an interview: 1) don’t refer your interviewer to your resume, 2) don’t read your resume to your interviewer, 3) don’t put the ball back in their court and ask them how they’d like the question to be answered, 4) don’t take all day to answer the question, 5) don’t “overshare” on the personal details, 6) don’t tell your interviewer you already shared this information with someone else, 7) be consistent, but don’t memorize your answer, and 8) don’t assume everyone you interview with will have the same understanding of particular aspects on the job they’re seeking to fill.
So… What Should You Do?
If you’re working with a recruiter, a career coach, or even a trusted family member or friend, they will likely have additional ideas of bad ways to answer the “Tell me about yourself” question, and certainly be receptive to their insights, but these first eight points will likely be a good baseline. Now that we’ve covered what not to do, it becomes easier to explore how to give a good answer to this question.
The first thing I can’t stress enough is outline your answer. I know, I know… it sounds like such a basic question, why are we constructing our response like a high school essay? Well, it is challenging to answer this question effectively without taking stock of what they wish to include, so why not get organized? Below, I have included two (2) formats.
I. Present (Introducing yourself, your current role, and recent accomplishments)
II. Past (How you got involved in this industry, field of study, line of work, etc., and past roles that prepared you for it)
III. Future (What you’re looking for in the next opportunity, and what an employer would get out of hiring you).
I. Past (A brief history of yourself, and creating a theme of how your experiences have led you to where you are now)
II. Present (where you are now, and how you impact that organization)
III. Future (Same as Format A)
These are the best two ways to answer this question, but which one is right for you? I recommend them both, as each have their strengths and drawbacks. This is a matter of opinion and trial-and-error but, for most job seekers, Format A will be the preferred approach.
Format A is especially attractive if you’re a clear fit for the position. Let’s say you earned a degree in Journalism, you completed two internships with some local TV networks, you have been a junior editor for your local newspaper’s sports section since graduating, and now you’re interviewing for essentially the same role at a larger organization. In this situation, it makes sense to start off with who you are and what you currently do, then take a trip down memory lane about what sparked your passion in journalism, provide some brief details about your internships, and close out with being excited to bring your skills and experience to a larger publication where you can continue to grow, and your perspective will lend itself well to this new organization’s mission. Your career path aligns with what an interviewer expects of an ideal candidate, and your mission is to unequivocally confirm that is the case.
On the other hand, my journey led me from a Bachelor of Arts in History and the aspirations of being a high school History Teacher in my home state of Michigan to now working in recruiting and career coaching at R&W Group, a DC-based staffing firm. For most opportunities, I would believe I was a fit for it but, without making a case for myself, that wasn’t always evident to a hiring manager. In other words, I was interviewing for a position where I could be a fit, but that fit isn’t always immediately clear. If your situation is like mine, you might find Format B to your liking. Here, I can start with presenting my thesis: I wanted to be a teacher because I love learning new things and leveraging that knowledge to help others attain their goals. Starting with the past, it becomes much clearer to see how I went from teaching, changing professions through a handful of diverse positions before ultimately working in staffing. The through-line for me has been gaining proficiency where it allows me to better support others, which is a good motivator in both education and recruiting. And, if I were to be interviewed tomorrow, I would say that my future would likely involve some continuation of that theme that would benefit me, the new employer, and leave their end users feeling satisfied due to my involvement. With Format B, the goal is to tell a story about how seemingly unrelated experiences actually do relate through a central theme, and that has made you a uniquely qualified candidate. For Format B, if your focus is on that theme, it will often help limit the likelihood your answer becomes a lengthy life story.
Once you decide whether Format A or Format B best suits you and your situation, it’s now time to fill in the details of the outline. To do this, we’ll need to set some ground rules about structure, and think about why an interviewer would even ask this question in the first place.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention, and Restriction the Mother of Creativity. Using some helpful guidelines can reign you in and drastically improve your answer to this question. The first rule is to commit to one of the two recommended formats. Next, make sure you’re familiar with the things not to do. The third rule relates to duration. While this rule is highly debated and isn’t written down anywhere, answering the “Tell me about yourself” question should fall in the range of 1-3 minutes. Shorter than that, and it usually isn’t informative, while going beyond that can verge into rambling. Especially if you’re following either of the suggested formats, you’ll find this range very appropriate. The final rule won’t come into play until you’ve outlined a response, but it’s to practice your answer aloud, either in the mirror, or with someone else. Make sure to time your response; if it falls within the range, or less than 30 seconds outside of it, you know you got a good one on your hands.
So why do interviewers ask this question in the first place? Understanding their motivation will help you make the most out of this 1–3-minute answer. Think of answering the question as a sort of elevator pitch; you have a limited time to make a lasting, memorable first impression, so make it count!
The first purpose this question serves is comically obvious: they actually do want to learn more about you. Depending on how you answer, you’ll likely share details about your education, your professional history, and your goals and aspirations. But your response will also give them examples of your soft skills too. Are you nervously recalling notecards in your mind, or are you carrying on naturally? Are you rigidly sticking to the script, or are you able to make minor pivots based on your interviewer’s (positive or negative) body language? When they make a positive comment like “Nice!” or “Interesting!”, does that throw you completely off course, or do you thank them for the compliment and get back on track? Plus, if they want to learn more about you, who would be a better person than you to answer. Nobody knows you better than you do, after all.
Another important function of this question is to segue from the small talk in the lobby to the meat and potatoes of the interview. Your answer can set the tone for the rest of the interview, and might lead to them organically asking questions and having a conversation, compared to running down their list of required steps. It really is a good icebreaker and discussion piece.
We know now that “Tell me about yourself” is not an invitation to discuss personal hobbies and interests. But, while it is about your professional experience, that’s only part of the equation. The other unspoken part you’re sharing with your interviewer is how familiar you are with their organization; how well you understand the possible obstacles and successes of this role; what you envision this opportunity providing for you; what you can offer them as a potential employee and what makes you the best candidate for the job. They might not have asked you any of these things directly, but if you can weave it into your elevator pitch, you will absolutely make a good impression.
The last step is to affix a pretty ribbon atop your masterful answer. Believe it or not, many people will flawlessly execute their “Tell me about yourself” answer, and conclude with something like “So yeah, that’s me!” or “…aaaand that’s about it!” If you took care in crafting this answer, have a solid closing sentence too. Something like “This is what led me to apply to your posting, and I am excited to learn more about this opportunity” will absolutely impress more than saying “Ta-Da!”, I promise you.
At the risk of sounding like I don’t follow my own advice, that’s about all I have to share regarding this topic. If you’d like additional support in answering this question, in updating your resume, or in giving your job search a boost, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Looking forward to hearing from you soon!