Has ‘tell me about yourself’ thrown you into a state of panic at interviews? Here’s how to nail this question and even look forward to it
You know that you are a great fit for the role. They know you are a great fit for the role. You know this is true because they have invited you for an interview. The problem is that they also feel like this about all the other people they shortlisted too.
To put yourself above your competition you need to show them why you are the best candidate – and that usually starts with the “tell me about yourself’ question.
Many people panic, don’t say enough or say way too much but, with a little preparation, it can provide the perfect start to your next interview.
The best way to understand how to answer ‘tell me about yourself’ is to look at why this is such a common interview question, so that is where we will start.
Why interviewers ask this question
There are a few different ways this question can be asked including:
- Walk me through your career history to date
- Let’s start with your journey so far
- Briefly summarise your background for me
Whichever way they ask it, there are 3 main reasons why they do it.
It’s an easy open-ended way to start their questioning
After some initial chit chat about weather, parking and directions, it provides a natural transition into the more probing questions that will come later on.
They want to get a feel for who you really are.
Up to this point, they only know the paper or electronic version of you which has told them all about your hard skills. This question allows them to explore the soft skills you would bring to the role such as your ability to gain and build rapport, how confidently you express yourself, and your general interpersonal style.
It helps set the direction of the interview
What you choose to highlight from your past, and how you say it, will prompt the recruiter or hiring manager to delve a little deeper in a certain direction through their follow up questions.
For all these reasons, getting this question right can get you off to a great start for your interview. Obviously though, the reverse is also true.
I think most of us have been in the situation at some point in our lives where we have been asked a question and our mouths start saying something, but our eyes register that it is all wrong by a person’s reaction, and then our head tells us we have no option but to keep going.That’s awkward in your personal life but potentially disastrous in an interview.
This is why, as with all things to do with interviews, preparation is vital.
Before we get into how to prepare a great answer, let’s just take note of all the things you should be avoiding.
How Not to Answer “Tell Me About Yourself”
There are a lot of things that can trip you up with this seemingly easy, relaxed question but these are the most common mistakes people make.
Saying too much
So you have just sat down, you are feeling a little nervous and you are hearing a nagging little voice in your head saying “first impressions count”. You are then given a chance to tell them about yourself and bam, off you go… and end up reciting your whole resume.
This is so easy to do but it is a really bad idea because they already have your resume. What they want to hear is a summary of your achievements and aspirations. Think of it as a springboard where they can dive into a pool of more information about you.
Be careful not to deliver a long monologue where they switch off due to boredom by keeping it under 5 minutes.
Saying too little
There are two aspects to this. First is the literal sense of not saying enough. Many people choose to get this question ‘out the way’ and don’t value it’s importance. They will mumble a couple of things that last 30 seconds and then wait for the ‘proper questions’ to begin. Big mistake.
The other kind of saying too little is to be too humble and not sell yourself to the interviewer. Whilst some are natural braggers, most of us feel a little uncomfortable blowing our own trumpet. The way to get over this is to reframe your approach by using facts rather than statements.
For example, instead of saying “I am a brilliant Project Manager” you can say that “I brought my last major project in under time and well within budget which secured further business for my employer in the region of $30 million.”
Being overly personal
Always remember that the ‘you’ they are asking about is the work you and not the personal you. Keep it professional and think twice about offering up information on hobbies or pastimes. You are being interviewed by a human being and human beings have opinions.
For example, you might breed cats and be passionate about them but the interviewer might absolutely hate them. Sure, you won’t lose the job because of that one thing but why introduce anything that can be negative right at the start of your interview?
Keep it factual, keep it professional and only introduce personal information if it is specifically requested.
This is related to the mistake of saying too much because being disorganised and rambling on can make your answer way too long, but the real issue with this is far more damaging. If you don’t prepare what you are going to say, you might say something you regret.
If you don’t have a plan in place you can easily meander down avenues of information that you really didn’t mean to share or forget where you are with your story and just have to stop talking with no strong ending.
Answering with a question
There are those that argue strongly for responding with “what do you want to know?”
The thought being that the interviewer will then say specifically what they want, therefore giving you the advantage of providing them with exactly what they want to hear.
I strongly advise against this though because at best it makes you look hesitant and confused and at worst, that you are rather confrontational.
Instead, follow the formula that follows, deliver your prepared answer and then ask “is there anything else you would like me to cover?” This way you get the same opportunity to provide something they might still want to know but without any conflict.
The 5 step formula for how to answer ‘’tell me about yourself’’
By now you know how important this innocent little question is and why you need to prepare for it rather than just wing it on the day.
To help you do this, here’s an easy to follow, 4 step formula to ensure your next interview gets off to a great start.
The key components to remember are:
- Prep - research the position and company
- Pitch - your opening statement
- Present - your current role or situation
- Past - a summary of previous jobs and/or experience
- Position - what you will bring to the role if successful
Get a notepad and pen, open a document on your computer or an app on your phone. Now ask yourself the following questions and take notes.
- What are the top 3 essential hard skills listed in the job description?
- What are the top 3 essential soft skills mentioned?
- Which, if any, desirable skills are mentioned?
- Is there a particular area or project associated with this position?
- Note other specifics mentioned – budget figure, size of teams, software, environment, etc
- If there is a section saying something like “the successful candidate will have…” – that mentions different things from the above, take note.
Next, do a bit of research on the company.
- What information do they choose to give on the job description itself ie what have they highlighted?
- Look at their company website for information on their history, latest projects, achievements and announcements
- Take a look at their careers page. What do they emphasise to attract talent?
Now you are ready to prepare your answer.
Let’s get started.
You have probably heard of an elevator pitch or an elevator speech and it would be a great idea to create one for yourself if you are actively job searching.
Not only is it great to have one available, but the act of preparing it will really help you know exactly the right positions to apply for and how to sell yourself at interview.
In this case though, I am thinking of something much simpler.
What I want you to prepare is a one liner saying who and what you are.
Here’s a few examples to guide you.
“I have a strong background in infrastructure, TMR and RMS but project management is where I have excelled.”
“I am a prolific developer and I really enjoy providing robust software solutions that address the needs of clients.”
“I have spent the last 10 years in HR and have successfully created a number of bespoke, innovative recruitment campaigns that have revolutionised internal processes with great results.”
The best way to go about this is to just brainstorm a few first and then refine it down to one you are happy with.
You are aiming for positive, strong and simple.
When you are happy with how one sounds you need to check it against your research.
Ask yourself whether you feel the words and skills you have highlighted are the most important for this role and edit if necessary.
Yes, the recruiter or hiring manager has seen your resume but you want to remind them in one quick snapshot of a sentence why you are a great candidate – and why you are the perfect fit for the job.
Next, you should give them information on what you are doing currently.
The most important thing here is that you are not going to tell them everything.
Instead you want to give them a brief overview and back it up with results.
Choose your words and examples carefully. Look at all the research you did on the role and the company and decide which duties and achievements would closely align with what they are looking for.
You want them to think “that’s exactly what we need in this role.”
Here’s a few examples to help you.
“I’m currently working at Big M Marketing where I lead a team of 8 creatives. Over the last 3 years we have increased revenue for the department by just over 40% and I was personally responsible for bringing the company’s biggest client on board”
“I’ve been with Big Civil Company for the last 4 years and within that time I have progressed through the roles of civil engineer and various project engineer roles working for Laing O’Rourke, Kiewit and Bechtel until my current role of Senior Project engineer for Vinci.”
“For the past 8 years at Big Call Centre Operation, I have been concentrating on breaking down the barriers to the implementation of HR strategy which has resulted in a reduction in churn by over 30%, providing a 50% drop in our recruitment spend over the last 12 months.”
Now you need a statement to explain what you have been doing previously.
Same rules again. Don’t tell them everything because that will take too long and you need relevance to this role.
Look at your resume and see how your background matches the role you are applying for and the hard and soft skills they emphasise.
Now prepare a statement highlighting the areas that are relevant.
Here’s some examples again to help you.
“Before that, I enjoyed working for 3 other market leaders in the space, learning how to complete full stack development for websites within aggressive work schedules.”
“Previously I worked in Sales for Big Corporation for 4 years, and Other big Corporation for 2, where I worked hard to stay in the top 10% of billers every month.”
“I started my career at Wood who offered me an apprenticeship and I worked my way up through various roles until I got into project management. I have now had the pleasure of working for Bechtel, Downer, and Thiess and have a strong track record of delivering multi million dollar projects on time, within budget and LTI free.”
This is the statement that ties everything together and ends your answer perfectly.
Convince them how much you want this role by mentioning something from your research.
This will prove to them that you don’t just want a job – you want this job in particular.
Here’s a few examples to help you again.
“I’m ready for a bigger challenge now, and when I read about your company’s ambitious growth plans to penetrate the fintech sector, I felt really excited about what I could bring to this role given that I have worked for 3 of the market leaders in this sector in the past.”
“You’ve got the most respected, highest rated programmes in the world, and a huge market to sell them in. I would love the opportunity to use my skills to put your revenue through the roof.”
“When I saw this position advertised, I just had to apply straight away because diversity and inclusion programmes have been a major passion of mine throughout my career in HR and I have always admired Big Corporation for their groundbreaking initiatives.”
Here’s what to remember about how to answer “tell me about yourself”
The first time you do this it may take a little while, but it will get easier with practice. Once you have the basic structure, you just need to tailor it for each interview.
By putting in the research and following this formula, you can now stop dreading the “tell me about yourself” question and look forward to it instead because you know it will set you up for a great interview.
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