It’s only a matter of time during a job interview before someone says, “So tell me about yourself.” It should be a breeze, right? After all, no one knows your past experience better than yourself. But it happens to be one of the interview questions job seekers bomb the most. You say too much or too little, you forget crucial information about your professional background while including a bunch of useless details. It’s time to forgo improvisation and develop a clear, concise answer.
By preparing your backstory, you’ll be ready to show interviewers your unique personality along with the strengths of your qualifications. Continue reading for advice on timing, content and presentation.
As with all components of the hiring process, the point of “tell me about yourself” is to evaluate your potential at the company. Carolyn Gray explains, “It’s important to remember that although the question is definitely about you, it’s also about why you’re a good fit for the position.” With this in mind, your answer should detail experiences relevant to the position you’re applying for and highlight you as the perfect candidate.
If you think this question is tricky, you’re not alone. “I find this to be the most difficult question of all interview questions,” says Aurora Meneghello of Repurpose Your Purpose. But the key to answering it well lies not just in describing your personal self, but also your professional self.
One popular trick used to answer this question is to tell the story of how you came to be where you are now. For example, how you first became interested in writing, how that interest manifested itself in your education and work experiences and then how that experience makes you a good fit for the current job.
Your answer to “tell me about yourself” should go on for no more than a couple minutes — written out, the statement will be several sentences. Reciting your story from rote memory isn’t necessary, but you should know the starting and ending statement for each experience you want to discuss in order to stay on track. This will keep you focused and prevent rambling, and serve as breadcrumbs for your interviewer to follow your story.
Your response is more than just listing the experiences on your job application. “Answering the ‘tell me about yourself’ question brings these words to life, giving some color context and background to the work and life experiences listed within a CV,” says Deb LaMere, vice president of employee engagement at Ceridian.
A memorable way to begin your answer is by telling a short anecdote about how you first became interested in your field. For example, a job seeker in publishing may share how delivering papers before school to make money inspired them to pursue journalism. An introduction like this helps you stand out from the crowd while showcasing your passion for the work you do.
The bulk of your answer will be dedicated to your previous experience. But how do you narrow down and organize all that you’ve done? “Candidates should take a ‘top-down’ approach. This involves two steps: First, deciding what narrative you want to tell, defining the major chapters of your career. Second, pulling out the key accomplishments and roles from your career history that reinforce that narrative, which feeds into one’s verbal career story,” suggests Joseph Liu, career consultant & host of the Career Relaunch podcast. Consider the unique elements of your career and what brought you to where you are now, and be sure to select some accomplishments that show you’d be a valuable addition to the team.
With your eyes on the clock, you may be tempted to reduce experiences to simple statements like “I’m an original thinker,” or “I’m a quick learner.” These phrases explain little to the interviewer of what you bring to a position. As the Glassdoor team says, “Make an effort to cut out all buzzwords and focus on better articulating your experiences.” When discussing your different attributes, Kim Costa, job coach from Snagajob, suggests using the “SET” method: skills, experience and time dedicated. For example, “I picked up Adobe InDesign when creating event flyers during my graphic design internship was able to master the program by the end of the summer.”
Conclude your answer by explaining how the past experiences you’ve articulated have led you to this particular position, and what interests you about working for the company and taking on the job. Think of being offered the position as the grand finale of your story – everything told before should lead up to that point.
While your story is an opportunity to speak more of your background beyond your resume, don’t share intimate information that doesn’t relate to your professional identity. Negative experiences are also inappropriate to include your answer unless you are able to twist it into a learning moment — they are better suited for questions such as, “What is your greatest weakness?” This is especially not the time to complain about a former employer or position; doing so may raise red flags for the interviewer and cause them to wonder if you would speak like this about a future employer.
Finding an employee who can fit well into a team is a must have for most employers. Using “we” shows you are ready to work collaboratively and are interested in the success of you AND your colleagues.
Supporting your tales of success with data and numbers is a great way to showcase your achievements, and provides the interviewer with measurable results of your work.
Even if you’re not applying to a senior or management role, interviewers love to hear about a time you’ve led a team or project. Leadership demonstrates commitment and that if need be, you’re not afraid to take the wheel.
“I’ve never done this job before.”
Just because you’re entering into a new position or field doesn’t make your past experience irrelevant. Think of what lessons and valuable skills you’ve learned from your previous work that could be applicable as opposed to focusing on your lack of specific experience.
“I’ll do anything.”
While intended to show your flexibility and dedication to the company, the phrase comes off a bit too strong to the interviewer, and also undermines the time and energy you’ve devoted to explaining why you’re qualified in your particular field.
If you’re a continual Glassdoor reader, you already know our disapproval for the word “synergy.” It’s vague, outdated and all around cringey, and it’s past due for us to remove it from our professional vocabularies.
Once you’ve crafted your career story, you want to deliver it in a way that will maximize its impact. Glassdoor writer Rusty Rueff explains the key to a compelling answer: “Of the thousands of interviews I have conducted in my career, I can tell you that few of those [tell me about yourself] stories stand out. And why don’t they? It’s because they are not told as stories.” Just because your story is in a professional context doesn’t mean you should take on a flat, unemotional voice. Allowing your passion to shine through as you discuss where you’ve been and what you enjoy about your work will demonstrate your commitment to and interest in your field.
When speaking, be conscious of how you appear to your audience — we pick up on body language much more than we assume. Eye contact conveys confidence and directness, and keeping your eyes on the interviewer will clue you into whether they’re interested or bored by your response.
As you talk, make sure to pace yourself. Don’t race through your accomplishments — deliver your answer at a relaxed tempo. If you forget what is suppose to come next, don’t panic! It’s fine to pause and take a moment to collect yourself.
Wondering what exactly a great “Tell me about yourself” response sounds like? Use the following for inspiration:
From my childhood years spent scribbling down three-paragraph fairy tales in my blanket fort to an intensive but incredibly gratifying creative writing program in college, I’ve always been a storyteller at heart. So when it came time to look for a job, there was no doubt in my mind that writing and storytelling had to play a key role in my career.
I did a couple of internships that helped me hone my marketing skills — one in a Technical Writing role where I worked with internal stakeholders to produce engaging instructional videos and presentations for our company-wide intranet site, and a Hispanic Marketing role where I created a data-driven creative marketing plan, which resulted in an increase in market share from #3 to #2 in my assigned region.
For my first full-time position, though, I wanted to get closer to my storytelling roots, so I accepted a position as a content writer at a creative communications agency. In my current role, I’m tasked with strategizing, executing and optimizing social media, blog post, case study and byline programs. I get to work with Global 500 companies, place stories in top-tier publications and ultimately generate interest in my clients and elevate their reputations, but I’m often torn between too many different goals. Instead, I want to concentrate all of my efforts behind one company whose mission I really believe in.
If chosen to be the Staff Writer/Content Marketer at Glassdoor, however, I know I’d be able to strike a balance between producing engaging, creative, high-quality content and working towards something truly meaningful — helping people find jobs and companies they love. What’s more, I’ll have a lot to offer my team and the company as a whole, including relevant experience, a proven track record of success, an eagerness to collaborate and an unyielding passion for the written word.
Of course, this “tell me about yourself” response isn’t one-size-fits-all, so feel free to customize it in whatever way works best for you!
Originally published on Glassdoor.
Stay up to date or catch-up on all our podcasts with Arianna Huffington here.