“Tell me about yourself” is one of the most common opening requests in an interview. In order to make a positive first impression and start the interview right, come prepared. If you’re pressed for time, this should be the one question you think about before the big day.
First, consider what the interviewer is really trying to get at with this question. Yes, she wants to hear about you, but let’s dissect this inquiry for a moment. Dependent upon your answer to this all-important question, the interview could go in different directions. What does the interviewer really want to hear in response when she asks this question?
Here’s what’s going through an interviewer’s head as she’s listening:
- “Should I continue this interview?” You need to attract the interviewer’s interest right away. That said, your answer should be relevant and interesting enough to peak the interviewer’s curiosity. Just like on a date, the other person should want to learn more about you after the initial introduction. Basically, you’ll want to come across as positive and approachable.
- “Is she a good fit for the company culture?” This is less tangible and harder to prepare for, unless you have inside knowledge of the company. However, if you’ve done research and been able to glean the type of firm it is, you may be able to describe yourself in alignment with what you know about the company culture.
- “Do I want to work with this person every day?” Again, this is subjective. If you’re going to hit it off, you will. If there is no chemistry between you and the interviewer, you must do your best to prove that you are right for the job.
- “Why does this person want to work here?” At the end of your response, you should state what brings you to the interview. Come up with a professional, creative response for why you’re intrigued by the company and job.
What you should and shouldn’t include in your response:
Try to keep your answer to “tell me about yourself” about a minute or so long. As you can see, this is a jam-packed question with many layers underneath, and you want to make sure you address everything she is looking for. But you also have to answer concisely, and doing so is the hardest part. Using the former questions as a guide, here’s what you should and shouldn’t include in your prepared response:
- Education: Yes. Most job descriptions ask for some level of education in the minimum or preferred qualifications. Start your answer from there if you meet that requirement. Where and what did you study? Did this experience lead you to your current profession, and if so, how? It’s rare, but if you are lucky enough to get an interview without meeting the education requirement, you can start with your professional background as it relates directly to the job in question. However, if you’re later asked about your education, you must answer honestly.
- Your entire job history: No. Think of your response as a story. Does the interviewer care about every internship, summer job and long-term job that has nothing to do with the role you’re applying for? No. You need to only discuss the thread from your experience that brings you to the interview chair today.
- All data about each relevant job: No. That information is contained in your résumé and cover letter. The interviewer typically wants to hear a brief summary that includes where you worked, your title and why you moved on. Don’t be afraid to say you were laid off. If you left because of personality differences, you can say this gently without throwing your former boss or yourself under the bus.
- Interests and hobbies: Maybe. Discuss these only if they correspond directly to the job you’re applying for. For example, mention that you’re a golfer if you’re interviewing at a country club.
- Your five-year plan: No. The interviewer may indeed ask you if you have a five- or 10-year plan later in the interview, but here is not the place to throw that in. It could land you in the “no” pile without you even realizing it. For instance, if you were to say that eventually you want to become a manager so this is a good starting point, you may have killed your chances if they think (or know) they can get a candidate who will make a longer-term commitment to this particular role.
Your answer to this loaded question should connect the dots for the interviewer by drawing a line from your first job or degree to where you’re sitting today. If you haven’t taken a traditional path, that’s OK. You only need to draw the line between the relevant points of your education and work history to help the interviewer see why she should talk to you further, and eventually hire you. So tell her. Make her job easier.
Even if you can’t fit all of this in as an answer to this particular question, make sure you cover the following questions throughout the interview:
- What positions have you held that will help you in this role?
- What are your major accomplishments from those jobs?
- Why do you want the job in question, and what makes you the right person for it?
Even if you answer this and the other interview questions well, it’s impossible to predict whether the interviewer will like you enough to have you continue in the hiring process. But you’ve been given a chance, so take your best shot at it. Make sure you prepare for at least one question – and make it this one. It’s bound to be the first question when you walk in the door.
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Originally published at https://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers