As I have noted previously, many, if not most, interviewers are ill-equipped to conduct interviews. Most have not been formally trained in how to interview, and do not understand which questions will best identify candidates who are the right fit for the organization. Although this can be frustrating for candidates, it can also provide them the opportunity to control the direction of the interview.
For example, say you are presented with the old, tired, and unimaginative question “Tell me about yourself” or “How would you describe yourself?” or “What five adjectives describe you best?” or some other variation. This is really an open-ended question that puts you in the driver’s seat. You have the opportunity to tell the interviewer exactly what you want them to know. They may probe, but you stay in control.
How to Respond
The “describe yourself” interview question is such a pervasive one that you should spend some time working on your answer before you arrive to the interview. Write down the top three to five career accomplishments you wish to highlight. Then, think about each of those accomplishments in terms of 1) how does each one relate to the next one; 2) what impact did they have on my team, the business, the company brand, etc.; and 3) how do they relate to the problem this hiring manager currently has?
You need to really think through these issues and formulate a clear, concise response that is genuine, heartfelt, and does not sound scripted. Of these, the most important thing is to be succinct. When the interviewer says “Tell me about yourself” or asks “what five adjectives describe you best?” they do not want to hear about how you had a personal epiphany during your sophomore year in college that made you change your major from engineering to philosophy. Granted, that is probably an interesting discussion to have at a later point in time, but never forget that the interview is not about you. The interview is about the business problem with which the hiring manager is wrestling. Your job at the interview is to vet that out, and to prove how you can help with the issue at hand.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Yes, you really do need to rehearse your response to the “Tell me about yourself” or “What five adjectives describe you best?” interview question(s). You need to be able to respond to this question within five seconds, and your answer should be less than 90 seconds. Get a friend or family member to help you with this—have them play the interviewer, and have them time you. It is crucial that you practice your response out loud. It’s also good idea to record yourself (or use a mirror) so that you can watch your body language. Psychologists and linguists estimate that communication is eighty percent how something is said—this is the piece that requires the most attention. So, although the content of your response is important, the context in which you deliver it is paramount.
The Bottom Line
Preparing your response beforehand allows you to guide the conversation in the direction you want it to go; it also lets you put laser focus on your superstar achievements. You cannot just rattle off your life’s history or a list of adjectives that describe you. If you are ready for the usual, expected interview questions (like this one), you’ll then be able to put more focus on figuring out what some of the tougher interview questions might be (and working on answers to those, too).
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