During a job interview, an interviewer may ask you to list five words that describe your character. The question could take a similar shape; for example: “What five words best describe you?” The number specified may be three, or it may be another number, but here’s a tip—be prepared with at least 10 words that describe your character, in case you need them.
A question along these lines is asked because the interviewer wants to know a bit more about your personality. The list you provide can reveal a lot about who you are and how you might fit into the workplace. Your answer(s) will also provide insight into your self-perception, which is a good indicator of the type of employee you will be.
When asking this question, interviewers want—and expect—a short list of adjectives that describe you and demonstrate how you are the right candidate for the job. As already stated, have a list of 10 words at the ready. Also, have at least one example or story ready to share that ties to one of your words, and shows how you have demonstrated the particular characteristic in a previous or current job.
Describing your own character can be a bit challenging, especially when it comes to reducing those descriptions to a few single words. If no words immediately pop into your mind, ask a friend or co-worker about how they would describe you. Also, think of your professional accomplishments, perhaps those included in past performance reviews. What characteristics do the reviews demonstrate to you? Which words pop out? (See the list of 120+ personal adjectives at the bottom of the article for ideas if you find yourself stuck.)
The Best Approach
Focus on characteristics that are relevant to the job when asked to describe your character. What characteristics do you currently possess that this particular interviewer is probably hoping to find? Don’t try to mind-read here, but do keep the job description and likely work environment in mind when devising your list. Choose your words carefully. Below are some ideas to get your gears turning:
- Not every job needs someone who is creative—some jobs need people who will follow a defined process in a careful, conscientious, or methodical way.
- Someone in a management position can be called a leader.
- Some jobs require people who are cool-headed and self-disciplined, particularly in high-stress jobs like law enforcement.
- And other jobs value employees who are results-driven and self-motivated as in sales.
Typically, the words you choose will not change dramatically for different interviews because you’re likely interviewing for the same type of job, just with different employers. Again, focus on what will be relevant (and preferred) for a particular job and company. For example, don’t choose words like creative and unconstrained for a job that requires strict, careful adherence to specific guidelines (think safety inspector).
Points to Emphasize
- The words you choose to describe your character should be positive and self-affirming. Don’t list your faults or weaknesses at this point! That’s not what the interviewer wants to hear in this answer.
- Choose words that currently describe you, and not ones that describe, for instance, who you hope to be some day.
- You might be asked to put context around one or a few of the words you list. So have an example, or a story prepared to tell, that ties to one of your words (this was touched on in the Preparation section of the article, but it bears repeating).
- The words you use should be honest, thoughtful, and connected to the job in order to make maximum impact.
And don’t forget about your resume and cover letter—you likely used words to describe yourself in both documents. Review both, and make sure the answers you provide in the interview are in line with what’s in your resume and cover letter.
Mistakes You Should Avoid
- You will be expected to live up to the characteristics you note when you are on the job, so avoid naming a characteristic that is inaccurate.
- Don’t use characteristics that are too general, like skilled or hard-working, as they won’t be memorable.
- Avoid any descriptive words that can be construed as negative, such as stubborn or hard-headed.
- Don’t choose characteristics that are unrelated to the job for which you’re applying.
- Be sure to avoid words that could make you sound arrogant or out-of-touch with the requirements of the job and the culture of the employer’s organization.
To get an idea of how to answer a question asking you to list words that describe your character, read the example below:
“The five words that I feel best describe me are resilient, ambitious, optimistic, determined, and humble. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and along with my family’s support, these characteristics really helped me get through school, and appreciate the opportunities I’ve been given. I feel that they would help me succeed in this job as well.”
If a follow-up question is asked about one of your listed words, share a story. For example, say you note you’re resilient, and the interviewer asks you how so. You could tell a story like this one:
“When my former employer began going out of business, most of the staff were laid off without any notice. Many of my co-workers were stunned to be laid off—most had never experienced a layoff before, and didn’t know how to bounce back. So I organized a job club to help us all move on quickly and successfully. We met at the local library on a daily basis at first, and then a weekly basis after the first week. We helped each other with registering for unemployment, sharing job leads and networking opportunities, and coping with the situation. Within 16 weeks of being laid off, we all managed to land new jobs.”
Stuck on words to use to describe yourself? Consider some of these: