You know the hiring manager will likely utter the words "Tell me about yourself" within seconds of shaking your hand and showing you where to sit. Job candidates have no excuse for failing to be ready with a good answer.
"First and foremost, this question is an easy icebreaker for the interviewer to ask," says Erica McCurdy, certified master coach of McCurdy Solutions Group, LLC.
"In addition, many candidates are understandably nervous coming into an interview situation. Asking the candidate to share some background information about themselves will often get the conversation started and make the rest of the interview flow a little more smoothly."
But what constitutes an appropriate response? Here, we look at factors important to composing an answer to the interview staple: "Tell me about yourself."
Keep it short
Despite the friendly nature of the question, the interviewer definitely doesn't want to hear your life story. Experts recommend an answer that is between 30-seconds and two minutes long.
As McCurdy notes, "You typically only have about an hour in an interview. If you spend too much time on any one question, you won't have time to get to the questions the employer needs to ask or have time to ask your own questions. Remember this: If the employer wants to know more about anything you say, they will ask for more."
Stay on target
Realize that all interview questions — including this one — are designed to help with the decision of which candidate to hire. Don't interpret "Tell me about yourself" as an invitation to stray off track and into personal matters. Mentioning your three kids or that you dedicate weekends to church activities opens the door to potential biases. It also puts the interviewer in an awkward position since employers by law cannot ask about certain subjects. To judge relevancy, some candidates benefit from thinking of the question not as "Tell me about yourself," but as "Tell me about yourself in relation to why I should consider hiring you for this position."
Go beyond your resume
The interviewer already read your resume, so don't regurgitate it. Instead, select a few highlights from your background to expand upon. As an employer's main interest is determining your suitability for the position at hand, consider using keywords from the job ad and your research on the company when constructing your answer. For instance, if leadership and interpersonal skills are important, weave your prowess in these areas into your narrative.
Excitement is contagious and memorable. Think about why you like this position, company or industry, and how you'd be great there.
"If your academic interests lean towards the job, mention them. If your parents were in the field, mention it. If your friends are in the field, say so. Your answer should detail your passion for the position without being too lengthy," says Vicky Oliver, career expert and author of "301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions."
Practice the 4 Ps
Random or rambling statements lead to confusion or awkwardness. Develop a pithy, pertinent, professional and passionate response that leads the listener along.
Here are two examples of such construction:
- "I have been a fourth-grade teacher at Main Street Elementary for five years. Those who've been in my classroom note its positive atmosphere where questions are encouraged and every student feels valued. The range of learning challenges I've encountered over time inspired me to take graduate-level classes on alternative teaching methods. I'm excited by the prospect of teaching in your blended third-grade here at Pleasant Meadow Elementary where I can work with traditional and special needs students to draw out the best in both.
- "My official title at Company XYZ is administrative assistant. A better one might be Jill-of-all-Trades. While I'm proficient at Microsoft Office, greeting visitors and overseeing budgets, my supervisor prizes my ability to shift gears quickly to tackle whatever situation arises in our busy office with a clear head and a can-do attitude. Since flexibility, problem-solving and prioritization are so important to start-up companies, I feel like I'd be right at home here at New Horizons.
Rehearse your delivery
While practicing answers to all sorts of common questions should be part of your pre-interview process, nailing "Tell me about yourself" bears extra significance. First impressions form quickly, so getting your interview off to a good start can set the tone.
"I believe that employers ask this question, which is basically a softball, to see how well the candidate speaks," says Oliver. "Is she relaxed and poised? Or nervous and constantly watching the clock?"
Whatever your answer, speak with confidence. Talk clearly, and look at the interviewer.
And remember this tip from McCurdy, "When responding to this question, nothing works better than positivity and a smile."
Learning how to answer common interview questions such as, "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" or "Where do you want to be in five years?" could mean the difference between landing or losing the job you want. For more ideas about how to answer these questions and more, check out LiveCareer's extensive library of interview articles.