A reader wrote to say:”I always struggle answering the famous ‘Tell me a little about yourself.’ question during an interview. Any suggestions??” Glad you asked, Mags.
I’ve been meaning to talk about how to answer the “Tell us about yourself” question. It’s an all-time favorite interview question (although many people hate it) and can be asked in various forms including “What would you like me to know about you?” “Describe yourself” or even “Tell me who you are.”
But the oh so common “tell me about yourself” question may also come at you first thing in the interview,. Like a fastball without warm up. And it might even be in the form of “So tell me why do you think you’re right for the job?” or more bluntly “Why should we offer you this job?”
And so now the relentless “what’s your answer” spotlight is glaring at YOU … while you still try to kick your bag under the table and get comfortable in the hot seat. It’s your chance to shine. But if you’re not prepared, it can also land with a thud.
Luckily, all forms of this question helping them figure out why the heck they should in fact hire you can be answered using a similar approach. So here’s my take on Mags’ question:
What I’m looking for when I ask “Tell Me About Yourself”
In other words: How do you sum up your entire life in just a few minutes at most knowing your answer can make or break your chances to get the job you really want? But no pressure intended I’m sure.
Some people think tell me a little about yourself is a lazy interview question. Why? Well, it puts all the pressure on the interviewee right off the bat.. And many interviewers do like to open with the question.
Maybe it is lazy, but since I’m one of those folks who likes the question (although I often talk a bit about the job first), here’s why I ask it: Basically, I want to see how the job candidate views herself or himself. And I want to get a feel for the candidate. What they might be like to work with, as well as how they think and communicate.
For an interviewer, it’s a good first look at a potential hire. Who am I bringing into the company? What will they be like on a daily basis? Show me who you are. And how well you understand what about you working for us would … well … work for us.
A great chance for you to set the tone of the interview
If handled well, the question also gives candidates a chance to set the tone of the interview. Or at least perhaps shape what the interviewer follows up on. So choose things you bring up wisely.
If you don’t want me to probe more about your uncle in prison, don’t bring him up. Then again, if you helped put him there, and you’re interviewing for a law enforcement job … it certainly would make you more memorable.
So how should you tell me a little about yourself?
Truth is … there’s no one right way to answer this or any interview question. Different interviewers have different things they’re looking for. An answer I might love could turn another interviewer off completely — and vice versa.
This is where the magic of matchmaking takes over — on both sides. And it doesn’t pay to get too nuts about figuring out the “right” thing to say. Just have a firm understanding of who you are — your strengths and weaknesses.
And think about what aspects of your skills and personality match with the company and job. keep it real, but aim your answer to help them see you fitting in well.
An aside about sample answers
Please be careful with sample answers. I’ve seen sure-fire interview answers on other career websites that would absolutely kill a person’s chances if they used those exact words. Or at least keep you from standing out from the rest of the candidates.
While you might find it useful to read sample answers, think of them more as a guide. In the end, your best bet is to come up with original answers that sound and feel like you. A you that fits well with the company. (BTW … if you have to stretch too far in finding that connection, please rethink the job itself.)
Where to go with your answer
So when you do answer the tell me a little about yourself question, remember to be natural. And tell me only the parts about yourself that paint a picture that makes sense for the job you’re interviewing for. In other words … while your childhood may be fascinating, unless something about your youth clearly relates to the company or the work you’d be required to do, don’t go there.
Probably best to start with a strong simple statement about yourself. Again relate your answer to the job and type of person they’re looking for. And expand with a synthesized work history that shows how miraculously everything you’ve done up to now has led you to this precise moment. And prepared you perfectly for this job!
Now of course I am exaggerating a bit. Your answer has to be believable. But that’s the gist of it. Where possible, be specific. Actual dollar amounts or numbers can be useful. Just don’t overdo it — they want to hire a human they can stand to work with. Use examples of things you’ve created or made happen that are clear and easy to remember.
If you’re relatively new to the art of the interview, stick to the main message of “why you fit well with this job” and show what a lovely, adaptable, self-motivating, results-oriented, creative, problem-solving person you’d be to work with by the examples you share.
And remember … if they say “tell me a little” they mean it. Don’t go on and on! Stick to the strongest parts of your career story and edit the rest. There’s a lot more interview to go. Hopefully.
PLEASE take time to prepare for this question!
No matter who you are, it’s a good idea to prepare for this question ahead of time. But please do NOT memorize your answer. This is the time to show yourself as you are, so they can decide if they want to work with you. Pretty much most employers want a real person and not some scripted interview robot.
- First, look at the job description and other info you have about the job & company.
- Now make a list of key points and/or categories about both the job and company.
- Thinking about step 1, do the same for your work history.
- And just like when you create your resume and cover letter, you want to make a special note of where the two lists mesh.
- You can also make notes of things like your degree or any volunteer work that shows why you’d fit this particular job.
- Then choose just a few talking points that paint the best picture for this particular job.
After that, practice the talking points (friend, family, mirrors, tape recorders are all good for this), saying what you most want to say all in a few minutes. Remember to practice relaxing and smiling too. This should help you feel more comfortable telling your story.
And when you finally do this for real at the interview, don’t worry if you leave things out. The prep work is just to help you narrow down and target the scope of your answer. And get comfortable talking about yourself. Ideally, the way it actually comes out of you at the real interview will be natural to you. And that’s what you’re aiming for.
Should you bring up hobbies and other interests?
Most of the time — and we’re only talking about a few minutes tops for this entire question — you should be telling about past work experiences that have led up to who you are now and make you a great fit for this new position.
But … if there is a special experience or strong interest that you think would help you stand out from the crowd of interviewees, this might be a good time to throw that in too. Briefly. I used to slip in that I rounded up cattle on horseback. As long as you keep it short and within context, it’s ok. And let them ask for more details if they’re curious.
But you probably only want to do this if it helps you paint the “I’m perfect for THIS job” picture. And definitely not if it diverts from your message. Anyone who’s been an IT project manager knows why rounding up cattle is right on point. 🙂 Plus…it’s memorable and was offered as a quick aside.
On the other hand, going on and on about being a world-class video game player in your spare time is probably not the best move at this point. In fact, bosses prefer to think you won’t be spending your work days mesmerized by Fortnite. Or your own website.
Big hint about answering tell me a little about yourself
If you do bring up other things, make sure you talk about the work this particular job calls for with the same enthusiasm as your other interest. Nothing hurts your case more than when an interviewer sees your eyes light up and energy soar when you talk about side issues. Especially if you only show moderate enthusiasm for the work you’re being interviewed for. Or work-related things you’ve done in the past.
Another case where a side interest might be worth mentioning is if the person you’re interviewing with has something in common with you. Maybe a sport or the same charity. (That’s why research beforehand is so critical.)
But this can be touchy, so watch to see how they react when you mention it. And if they don’t chime in that they share the interest, just go on with your answer without skipping a beat. They may remember it for later and bring it up. But you also never know what people consider private. Still, worth a shot if it’s really something you both love.
Ah … the fine art of conversation
Questions like tell me a little about yourself offer an invitation to the fine art of conversation. While still keeping on message of course. Things like the interviewer’s tone, body language, and the way they respond to what you say – as well as how you respond back and your own body language and tone – all enter into the picture.
But if conversation is not especially your strength, don’t worry. You can still do well on this question. Just do your prep work in advance of the interview day. And stick to the points that are most comfortable for you to talk about — hopefully still interesting to the interviewer if you show them the real you and your points spark connecting dots to the job.
In fact, with questions like this, less is often more. If you pack your answer too full (like this article 🙂 or try too hard to stand out by telling all kinds of fun stories or amazing feats, you risk annoying the interviewer. And you risk losing track of your basic overall message which is:
“I’m a great job match and someone you really want to work with.”
By keeping to short, clearly and pleasantly presented job-relevant points about yourself, you actually leave room for the interviewer to ask for more. In fact, your answer can be a way of planting seeds for them to follow up on. Topics you’d like to expand on — if they want to pursue. So think about that too when you pick your points.
Hope that helps!
[Post updated in 2020]
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About the author…
Ronnie Ann, founder of Work To the Wise and Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development, as well as her many adventures as a serial job seeker.