Loved because it's predictable. Feared because it's excruciatingly open-ended. "Tell me about yourself" may be the single-most prolific interview question known to man.
Other variants include, "So let's start with you—what brings you here today?" And, "Why don't you kick it off by telling us a little bit about your background."
However it's packaged, the ask is the same: Box up your life, ambitions, and experience into one neat little answer that makes you sound professional, poised, sane, capable, qualified, and fit for the role.
No sweat, right?
Here are a few strategies to kick it off with a bang.
First, Read the Room
How you answer the “tell me" question depends on a number of factors, but chief among them may be how laid back your interviewers are.
Short of any pre-interview interaction or intel from the inside, your biggest hint as to their disposition is likely the industry they work in.
If the interview is a suit-and-tie affair at a ritzy Wall Street address, you may want to take fewer, er, liberties with your answer. That might mean divulging less personal information (or none at all) and sticking to a script that tacks closely with your resume. If, on the other hand, you're headed to a tech startup where suits raise eyebrows, it may be OK to show a few quirks and a glimpse of your sense of humor.
However you deliver it, you should seize your answer as a chance to set yourself apart.
Find Your Angle
Dig into your career background and figure out what makes you unique and aim to communicate that in your answer. Ask yourself:
What are you today? How did you become that and why?
Did you arrive at this interview, and your career path, by conventional means? Or did you take another, less-common road that—ahem—makes you a better candidate?
If you could pick one moment in your career that led you to where you are now—a spark, a mentor, a project—what would it be?
What about your natural disposition and inherent skill set plays into the narrative of the success you've had so far, and how will it tie into the job you're interviewing for?
How will this next position write the rest of the story? What new dimension will it add to your skills, and why is that good for your future employer?
It goes without saying that this is no presidential election, so though you want your story to be interesting, above all it needs to map back to the job at hand.
While you're delivering it, don't ramble. Every good story has a beginning, middle, and end; yours should be no different. Structure your delivery so that it appears well thought out but not rehearsed. This often requires…
Just enough to sound natural but not scripted. So, probably best not to memorize your answer word for word. Just focus on the sequence and the main points you're trying to hit.
Unless you are attempting to hide a record of bank fraud or you're sugarcoating the lateness habit that got you cut from your last gig, there's no point in being anything but honest.
If you inflate your experience or capabilities, you will only step into shoes that you aren't qualified to fill when and if you're hired.
You should steer clear of sounding sales-y in your answer, but make no mistake: You have the floor, and this is your chance to toot your horn. Communicate how your strengths have informed your career momentum so far. ("I had the organizational skills to keep the team on schedule, so I naturally became the go-to for that until I was officially promoted to project manager.") And note major successes along the way. ("It turned out I beat my goal by 50%, so I became a resource to lead the team going forward.") What challenges did you encounter that you tackled with aplomb? ("We weren't sure whether the campaign would work because X, but I made sure to do Y and the [stellar end] result was Z.")
End With the Future
Your story needs an ending, but that's not to say it's the end of your story. When you wrap up, make sure you sound like you're on the brink of your next big career move. The person on the other side of the table should want to take part in the next chapter, or risk losing you to some other lucky company.
Photo of photo of man interviewing for a job courtesy of PeopleImages/Getty Images.
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