If you, like me, have done a bunch of interviewing lately, then you’re probably familiar with my least favorite interview question of all time: “Tell me about yourself.”
How could I possibly provide an overview of my entire professional life, highlight the attributes that make me a good fit for the job, and come across as personable—all in three minutes or less?
However, I have also done some hiring, and I have to admit, I’ve asked candidates this very question. Because it’s so open-ended, you can really learn a lot about the applicant by the way he or she answers it. And, because it generally comes at the beginning of the interview, a candidate’s answer will often shape the rest of our conversation—for better or for worse.
During my recent job search, I put together a process for answering this question in a way that set me up for success. Follow these steps, and you’ll have a confident opener the next time you step into an interview.
1. Do Your Research
Often, two main components go into a hiring decision: technical skills (i.e., can you do the job?) and cultural fit (i.e., do your personality and values jive with the company?). Spend some time reviewing the job description and the “about us” section of the company’s website to better understand the right characteristics to demonstrate.
For example, if a job description reads, “Design and implement marketing strategies to drive customer acquisition,” then it’s likely the interviewer will want you to demonstrate how you’ve successfully acquired customers in the past and show that you can mix high-level thinking with detail-oriented work.
The goal in this step is not to come up with a huge list of everything you need to cover in your answer, but rather, to build a general sense of what the interviewer is looking for.
2. Decide on Three Main Takeaways
How do you want the interviewer to describe you when he or she types up notes after your meeting? Come up with three main impressions you want to make on him or her—anything from “always puts the customer first” to “strong data analytics skills.”
At least two of these three takeaways should correspond to the research you did in the first step, so you can use your story to demonstrate how you are a good fit for the role.
However, don’t stretch your response too far to fit into what the company is looking for. For instance, if a company wants someone who is service-oriented, but you don’t have time to volunteer in your community, that’s OK. It’s much more important to build a strong case around what you actually do instead of focusing on something that doesn’t ring true—simply because you think an interviewer will like it.
3. Create Your Story
Now that you have your three main ideas, you can create your story. To do this, I built an outline, treating each takeaway as a thesis statement, and then coming up with one aspect of my experience to use as evidence for each. For example, one of my main ideas was that I am passionate about using technology to solve problems. To support this idea, I talked about the work I did in my first job—building tech tools that allowed teachers to communicate with each other.
Once you have your three stories, I recommend sharing them in chronological order so that your answer matches up with your resume—this will make it easier for the interviewer to digest.
When you put it all together, here’s how it might sound: “There are three things I’d like to share with you about myself. First, I am a detail-oriented person. I developed this skill when I worked at a research lab, where I collected, measured, and recorded hundreds of chemical samples.” Then, proceed to the next two examples.
Finally, wrap up with a sentence or two about how your takeaways collectively relate to the role you’re interviewing for, such as, “With these skills and experience, I’m confident that I’d be a great fit for this position.”
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4. Practice, Practice, Practice
If you’ve read any of my other posts about interviews or tough conversations, you might think I sound like a broken record about this step: It’s extremely important to practice saying your response out loud at least once before you walk into the interview room. Scripting or outlining your answer is certainly helpful, but practicing is the only way to truly work out the kinks.
Also, make sure to keep an eye on the time while you’re practicing—remember, your answer shouldn’t be any longer than three minutes.
This strategy might be a little different from others that you’ve seen, because it doesn’t allow for you to cover your entire resume. But in my experience, that’s OK—the interviewer will likely have read your resume before the interview, anyway. This is your opportunity to dig deeper into your experience and convince the hiring manager that you’re the right fit for the role.
Photo of speech bubble courtesy of Shutterstock.
TopicsInterview Questions , Interviews , Job Search , Syndication , Interviewing for a Job , B-School Insider by Leslie Moser
Leslie Moser attends Harvard Business School where she is pursuing her MBA. Before going back to school she worked at Teach For America where she tried to tackle educational inequity one email at a time. Leslie loves to travel, eat Thai food, and watch reruns of The West Wing.More from this Author