Responding to “tell me about yourself” requires preparation and practice. Seasoned hiring managers know that open-ended questions can be one of the best ways to throw candidates off their game. “Tell me about yourself” sounds harmless at first, doesn’t it? But this question is strategically different than asking you to describe a favorite project or discuss a skillset.
Don’t assume the interviewer just wants to get to know you better. This is not an ice-breaker.
The reality is, hiring managers want to hear how you respond to a casual question without a defined structure. They’ll see firsthand how you react to being forced off a memorized script. Also, the manner in which you respond instantly communicates what is most important to you because you’re likely to speak off the top of your head.
But take heart. You can still prepare to answer questions like this effectively!
Don’t: Ramble through your Life Story
First off, we recommend that your entire response to “tell me about yourself” be limited to 2 minutes or less. That’s what both recruiters and hiring managers alike have told us. Rambling on for 5-10 minutes gives the impression you’ll do the same with clients, leaders and co-workers in meetings and other professional settings.
But as you’ll see below, we’re not against getting personal.
Just remember that the hiring manager, at this stage, doesn’t need to know about things like where you grew up, what you originally wanted to be, or where your favorite vacation spot is. Sharing your personality is a great thing to save for after you’re hired. Aim for 2 minutes and be strategic in what you convey.
Do: Convey a Purpose & Passion
Apply this simple formula to kick starting your response: “I’m really passionate about X, which has led to Y (and Z and so-on).” It’s a flexible formula that allows you to weave both personal and professional highlights into your narrative.
Here’s a real-life response to “tell me about yourself” that works well:
“I’m really passionate about mentoring and coaching, which has manifested itself in different forms throughout my life. In college I gave piano lessons to 11 students weekly. In my last role I voluntarily joined the New Hire Training committee that devoted considerable time not only to helping acclimate new employees to the company, but in developing the onboarding materials themselves. I was attracted to your company, and in fact this role, because of how the job description outlined a blend of traditional project management responsibilities with the need to instruct others around the organization about IT-related hot topics. It really taps into my coaching passion.”
How great was that? It highlights two soft skills (mentoring and coaching), relays a personal moment (piano lessons), and reinforces competencies (project management & training materials development). While it’s possible his committee participation was referenced in his résumé, the response perfectly avoids our next “don’t.”
Don’t: Recite your Résumé
Rehashing information the interviewer has in front of them is a mistake. At best, it leaves them bored and uninterested. At worst, they write you off as unoriginal.
Reciting your résumé poses another risk: potentially relaying the same information three ways: on your résumé, in your cover letter, and in response to this question. Anyone would be bored in this scenario!
Do: Get Personal for a Minute
The best approach is to highlight accomplishments from your past that are relevant to the position for which you’re interviewing. As in the example above, it’s okay to touch on personal (i.e., non-professional) moments of your life—and in even greater detail than the quick piano lesson comment in that example. The key is to leverage the personal moment in making a professional point that matters to the interviewer.
• Are you in engineering? Maybe there’s a relevant story from a high school science project that birthed your passion for the field.
• Are you in IT? Share what piqued your initial interest in technology and applications.
• Are you in finance? Talk about what inspired you to work in a heavily regulated industry with ever-changing requirements.
None of these personal stories will be on your résumé but are perfectly acceptable in the interview. By the way, if you doubt the effectiveness of your résumé click here and send it to us for a free analysis.
Don’t: Respond with “What do you want to know?”
No need to elaborate on this one. No one likes their question to be answered with another question!
Do: Be Prepared with a Success Story
If all else fails, have a story in your back pocket about a project you knocked out of the park. Even if it’s on your résumé, take this opportunity to go into more detail. Did you receive recognition from a senior leader? How did you feel? Did it pave the way for bigger projects? What did you learn?
Be careful, though. The interviewer didn’t say “tell me about a time you were successful.” You’ll need to touch on soft skills or other information not already presented to most effectively answer the question.
Don’t: Be Boring
Follow the preceding tips and you won’t give a dull response. An original story that touches on a personal moment is the best safeguard against delivering a boring response to “tell me about yourself.”
Do: Say Something Memorable
This interview is likely where you’ll make the first impression with the person who could be your boss. Aim for uniqueness. A hiring manager already knows what your previous job responsibilities should have been, because they know your job title. You need to stand out. Brag about something unique to your background. Share a funny personal story that still follows the formula we presented earlier: “I’m really passionate about X, which has led to Y (and Z and so-on).”
Leave a comment if you have additional tips to share!
Practice your response but don’t memorize it! The goal is to sound conversational, as if you’re telling a story to a friend. Sticking to a rehearsed script jeopardizes your ability to come across as authentic. If needed, record yourself and get input from a friend or family member. Here are some voice recorder apps for Android and iPhone..