Many interviewers will start an interview with the open ended prompt “Tell me about yourself…” An unprepared interviewee typically takes a deep breath and launches into a long and rambling life story. Not only is this ineffective, it’s a missed opportunity. With preparation, this prompt provides an excellent opportunity to highlight your skills and focus the interview on your strengths.
Responding with a tight, relevant, and compelling answer sets the tempo for a great interview, but launching into an unstructured monolog can cast a very different, and not nearly as positive, tone for the rest of the meeting. Your response provides an opportunity to demonstrate your articulation skills, project confidence, and frame what you think is important for the interviewer to know about you.
The Wrong Response
While there are many positive ways to respond to this question, the absolute wrong response is to ask, “What do you want to know?” That non-response tells the interviewer that you have not properly prepared for the interview and casts immediate doubt about your skills and ability (or at least your ability to articulate them). Don’t squander the opportunity to start the interview on a strong and positive note. Develop a compelling answer to this question, practice it, and be able to deliver it with confidence.
The Right Response
Recognize that the goal of the interviewer is to assess your ability to do the job, how well you would fit into the team, what you have accomplished in your prior positions and how can you help the organization. Many interviewees are under the false assumption that the interviewer really wants to know about them as a person. That is not their primary goal.
Those that are unprepared for this question often launch into a rambling, recapping of their life story, delving into irrelevant aspects of their work or personal history. A typical unscripted response often starts like, “Well, I was born in Detroit, and when I was seven we moved to Philadelphia …” This is not a compelling nor relevant response; do not fall into this trap. A better approach is to start with your most recent employment and highlight the things that demonstrate why you are well qualified for the position you are seeking. Seize the opportunity to match your qualifications to what the interviewer is looking for. In other words, you want to sell what the buyer is buying.
Think of Your Response as a Movie Trailer
Just as a compelling movie trailer highlights and builds interest in the movie, your response should be a compelling preview of the skills and experiences you bring to the role. The “tell me about yourself...” answer needs to spotlight the skills that directly relate and demonstrate your ability to tackle the issues and opportunities facing your prospective employer. Highlighting topics and skills that are relevant and important for the role will intrigue the interviewer to want to delve deeper as the interview continues.
Highlight Your Most Important Relevant Accomplishments
Tell a memorable story about that highlights your attributes. For example, if you tell an interviewer that people describe you as tenacious, provide a brief story that shows how you have been tenacious in achieving your goals. Stories are powerful and are what people remember most. Highlight an important skill or attribute in one sentence and then elaborate by telling a quick story or that provides a compelling example. Your goal is to be memorable and positive impression so the key is to answer the ‘tell me about yourself’ question in a way that makes you stand out from everyone else.
Keep It Short
Keep your response crisp and concise. The employer wants to know the relevant highlights not your life story. Offer up two or three experiences or aspects of your background that are interesting and relate to the important skills, strengths, or experience that you bring to the role.
To make sure answer is succinct and covers what you want it to convey, write it down. Practice and rehearse until your response feels comfortable and sounds natural. Then practice some more. The goal is to tell the employer enough to pique their interest, but not so much that they wonder if they’d ever be able to shut you up.
The initial reply should take less than a minute. Keeping it short will promote a two-way exchange rather than a long winded monolog. Your initial response should be designed to intrigue the interviewer and inspire them to ask additional questions that delve deeper into the areas you are highlighting.
Rather than dread the “Tell me about yourself…” question, anticipate it and prepare for it. View it as an invitation to set the tone and direction for the rest of the interview. A well-crafted answer creates a positive initial impression and invites the interviewer to follow-up with the questions you most want to answer.