By Jeff Gillis
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Talking about yourself should be the easiest thing to do.
After all, who knows you better than…
But for some strange reason, nearly every interviewer can agree that giving a good answer to the question “Tell Me About Yourself” during a job interview can be one of the toughest and most stressful things to do.
But what is it about this seemingly simple question that is such a thorn in your side?
Well, it can come down to a few things.
Why are they asking this?
What are they looking for in my answer?
What is the best strategy for giving them what they want?
As these questions start to mount inside your brain, it’s likely that your level of stress is growing along with them, and that doesn’t make for the most comfortable of job interviews.
And if you aren’t comfortable, chances are the hiring manager can sense it and we all know what that means…
Bye bye job offer! (gulp)
But it doesn’t have to be this hard. In fact, this article will show you that answering this question can actually be an easy (and even pleasant!) experience.
Because what this unique question really is, is an opportunity for you to take control of the interview and position yourself as the perfect candidate for the job.
But in order to be able to do this you need to understand why hiring managers are asking the Tell Me About Yourself interview question in the first place.
FREE BONUS PDF "CHEAT SHEET" Get our "Tell me about yourself" cheat sheet that gives you 4 more word-for-word example answers to the "tell me about yourself" interview question and more.
Here's What We Are Going To Cover
- Why do hiring managers ask this question anyway?
- How to answer an “unstructured” interview question
- Common Mistakes
- How to structure your answer
- Tell me about yourself sample answer
- What to do if you have no experience
- What to do if your changing industries
- Putting it all together
Why Do Hiring Managers Ask The Tell Me About Yourself Interview Question Anyway?
So why do hiring managers ask this question?
Do they really want to get to know you better?
Are their lives really so boring and wrapped up in work that they’re forced to ask these questions in order to live vicariously through their prospective employees?
Unless you’re a former race car driver who jet sets all across the globe and only dates blindingly attractive people and spends your weekends curing cancer and saving babies, I’m going to have to say no…
…they’re probably not vicariously living your life through your answer.
In fact, there are two much more practical reasons why hiring managers ask this question:
- They want to see how you react to a question asked casually and without structure
- They want to get a feel for what you deem to be “important”
Here’s the deal.
She runs through hundreds if not thousands of practice interview questions and refines her answers until they’re tailored, precise, and perfect…and interviewers know this.
They’re not stupid…that’s why they’re the ones doing the interviews!
Their job is to find the perfect candidate and weed out the less than ideal matches…and it’s a tough job, especially when faced with hundreds of candidates who have all worked equally hard.
So a “casual” or unstructured question is one that’s meant to throw you off your game and break you free from the memorized answers.
Rather than simply parroting back something you’ve studied for hours, you’re being called on to speak freely and off the cuff.
But why would they want to throw you off your game?
Well, chances are the position they are hiring for is going to require the candidate to make some decisions and think on his/her feet.
Anyone can prepare for a situation that they know is coming, much like anyone can prepare for an interview question that they know is coming.
By asking an unstructured question like this the hiring manager is able to get a good idea of your ability to think and adapt on the fly.
What Do You Think Is Important?
So we’ve established that thinking on the fly is important.
But even more importantly, by asking this question the hiring manager also wants to see which information you think is important to offer up relative to the position you are interviewing for.
In leaving the question somewhat opened and unstructured, the hiring manager is trying to get a sense of whether or not you truly understand which experiences, skills and abilities are relevant for the position you are interviewing for. (This is key!)
If you focus on things that the company puts a lot of value in, BINGO!
You pass the test.
But if you just regurgitate the stuff you’ve already mentioned in your cover letter and resume, chances are the interview will be over before it has even started.
How you answer this question can reveal more about who you really are than you can ever possibly imagine…which means it’s a potential land mine…or a potential springboard to success.
So how does one answer this question? The best way to understand this is to first talk about the common mistakes made by most job seekers.
Okay, so as you might have guessed, this is one of the job interview questions that most people get wrong. So in order to ensure you don’t end up as one of these people, let’s take a look at the most common mistakes that people make:
1) Regurgitate Your Cover Letter and Resume
I touched on this in the section above. This is not an invitation for you to simply list off your past accomplishments.
Yes, it’s important for you to highlight moments in your past when you were successful, but the real power lies in highlighting the accomplishments that are most relevant to this specific position (more on this in a minute).
2) Telling Your Life Story
This is probably the most common mistake that people make. Why? Because it’s the easiest way to answer this question.
“Well, I’m from Little Rock, Arkansas. I was born in 1983 and spent most of my childhood hunched over a piano, striving to become a concert pianist (which I now am). I love the outdoors – I’m and avid skier and mountain biker. I really love working with my hands and spent a lot of my time in the woodwork shop.”
Look. It’s great to share your personality with others. But save it for after you get hired.
3) “Well, What Do You Want To Know?”
Congratulations. You just lost the job.
Because an answer like this tells an interviewer that you’re unprepared (yes, unprepared for an unstructured question. It’s not fair…but then again, neither is life…).
4) The 10-Minute Monologue
Speaking of unfair…don’t go off on a ten minute monologue all about you.
Keep it short. A minute. 90 seconds at most.
There are going to be a lot more questions coming down the pipe that will allow you to elaborate on your various experiences, skills and accomplishments. Don’t feel like you have to answer all of them at once.
How To Answer “Tell Me About Yourself”
Okay, so now that you have an idea of what you shouldn’t do, let’s dig a little deeper into exactly how you should answer this tough job interview question.
So what is the most important thing to remember?
Well, according to research conducted by Marc Cenedella over at the Ladders, the consensus of career coaches that he asked about how best to respond this question begins with one specific point:
“Focus on what most interests the interviewer.”
Does that make sense? You don’t want to focus on what is best about you, you want to focus on what you are going to do to fulfill the needs of the company you are interviewing with.
We here at The Interview Guys Headquarters would have to strongly agree! Which is why we are always harping on our catchphrase:
“It’s not about you, it’s about them.”
What does this mean? You need to customize (or tailor) your response to the question to the needs of the organization.
So now you have to find a way to do this clearly and concisely.
Now we won’t get into the real meat and potatoes of the Tailoring Method in this article (but you should definitely read the in-depth discussion of this over in our article Job Interview Questions and Answers 101).
But here’s the Cliff Notes for the Tailoring Method:
Your company has a specific (and predetermined) set of skills and abilities that the candidate they are going to hire needs to have in order to do the job to their standards. We like to call these Qualities.
So in terms of Tell Me About Yourself, while it is important to talk about all of the Qualities that you think you have, what’s actually much more important is that you show that you possess the Qualities that they want.
But how do you find the Qualities they want and how do you incorporate them into your answers? (Again, we break it all down in the article linked to above, so go check it out and then come back to see how it applies to Tell Me About Yourself answer examples).
How To Structure Your Answer
Okay, so you understand that you need to “tailor” your response to the company and position you are interviewing for by emphasizing the Qualities that they desire in their perfect candidate.
But how exactly do you do that for Tell Me About Yourself?
The best way to do it is to provide a Success Story that highlights the Quality that you are trying to demonstrate.
A Success Story is an example from your past work experience that clearly demonstrates you succeeding in some way.
For example, a time that you solved a problem, excelled in a difficult situation or used a certain skill to get the job done.
Tell Me About Yourself Sample Answer
For the purposes of this answer, let’s say that you’d done your company research and found out that the Quality the company puts a lot of value in is elevated customer service.
Okay so let’s get into an example answer:
"Tell Me About Yourself..."
Well. I’ve been working for the past six years as a systems analyst and data manager. During that time I’ve been trained and certified on a number of different software platforms and systems.
Nice. You’re starting by answering the question directly, and keeping the answer business focused as well as targeted…and you’ve slipped in there that you’re trained on a variety of different programs which, depending on what they are, can make you an even more valuable candidate.
I'd really describe myself as a person with a versatile skill-set, a lot of integrity and a willingness to go the extra mile to satisfy a customer. Perhaps the best way to let you know what I'm about is to share with you a quick experience I had.
Recently while working at a location with a client, they mentioned that they had just purchased some software that I was familiar with but that their computer systems were having some difficulty integrating the program. I offered to take a look at the install and found that there was a step that had somehow been forgotten. I told him I would be happy to wipe the system and reinstall the software correctly. At first the client refused and when I asked him why, he told me that it was too expensive and that they were just going to learn to work around the problem. When I asked him further, he told me a different analyst had been in, looked at the problem, and told them that the files had corrupted their system overall and that it would take at least $25,000 to fix. When I told him it was a simple matter of wiping the previous version and reinstalling it, he was stunned. I did the whole project for a fraction of the cost the other “analyst” had quoted. My client was so happy he referred me to his friends and I’ve done similar work for several other companies in town as a result.
Excellent. You’ve highlighted the Quality (underlined) that the company puts a lot of value in, and used a Success Story from your past to support your claim that you have the quality. Time to bring it home…
Now I’m looking to take my career to the next level and move out of contract work into a full time employee for a company where I can be a part of a team, but also allows me to focus my energy on my best strength, working directly with customers. I’d like to build a long term career that lets me focus on professional growth.
And there you have it…the perfect wrap up. You’ve brought your little story back around to where you are now and what you hope to accomplish with this job. You’ve kept your stories not only professional, but focused and tailored to help reinforce what you’re ultimately trying to do.
But What If I Don’t Have Any Experience!?
But what if I don’t have a super awesome story like that? What if I’m still new-ish at this whole job thing and my stories aren’t as impressive?
Just because you don’t have a super awesome story like the one above doesn’t mean you aren’t still a super awesome individual able to bring both professional and personal skills to the table that would make any employer sit up and take notice.
Here’s the deal…
More often than not, the company cares more about your ability to fulfill their needs than it does about what you did for another company.
Sure, it helps that your Success Story refers to practical on-job experience, but if you don’t have that option you can draw from a different place.
For example, if you are a new graduate you can reference your academic achievements, athletic endeavors, charity and volunteer work.
If you had to work in any kind of group for any activity you can use these experiences as an example.
The fact of the matter is, the hiring manager has seen your resume and would not have brought you in if they didn’t think you had at least some potential to do the job.
So reach back into your past and find some Success Stories to help answer the question.
If you don’t have any experience and want a word-for-word sample answer then Click Here To Download Our “Tell Me About Yourself” Answer “Cheat Sheet”
Help! I’m Changing Industries and My Experience Doesn’t Apply
You might be saying this to yourself, but it really doesn’t matter if you didn’t work in the same industry you are applying to and here’s why…
Through your research of the company you will discover what the Qualities are that they put a lot of value in. It could be leadership, it could be collaboration, or it could be literally any other Quality you come across.
The point is, once you discover what that Quality is, it will determine the Success Story that you pull from your past to help support it.
So whether it is from your last job, or a previous job, or not from a work scenario at all (as stated above; your academics, your athletics, etc.), the Success Story you choose is not always based on work experience.
It’s up to you to find your own Success Story that best supports the Quality they desire.
If you are changing industries and want a word-for-word sample answer then Click Here To Download Our “Tell Me About Yourself” Answer “Cheat Sheet”
Pulling It All Together
Ultimately your goal with how you answer this question is to get the interviewer to see you not as a potential candidate…but as a future employee. An interview is really just a long sales pitch.
You’re selling you and you want the company to buy!
Let’s go back to the first few paragraphs of this blog. People who talk only about themselves are boring. Luckily for us all, you’re not one of those people!
By following what we’ve shown you here, you can take the dreaded question “Tell me about yourself” and turn it into a solid moment within your interview where you can prove again that you’re not only a professional, but you’re perfect for the job!
FREE: Tell Me About Yourself PDF "Cheat Sheet"
Ok the next thing you should do is Download our PDF Answer "Cheat Sheet" that gives you "word for word" example answers to this dreaded question.
In it you'll find answers to fit a variety of scenarios including: if you just graduated, have no experience and more!