Category Archives: Interviewing

Tough Questions: Tell Me About Yourself

Whether the context is a meeting with your superiors, an informational interview, or a formal in-house interview, everyone is likely to get some variation of the question, “Tell me about yourself” at some point in their job search. This is a similar concept to the “elevator pitch,” where you need to be able to introduce yourself in 30-60 seconds and leave the other person with a clear picture of who you are. Although it may seem incredibly simple, this is actually a  hard thing to master, because it requires careful consideration to decide what information to include and what to leave out. Although your answer should be short, the impact it can have is huge. We’ve all heard that first impressions are important, and this is certainly the case in an interview setting. Since this is often the first question a candidate is asked, it’s especially important to ace this question and get the interview off to a strong start. Here are some tips on how to prepare a great response.

1.   Explain Your Transitions 

What employers are really asking when they say, “tell me about yourself” is, “what’s your relevant background and how did you get here?” Therefore, it’s important to give an overview of your path. You don’t need to go into detail about each role you’ve had, since that will be the main topic of the rest of your interview, but do give a short summary of each role. You also want to make it clear why you progressed from one role or company to the next. This helps them understand how you make major decisions; it also gives them insight into your motivations and priorities. In addition to explaining the logic of your decision, keep your explanations forward-looking. By that I mean, explain your transition in terms of which skills or experience you wanted to gain in your new position, rather than what you wanted to get away from in your old one. Let’s look at an example:

  1. Example A (looking past): After 3 years, I felt really stifled and I didn’t like the culture so I started to look for a new position
  2. Example B (looking forward): I am so grateful for all I learned in my 3 years there, but eventually I wanted to gain broader experience at a more mature company, so that is why I moved to my next role.

Keeping your explanation focused on what you wanted to add rather than what you were trying to escape keeps your tone positive and doesn’t disparage your former employer.

2.    Weave a Common Thread Throughout

When you think about what to say about each role, make sure you know which common threads you want to highlight. This is especially important if you are making a career transition, because you need to make it very clear that you have applicable skills and interests, even if your former duties weren’t exactly those required in the new position. For example, one of my former clients was in financial regulation and wanted to move into the hospitality industry. These may seem totally unrelated, but in fact he had a lot of experience in building relationships across different groups and in managing complex projects. These skills were both required for the hospitality job he wanted. So, in his answer he focused on highlighting these parts of his job and why he liked those responsibilities, thereby demonstrating his experience and natural talents in these areas.

3.    Conclude with Why You’re There

Since you’re looking for something (whether it’s information or a job) it makes sense to conclude with where you are now and what you are looking for in your next project or role. If you follow the guidelines above, your answer might go something like, “Now I want to combine my skills in {project management} and my passion for {Women’s economic development} to transition into a project management role at a non-profit.” This not only shows that you have the requisite experience, but it also demonstrates that you are excited about the position. This is important to employers because everyone does their best work when they are excited about their role. Employers want candidates who are qualified AND passionate, and this is your chance to show that you are both.

4.     Practice

There’s an old saying my father used to love, “If I had more time I’d write you a shorter letter.” That concept absolutely applies here. It takes effort to prepare a focused and concise answer. I suggest you practice what you are going to say and time yourself to ensure it doesn’t exceed one minute. It should be like reading the back of a book: give the other person a good sense of what you’re about, and keep them interested in learning more. I don’t recommend memorizing your answer, but practicing a few times will definitely help you come across as focused and confident, which will set you up for success in the rest of the interview.

Tough Questions: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Of all the dreaded interview questions, this may be the one that I get asked about the most. While I don’t believe it’s one of the best ways to get to know a candidate, it is an old standby that has recently come back into favor so it is definitely worth thinking about how to approach it. This question has a strong reputation of striking fear into the heart of interview candidates, but with a well thought-out approach it can be used to your advantage.

1) Think About What To Highlight

As with all interview answers, you should be doing more than just answering the question as presented: you should be using it as an opportunity to highlight your strengths and unique qualities. So to prepare for this question, think through which qualities you want to highlight for the recruiter or hiring manager. You can work this into your answer by talking about skills you want to build on and areas you want to develop.

2) Show Passion

Beyond using this question as a way to clearly position yourself, it’s also a good opportunity for the interviewer to determine how long you plan on staying in a role. Recruiting and training employees is incredibly expensive*, so companies want to know that you are interested in staying in your field for at least a few years. This is an opportunity to show your passion by talking about the impact you would like to have on the field in the future, as well as what types of work you would like to incorporate into your skill set.  This is a great way to show your excitement and commitment to the company and industry of your choice.

3) Keep it General

Rather than stating a specific job, I suggest talking about the things that are important to you and the areas you want to develop in your career. For example, rather than saying, “I want to be the CTO in 5 years,” talk about the goals you would like to achieve in that time. Everyone has a different definition of success, and how you answer this question can illustrate what success means to you. Talking about a specific job title or salary level will indicate that you care a lot about outside recognition or prestige, even if that is not really what you value most.  In contrast, discussing what you want to have learned and the impact you want to have can demonstrate that personal development and helping others are important to you. For example, rather than saying you want to be the CTO, say, “I want to be in a role where I can apply my leadership skills and lead other IT professionals to transform the way a company does business. I’m passionate about how IT can increase a company’s success, so in five years I hope to be in a role that allows me to find personal challenge and make a real impact on a company.” Focusing on both what you want personally and on what you can deliver to a company allows you to demonstrate your values and what you offer to the company.

*Average cost of hiring a new employee is 1.5 to 3x his salary. Source.

How to: Answer Behavioral Interview Questions

I have previously written about a few of the toughest interview questions. Today I’m going to take a step back and talk about a general approach to answering behavioral interview questions.  Behavioral questions are those such as, “Tell me about a time when you dealt with conflict.”  These questions, which are based on past experiences, are one of the most common tools recruiters and hiring managers use to get to know candidates. These questions provide a great opportunity to highlight your strengths and skills by sharing stories of past successes. However, because the questions are so vague, they also leave a lot of room for error if you don’t go into the interview with a good game plan.

With that in mind,  here are my guidelines for the basic 3-part structure of a good answer to a behavioral interview question.

1) Be concise in explaining the context of the situation

One of the most common mistakes candidates make when answering behavioral interview questions is that they spend too much time describing the situation.  You have a limited amount of time to answer before the interviewer will start to lose focus, so you don’t want to spend all your time explaining every detail, history, and character involved in your story. It is best to give a quick overview featuring key points: the challenge at hand, your role, and any other key players who are relevant to your story.  Although it is tempting to think you need to give the interviewer lots of background, try to think hard about what they really need to know in order to understand the main point of the story. You want the focus of your answer to be YOU and something great that you did.

2) Talk about WHAT you accomplished and HOW you did it

Once you have set the scene, focus the bulk of your answer on what you did. The key here is not just to list the steps or actions you took, but to explain how you were able to achieve success. For example, if you are telling a story about getting other people motivated to take on a tough project, you would want to explain what you did in order to motivate people, not just state that you did it. To understand why this is such a powerful shift, think about this from the interviewers perspective: they are probably talking to dozens of candidates, and everyone will claim to have done great things. Who would you be more compelled to hire? Someone who just stated that they accomplished amazing things? Maybe.  What about someone who explained how they thought about motivating people by getting to know them, understanding their priorities, and having open conversations about what had motivated them in the past? I would be much more likely to believe the candidate who told their story that way, as I suspect you would too. With that in mind, think about using the majority of your time not just to explain WHAT you did, but also to illustrate HOW you did it.

3) Conclude with the results and lessons learned

Just like any good story, your interview answer should have a clear and compelling ending. Do not just trail off when you are done describing what happened. You want to end with a confident tone to really impress your interviewer. As a way to wrap up your story, explain what the outcome was. For example, share that you managed to deliver the project under budget and on time after working through the challenges and getting your team motivated to work together. Whenever possible, try to quantify your outcome (e.g. reduced the budget by 10%).  Illustrating your success in terms of facts and figures makes it easier to understand what the positive impact was for your company.  In addition to the outcome, or if there isn’t a clearly quantifiable outcome, conclude with a short sentence about your takeaway from this experience. The best candidates are confident but also self-aware, so showing that you are able to learn from successes as well as failures will help you stand out.

Tough Question: What Are Your Strengths?

As a follow up to my earlier post addressing the question “What are your Weaknesses?” today I’m going to cover the other side of the coin: strengths. Although it may seem easier to discuss what you are good at, it can be daunting for a lot of people. Additionally, even if you can think of some strengths, this question is a great opportunity to highlight your personal brand and position yourself as the best fit for the job. Therefore, you want to make sure that your answer isn’t just good, i’s targeted and strategic. Here are some ways to think about crafting a response that will help you stand out.

1) Think about the things you love to do

Often when we are discussing this question my clients tell me they can’t think of any strengths. When I ask them to tell me what they love doing, the answers start to flow freely. Start by thinking about this question in terms of preferences and you may find that plenty of things come to mind. Most people excel at things they love, so strengths flow naturally from preferences. If you start here, you will probably find that you have quite a few to choose from. The next two tips will help you narrow down what you should share in your limited interview time.

2) Make it something Unique

In the interview process, you are basically selling a product — it just so happens that the product is you. So treat it the way you would approach selling anything else: focus on what makes you unique compared to the competition. For strengths, this means highlighting something that is both relevant to the role and something that is unique.

For example, if you’re an accountant who is also a strategic thinker, that is a really smart attribute to highlight. Most accounting candidates will be good with details, but most likely you will be the only one who highlights a strategic thinking ability. Use this as an opportunity to shine the light on strengths or combinations of skills that make you uniquely qualified for the job.

3) Explain the “HOW”

Consider these two examples:

1: “Project management is a strength of mine. I’ve been able to manage really complex inter-disciplinary projects effectively.”

2: “Project management is a strength of mine. I focus on making sure that all relevant stakeholders are communicated to frequently and that the information they get is most relevant for their responsibilities.  This has enabled me manage complex inter-disciplinary projects effectively.”

The second answer is only one sentence longer, but it does two critical things that the first one doesn’t. First, it gives it some legitimacy. Most candidates will claim they are good at the required skills for a role. When someone says, “I am good at X skill,” the interviewer has to trust their own self-assessment.  After most recruiters and hiring managers do a few hundred interviews, you start to question every stated strength a candidate presents. So while you may be telling the truth, just stating it likely won’t be enough to convince your interviewer. Secondly, explaining HOW you do something effectively gives the interviewer much greater insight into how you think. Since this is the goal of most interviews, you will leave a much stronger impression if you are able to explain what you do differently that allows you to excel at a certain skill.


Tough Question: What are your weaknesses?

Controlling your message and ensuring that your interviewer walks away with a clear sense of who you are is one of the keys to a successful interview.  But despite our best intentions and preparation, most people walk into an interview with a few questions they really hope they don’t have to answer.

So, how to handle one of the most-dreaded questions of all time: What are your weaknesses? I have a three-part strategy to answering this question that will get you through your next interview with more success and less anxiety.

To ace this question, make sure your answer:

1) Is real.  Every interviewer is sick of hearing candidates say things like, “I work too hard” and “I care too much.” As interviewers, we know why candidates give answers like this. People are afraid to expose any actual weakness, so they try to “spin” a strength into sounding like a weakness.  Well, guess what? Managers and recruiters hear this all the time, and we see right through this strategy.  Trying to spin your answer isn’t doing you any favors. For starters, it comes across as inauthentic. Secondly, it doesn’t help the interviewer get to know you. The interview is, after all, like a date. The goal is to get to know you. So if you don’t say something that is really true to who you are, you’re missing an opportunity to let them get understand you.

2)  Does not describe something that is critical for the role. This is important. Let me give an example of what I mean here. I have interviewed many candidates for administrative assistant roles. I always ask the weaknesses question. Some candidates talk about their weaknesses in handing details and logistics. Those answers sounded very real, but why would I hire an admin who isn’t good at details when the job by nature requires being good at details? Obviously, I wouldn’t. So they key is to pick something that is true about you, but something that isn’t a core skill or ability for the job. Going into a big picture or strategy role? Sure, say details are your weakness. But if you’re going into a job as an analyst or an admin, pick something that is less relevant to the role.

3) Shows how you’ve improved. Once you’ve been very up front and honest about your weakness, show some self-awareness and motivation by talking about what you’ve done to improve in this area. This could be by asking for help from a teammate who is strong in your area of weakness, taking extra classes, or leaving yourself more time for certain kinds of tasks. The key is that you’ve taken some step to improve and to ensure that you still get your work done excellently.

What are your least favorite interview questions?