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.

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