There are some job interview questions that are guaranteed to come up in most (if not all) of your job interviews — regardless of your industry, your experience level, and job type.
At the top of this list is the universal and much-dreaded classic: “Tell me about yourself.”
This question (or a variation like “Walk me through your background”) comes up in just about every job interview and many job searchers hate it.
They hate it because they get frustrated trying to decipher exactly what the interviewer is looking for. However, if you prepare properly, there’s no reason to dread this question.
In fact, this question is an opportunity — an opening for you to set the tone of the job interview and emphasize the points that you most want this potential employer to know about you.
Don’t waste the opportunity by simply diving into a long recitation of your resume. This also isn’t the time to mention that you love flamenco dancing and bingo (yes, I have seen candidates ramble on about hobbies and personal preferences many times and it’s a surefire way to make a weak first impression).
Instead, try a concise, enthusiastic response that summarizes your big-picture fit for the job. This is also a good opportunity to share some information about your proudest achievements and goals.
The Interviewer’s Perspective
What is the interviewer trying to achieve by asking you to “tell him about yourself”? Well, for the interviewer, it’s an easy and open-ended way to start the conversation.
His ultimate goal for this interview is to find out enough about you to decide if you’re a good fit for the job opening that he is being paid to fill. In most cases, he wants to like you. His life will be easier if he can find a great candidate quickly. However, he is also on guard because a bad hire will reflect poorly on his judgment and possibly be a mark against him when it comes time to ask for a raise or promotion or bonus.
He is hoping that this question will get you talking. This question is almost always asked first, perhaps right after some chit chat about traffic and the weather. As a result, his first impression of you will be all about your answer to this question. Your answer here will also set the tone for the interview and let you lead with your strongest selling points.
How to Nail “Tell Me About Yourself”
Think of it as your elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a short summary used to quickly and simply define a product, service, or business and its value proposition. It answers the question: “Why should I buy/invest?” It should be concise enough to be delivered during a short elevator ride (to the 5th floor, not to the 105th floor).
You need an elevator pitch for yourself as a job candidate — and it should be customized for different opportunities. You must keep it focused and short, ideally less than a minute, and no more than 2 minutes.
You won’t be able to fit all of your great qualities and resume high points into 2 minutes, so you’ll have to spend some time thinking about how to present yourself in a way that starts the interview on the right note.
A great answer will address the following:
- What are your primary selling points for this job? This could be number of years of experience in a particular industry or area of specialization. You might also highlight special training and technical skills here. Focus on the qualifications in the job description and how you meet and exceed the requirements.
- Why are you interested in this position right now? You can wrap up your answer by indicating why you are looking for a new challenge and why you feel this role is the best next step.
The Skillful Formula for Answering This Question
I’ll share the “Tell Me About Yourself” formula that I teach to my interview coaching clients (and Big Interview members). There are three components:
1. Who You Are — Your first sentence should be an introduction to who you are professionally, an overview statement that shows off your strengths and gives a little sense of your personality too. This is not easy to do gracefully on the fly. It pays to prepare a bit in advance.
Good: “I’m an innovative HR manager with 8 years of experience managing all aspects of the HR function — from recruiting to training to benefits — for Fortune 500 companies.”
Concisely summarizes diverse background.
Bad: “Well, I grew up in Cincinnati. As a child, I originally wanted to be a fireman, then later became interested in dinosaurs. I excelled in the sciences from early on, placing first in my fourth-grade science fair. Funny story about that…”
Way too much information.
2. Expertise Highlights — Don’t assume that the interviewer has closely read your resume and knows your qualifications. Use your elevator pitch to briefly highlight 2-4 points that you think make you stand out.
Good: “I have spent the last six years developing my skills as a customer service manager for Megacompany Inc., where I have won several performance awards and been promoted twice. I love managing teams and solving customer problems.”
The emphasis here is on experience, enthusiasm, and proof of performance.
Bad: “My first job was as an administrative assistant for Macy’s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I learned a great deal in that role that served me well over the next 12 years. At the time, I wasn’t sure about my career path, so I next took a position selling real estate. It only lasted for six months, but I sure enjoyed it.”
Zzzzzzz. Nobody cares about your first job 12 years ago. You are starting with the least impressive part of your career and the interviewer is likely to tune out before you get to the good stuff.
3. Why You’re Here — End by telling them you want the position and why.
Good: “Although I love my current role, I feel I’m now ready for a more challenging assignment and this position really excites me.”
Concise and positive.
Bad: “Because of the company’s financial problems and my boss’s issues, I’m worried about my job’s stability and decided to start looking for new opportunities.”
Don’t be too candid or you risk coming across as negative. This answer also makes it seem like you’re interested in a job, any job — not this job in particular.
Remember: You will have time later to walk through your resume in more detail and fill in any gaps. Don’t try to squeeze in too much information or your interviewer WILL start to tune out.
A good interview is a dialogue, not a monologue. Keep it concise and give your interviewer the chance to dive in and ask questions.
Inside Big Interview, our complete training system for job interviews, we give you video lessons, more sample answers, and an interactive practice tool to perfect your answer to “Tell me about yourself.” Click here to learn more about the program.
Example Answer for “Tell Me About Yourself”:
“I have more than five years of experience as a technical project manager at top Wall Street companies. Most recently, I led the development of an award-winning new trading platform. I’m a person who thrives in a fast-paced environment so right now I’m looking for an opportunity to apply my technical exp and my creative problem solving skills at an innovative software company like this one.”
Notice that the first line sums up her experience and name drops “top Wall Street companies.” It’s always good to mention high-profile employers by name. Most hiring managers will perk up because they assume that if you made it through the hiring process at other well-respected companies, you must be pretty good.
She then describes an impressive recent project that we can assume is very relevant to the work required in the open position. Next, she spends time talking about why she’s interested in this company/role, using the terms fast-paced, creative, problem solving, and innovative. This is great if those words are used in the job description and/or company values.
With this answer to “Tell me about yourself,” the candidate is leading with some of her top selling points — experience at top firms, recognized stellar performance (award), technical expertise, problem-solving skills, etc. This will help him grab the interviewer’s attention and make a strong first impression.
It bears repeating that a strong first impression is critical in a job interview situation. Start the interview strong and end it strong and you might even get away with flubbing a few questions in the middle.
How Not to Answer “Tell Me About Yourself”
Don’t make these common mistakes when responding to “Tell Me About Yourself”:
1. The Resume Rehash — Many candidates respond by launching into a recitation of their resume from the very beginning. That can turn into a very long monologue that starts with one’s oldest — and probably least relevant and impressive — experience. By the time you get to the good stuff, your interviewer has zoned out and is thinking about lunch.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to prepare a brief summary of the high points of each of your past positions. It is likely that you will be asked about your accomplishments and day-to-day responsibilities in previous roles. Ideally, this should come out in an engaging conversation, though, not a long monologue at the beginning of the interview. You’ll only confuse your interviewer with information overload.
Even if the interviewer specifically asks you to “walk him through your resume,” don’t take the suggestion too literally. You can still lead with your elevator pitch and then segue into an overview of your most recent position, leaving plenty of opportunities for the interviewer to jump in and engage with you.
2. Mr./Ms. Modesty — Many of my interview coaching clients make the mistake of being too modest. They reply with a humble or vague introduction that fails to clearly communicate their strongest qualifications for the gig.
Some of these clients are just humble people who aren’t comfortable with “selling” themselves. Others have never really had to worry about a strong pitch — they were always courted for new opportunities when the job market was stronger.
Today, the competition for any good job is fierce. Don’t rely on the interviewer to see past your humble exterior and figure out how great you are.
If you take time to prepare, you can find a way to present yourself to full advantage while staying true to your personality. For modest types, I recommend focusing on factual statements.
You don’t have to brag, “I’m the best salesperson in the world.” Instead, you can state, “I led my division in sales for the last three years and had the opportunity to bring in more than $18 million worth of new business during that time.”
3. The First Date Approach — This is not a first date. Your interviewer does not want to hear that you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain. Many recent grads misconstrue the question and talk too much about their personal lives and hobbies.
This is probably because many only have admissions and other school-related interview experience (clubs, programs, etc.). For these types of interviews, there is much more interest in who you are as a person. In job interviews, focus on who you are as a professional unless asked about hobbies or outside pursuits.
4. The Clueless Ramble — I have watched a surprising number of smart candidates totally flub this question because of overthinking. Their answers sounds something like this: “You mean about my job experience or about my schooling or what kind of information are you looking for?”
I know that these candidates are aiming to please and that “Tell me about yourself” can be interpreted in many different ways. However, asking for too much clarification only makes you look hesitant and confused. Dive right in with the approach that we outlined for you above. If they are looking for something else, they will ask you for it.
Good Rule of Thumb – Don’t pull a Michael Scott on your interview.
Craft Your Pitch
So now that you know how to approach it, I have a feeling that you’ll learn to love hearing the “Tell me about yourself” question.
Take a few moments now to sit down and plan how you will respond in your next interview.
And please stay tuned for in-depth advice on answering other critical job interview questions in future posts.
An interview is a two-way street. Your potential employer is asking you questions to learn about you and your skills. In return, you need to prepare questions to ask your potential employer about the position, your boss, and the company in order to be sure that this is the right job for you.
In addition, if you don’t prepare smart questions, you run the risk of the interviewer assuming you aren’t interested or haven’t prepared.
Your opportunity to ask questions usually comes at the end of the interview. You must prepare at least two questions that demonstrate your interest in the position, your drive to excel in the role, and the fact that you’ve done some homework (researched company, industry, department).
So how do you come up with these smart questions that show you’re the perfect hire? As you conduct your pre-interview research, make note of topics that you’d like to ask about.
Keep in the mind that the best questions to ask are focused, open-ended question.
Avoid yes or no questions and avoid questions that are so broad that they are difficult to answer. You don’t want to stump the interviewer when you’re trying to make a good impression and develop rapport.
Still not sure what to ask? We have some proven examples of good questions to ask during a job interview:
1. Can you tell me more about the day-to-day responsibilities of this job?
This is your chance to learn as much as possible about the role so you can decide whether this is a job you really want. By learning more about the day-to-day tasks, you will also gain more insight into what specific skills and strengths are needed and you can address any topics that haven’t already been covered.
2. What do you think are the most important qualities for someone to excel in this role?
This question can often lead to valuable information that’s not in the job description. It can help you learn about the company culture and expectations so you can show that you are a good fit.
3. What are your expectations for this role during the first 30 days, 60 days, year?
Find out what your employer’s expectations are for the person in this position.
4. Describe the culture of the company.
Are you a good fit for this particular organization? Make sure you are comfortable with the culture and the dynamic of the company.
5. Where do you think the company is headed in the next 5 years?
If you plan to be in this role for several years, make sure the company is growing so you can grow with the company.
6. Who do you consider your top competitor, and why?
You should already have an idea of the company’s major competitors, but it can be useful to ask your interviewer for their thoughts. Naturally, they will be able to give you insight you can’t find anywhere else.
7. What are the biggest opportunities facing the company/department right now?
This question shows your drive to seize opportunity and may help you learn more about where the company will be focusing over the next several months.
8. What are the biggest challenges facing the company/department right now?
On the flip side, you may want to ask about challenges. This question can help you uncover trends and issues in the industry and perhaps identify areas where your skills could save the day.
9. What do you like best about working for this company?
Ask about your interviewer’s personal experience for additional insight into the company’s culture.
10. What is the typical career path for someone in this role?
This question can help you learn whether the company promotes from within, and how career advancement works within the organization. By asking the question, you show your interest in growing with the organization — just be careful not to phrase it in a way that sounds too self-serving (i.e. When can I expect a raise and a promotion?).
11. How do I compare with the other candidates you’ve interviewed for this role?
This is a slightly risky choice. You don’t want to put the interviewer in an awkward position. However, if things are going well and you’ve built a strong rapport, this question can help you see if there are any concerns or issues that you could address to show why you’re the best person for the job.
12. What are the next steps in the interview process?
This question shows that you are eager to move forward in the process. It will also help you gain important information about the timeline for hiring so that you can follow up appropriately.
Remember: Don’t ask about salary or benefits just yet. Wait until you are in the final steps of the interview process to negotiate with the hiring manager or an HR representative.
By Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As an interview coach, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase. She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.
Your written vocabulary is obviously extremely important in the process of writing your CV, but you must pay particular attention to the verbs you include. Verbs are used to describe actions and are commonly known as “doing words”, so they are crucial if you want to describe how your input impacts your employers. Verbs quite literally explain what you have done, which is why choosing them correctly will have a huge effect on your CV’s success. So take a look at StandOut CV’s 10 essential CV writing verbs.
Management skills are important across a wide range of professions and industries, but this is not limited to people management only. Skills like time management, supplier management, stakeholder management and process management are also valuable and highly regarded by hiring managers. So include any elements of management you use in your roles to show potential employers that you have control over the outcome of your work.
Employers always prefer to hire staff who deliver results for them. So whether you deliver cost savings, product sales or projects, ensure that your CV shows exactly what you deliver and how you deliver it. Including numbers when doing so can really quantify your value.
Businesses are always looking for ways to improve their offerings, so if you are a candidate who can bring serious improvements to an organisation, make it clear in your CV. Whether you can introduce improved processes, improved sales figures or improved performance, explain the improvements clearly to recruiters in your role descriptions.
Reduction can often be perceived as a negative term but when it comes to spending money and resources, companies are keen to make reductions. If you have been involved in cost or time saving initiatives, then include them in your CV and use facts and figures to detail the value you have added.
Negotiation is a core skill in the workplace, and it’s not just exclusive to sales staff. Negotiation is an important tool which can be used to obtain better prices from suppliers or to gain budget approval from a line manager. Any CV could benefit from one or two examples of negotiation that has benefited the candidate and their employer.
As the saying goes, “fail to prepare and prepare to fail” – this basically means that preparation is the blueprint of success. Therefore it makes sense to show recruiters that you have the ability to plan effectively in the workplace and see your plans through to completion.
In every profession, employees need to support each other and also support other individuals they encounter outside of their organisation, such as clients and suppliers. Use your CV’s role descriptions to show that you can be relied upon to support your colleagues and others.
Having the ability to train others not only shows that you have expertise in your field, but it also indicates that you have the communication skills and confidence to deliver training sessions. If you have held training responsibilities in your previous roles, be sure to include them in your CV.
Businesses face problems on a daily basis, so employees who can resolve these problems are highly sort after. Detail the issues that you face in your roles, the steps you take to resolve them and the results you achieve in doing so.
From presenting findings of research to an internal stakeholder, to presenting a new product to a crowd of potential customers; presentation is necessary across most businesses. If you’ve got any presentation experience at all, ensure that you include it in your CV if you want to make an impression.
About the author: Andrew Fennell is an experienced recruiter and founder of CV writing service StandOut CV