“Tell me about yourself” might seem like an easy win of an interview question—after all, you know all about yourself! And good thing, too, because it’s often the very first thing an interviewer will ask you to do—whether you’re having a preliminary phone screen, speaking to your prospective boss, or sitting down with the CEO during the final round.
But responding to this invitation to talk about yourself in the context of a job interview can feel stressful and complicated. You might be thinking: Um, what do you want to know? Should I give you the biopic synopsis of my workplace drama complete with ideal casting?
Your interviewer doesn’t need to know you envision Zendaya playing you in the imagined movie adaptation of your life. But you can and should prepare in advance so you can use this common opening prompt to your advantage, setting the stage for a successful interview.
Here’s what you need to do to nail your answer.
1. Remember this is often your first impression, and it matters.
We really only have one chance to make a first impression! The most hiring decisions are made in the first minute, which includes your greeting, handshake, eye contact, and the first thing you say, which may very well be your response to “Tell me about yourself.”
Even if the powers that be aren’t making an irreversible determination shortly after the conversation begins, a first impression can color the rest of the interview. If you have to spend the rest of the time making up for a bad opening, you’re in a very different position than if you gave a succinct, confident, and relevant answer right off the bat.
Be prepared for this question and show interviewers you prepared for it. The confidence that comes across in this is a really good place to start from.
2. Tailor your answer to the role and company.
When an interviewer asks that, they really mean tell me about yourself as it’s relevant to the position you’re applying for and this company. I think they’re giving you an opportunity to articulate succinctly why you have the right qualifications.
Take advantage of the opportunity! In order to do that, you’ll want to spend some time combing through the job description, researching the company, and figuring out how you can tell your story in a way that makes it crystal clear why you’re interested and what you bring to the table that aligns with the role and company.
3. Know your audience.
As with any interview question—or conversation for that matter—you’ll want to make sure you understand who you’re talking to. You might get some form of “Tell me about yourself” at every single stage of the interview process for a job, from the phone screen through the final round, but that doesn’t mean you have to give the same exact answer every time.
If you’re speaking to a recruiter who’s not immersed in the hard skills of the team you’d be joining, you might keep your answer more focused on the bigger picture, whereas when you speak to your prospective boss, you might get a little bit more technical. If you’re talking to a C-level executive as part of your final round, it’s probably smart to touch on how you can help achieve the overall mission of the company they run.
You can also enhance your answer and make it more specific to the role and company based on what you learn as you progress through the interview process.
4. Keep it professional, but speak with passion.
As you know by now, this question carries an invisible addendum: “as it’s relevant to this role and company.” So you’re best off keeping your answer professional. The norm in some countries might be to share personal details at this point, but in the U.S. you should avoid talking about your family and hobbies, for instance, unless you know something very specific about the company that would lead you to believe otherwise.
Keeping your answer professional, however, shouldn’t stop you from shedding light on why you’re passionate about your work or about this company, even if that broaches slightly more personal territory.
You don’t have to go into a huge amount of detail, but if your goal in an interview is to stand out among the applicant pool and be memorable, then infusing this answer with some passion can help you do that.
5. Practice, practice, practice—but stop short of memorizing.
You don’t want to wait until you get this question in a live interview to try out your answer for the first time. Think through what you want to convey about yourself ahead of each interview and practice saying it out loud.
We recommend leaving yourself a voicemail or recording your answer and then waiting an hour or more before you listen to it to give yourself some distance and perspective. When you finally play it back, see if the answer sounds solid and credible to you.
If you can, go beyond practicing solo. Practice will surely make your answer stronger and help you become more confident giving it.
6. Keep it positive.
If you were fired or laid off from your last job, this probably isn’t the best moment to mention it.
As you move further into an interview, things get more comfortable. So wait until you get a specific question about why you’re looking to change jobs or why you have a gap on your resume to address those topics.
And that advice you’ve probably heard a million times about not badmouthing your previous employer? That applies here, too. Especially here. If the first thing you tell an interviewer is how awful your boss is and how you’re trying to escape the misery of their micromanaging clutches, that’s a big turnoff.
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