Tell me about yourself - How to answer one of the most dreaded interview questions

If I asked you right now to tell me about yourself, how would you respond?

It may be one of the most common interview questions, but it’s also one of the most difficult ones to answer. After all, how can you possibly encapsulate all your experience and skills into just a few short sentences?

Often asked as an icebreaker at the beginning of a job interview, this question is your chance to make a great first impression. It can also set the tone for the rest of the interview, so it’s important to get it right.

What’s the best ‘tell me about yourself’ answer?

The bad news is, there’s no one-size-fits all answer to this interview question. Sure, you could search for ‘tell me about yourself sample answers’ online, but there’s no stock answer that can sum up your specific background, career goals, experience and personal qualities.

The good news, however, is that there is a simple formula you can follow to make sure that you answer the question in a way that both impresses and intrigues the hiring manager.

How to answer tough job interview questions

The trick with this kind of open-ended question is to keep your response specific, relevant and impressive. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at how you can create the best response to this interview question and get one step closer to securing your dream job.

Structure your response

How you present or structure your response is often as important as what you’re saying. If your interviewer is not engaged at this early stage of the interview, it will be difficult to recover. So, think of your answer as an elevator pitch — short, sweet and to the point.

Don’t ramble. Your potential employer doesn’t need your life story. Instead, focus on having a good structure and presenting a short, concise snapshot of your background.

Generally, I advise candidates to break down the structure in to three parts:

1. Background

2. Reasoning

3. Opportunity for follow-up

An answer can look something like this:

(Background) I have more than 25 years of experience in retail, including roles at Company A, B and C. I specialise in visual merchandising, and as Regional VM Manager at Company A, I implemented a project that ultimately increased revenue by X% by standardising our in-store experience via store layout.

(Reasoning) I am looking for a role that allows greater flexibility and provides the opportunity to hone my skills in ecommerce. I am also really interested in areas XYZ that this position offers.

(Opportunity to follow up) Is there anything else I can tell you?

This is a simple and effective way to allow you to showcase your achievements and what brought you here today. It clearly highlights your experience and skills, along with why you’ve decided to apply for a new role. By asking a question to the recruiter at the end, it gives them a chance to ask follow-up questions which will allow you to expand on the areas they’re most interested in.

Make your response relevant

When selecting which aspects of your current job or previous experiences to talk about, choose the parts of your career that most closely align with the role you are interviewing for. Read and re-read the job description. Think about the key skills you will need to display in the role and which skills you've developed in the past that will show that you are the right person for the job.

Don’t forget that the interview process is a two-way street, and sometimes a poor interviewer can leave you scrambling. If you’re asked a more general question and you aren’t sure what the interviewer wants to hear, you can ask for clarification. Something as simple as, “Would you like me to start from the beginning of my career and talk you through it, or provide a few key highlights?” will do the trick and ensure you answer the question in line with the interviewer’s expectations.

Know your audience and tailor your responses to their questions accordingly. Be conscious of who you’re meeting with and why. Research them on LinkedIn beforehand to get an idea of their background and where they fit within the organisation.

Only talk about your personal life if it’s appropriate

Generally speaking, try to keep your answers professional and work-related. However, if you do choose to include some information about your personal interests, make sure they are directly relevant to what you know about the company culture.

For example, the hiring manager doesn’t need to know that your six cats have their own social media accounts, but if your passion for volunteer work and experience in fundraising aligns with the company’s charity initiatives, it may be worth mentioning, albeit briefly.

Be specific about your achievements

Rather than simply listing your skills or talking about your overall career path, recruiters and hiring managers want to hear concrete examples of your achievements that help them to form a picture of what you can really do.

They also want to hear data and results to back up your achievements, which make it easy to show how you made a difference in your current role or last place of work. Instead of saying, “I have solid project management skills” use examples from your previous jobs, such as “I led a project that increased sales by X” or “I saved the company $Z”.

Whether it’s from your current job or previous roles, use examples where you’ll have plenty to talk about. The recruiter is likely to ask you follow-up questions based on your answer so make it easy for yourself by choosing subjects that you have a lot of experience in.

Give short, impressive answers

Keep your answer short, punchy and upbeat. A lot of candidates start rambling when they’re asked to introduce themselves, which not only fails to impress the interviewer but also wastes valuable time. Recruiters don't want to hear your life story; they want a snapshot into your previous professional life.

If you spend ten minutes giving an overly detailed rundown of your career history, there will be less time to cover more relevant areas related to the role. Two or three minutes of talking about your main achievements should suffice. Direct the recruiter to your most impressive achievements and make sure that everything you talk about showcases your key skills.

Remember that you’re in control

Don’t get overwhelmed by the open-ended nature of the questions. In fact, you should see it as an opportunity to take control as the interviewee.

As with many common interview questions, you’ve been given a great opportunity to pick and choose what aspects of your work experience you want to talk about and how long for. The interviewer has essentially given you a blank slate — this is your opportunity to highlight your greatest achievements as well as demonstrate your ability to provide a focused and well thought-out answer.

Practice out loud

Whether this is your first job as an Administrative Assistant or your fiftieth job as a temporary Project Manager, it’s worth practising your introduction before the interview.

In order to nail the job search and receive that all important job offer, job seekers need to create a good first impression. Appearing calm and confident as a result of thorough practice and preparation is essential to achieving this outcome.

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If you’re looking to make your next career move, take a look at our current job vacancies.

Or, for more practical interview tips and information on everything from networking to cover letter writing, take a look at our helpful career advice articles.

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