“Tell me about yourself.”
It’s one of the most-often-asked job interview questions, just behind “What are your strengths?” and "What are your weaknesses?” Even so, many job seekers don't take it seriously, thinking it’s just an icebreaker meant to put them at ease.
But they should carefully consider their response because it’s more than a throwaway opener for most interviewers. When hiring managers pose this question, they’re hoping candidates will give them some insight as to why they think they’re a good fit for the job. They’re also using it to learn about applicants’ priorities, which will give them a better sense of who candidates really are.
And that’s not all: Interviewers also ask this question to judge how articulate and confident interviewees are, which in turn gives them a view of how new hires might present themselves to customers, clients and colleagues if they get the job.
As a job seeker, your answer will give you a great opportunity to spotlight the skills and experience that make you the ideal candidate for a job. And because it’s the question most hiring managers lead with, it can also help you get the job interview off on the right foot.
What you shouldn’t say
Many job candidates make the mistake of answering this question with talk about their family, kids or hobbies. Some even launch into their life story, starting with their hometown and continuing on through their college graduation.
Alternately, others offer descriptions of the problems in their current job, explaining that they applied for this position because their commute is horrible, or their boss is a jerk, or their employer won’t allow them to work a flexible schedule.
And some job seekers simply summarize their resume, going point-by-point through their work experience and education history.
All three of these responses can send your new-job dreams down the tubes — and fast. If you answer with either of the first two, hiring managers will see a red flag, an indication that you’re not that serious about the position or simply trying to escape a bad situation at your current job.
And if you go with the third approach, you’re throwing away an opportunity — the interviewer read your resume before inviting you in for an interview, and she doesn’t need you to walk her through it. She’d rather hear you highlight the things on that resume that make you an ideal fit for the job.
How to craft a great answer
The best answers to this question succinctly and clearly explain how you’re qualified for this particular job and — just as important — why you want it. So before you start crafting your answer, spend some time reviewing the job description in the recruitment ad for the position and researching the company. That way, you’ll have a good understanding of what the hiring manager is looking for as far as qualifications, experience and fit with the workplace culture.
Next, prepare a short script that highlights the skills, strengths and expertise you have that make you especially qualified for the position. Follow that with the reasons you’re applying for the job, focusing on career-related motivations such as the desire to build your experience and take on added responsibilities. Conclude with a short statement explaining why working for this specific company appeals to you.
A strong sample answer
Here’s an example of a strong response to “Tell me about yourself” for a job seeker applying for a senior administrative assistant position with a clean-energy company:
“I’ve been working as an administrative assistant for three years. At my current job in the finance department of a midsize company, I handle scheduling, meeting and travel planning for four executives and 20 staff members. I also help prepare correspondence, presentations and reports.
“I’m known for being a detail-oriented, well-organized team player. I never miss deadlines, I’m a good communicator, and I can juggle multiple tasks at once. In my performance reviews, my supervisor always notes that he appreciates my professionalism and enthusiasm for the job.
“With this experience under my belt, I’m looking for an opportunity to take the next step in my career. I’m hoping to do so in an organization like yours that works to improve the environment, something I’m passionate about.”
A final word of advice
No matter how you answer this question, don’t take up too much time with your response. You don’t have to tell the hiring manager every single thing that makes you a great fit for the position. Just give him or her a few important details that will spark their interest in learning more, and you’ll get the interview off to a great start.