How do you respond when the interviewer asks, “Tell me about yourself”?

Why do interviewers ask “Tell me about yourself” and what do they really want to know? There are usually two reasons for asking that question and how you respond can influence the rest of your interview.

The most common reason why interviewers ask that question, unfortunately, is that they have not prepared for the interview. It should also be a tip-off to you that they might not have even read your resume. A good reason, however, could be that they have prepared and have read your resume. This could be their way to hear what you have to say and to assess whether what you tell them verbally is consistent with what your resume tells them.

Of course, you will not know which is the case but that doesn’t matter because your reply would be the same for both situations.

What will be the purpose of the interview? YOU will be there to interview for a job. You will not be there to have a social conversation with an acquaintance or a friend. Accept that THEY will be trying to answer the following three questions:

1. Do you have the skills and experience to do what WE want you to do? The interview is not about you telling them all YOUR great skills and experience. It is about you demonstrating that you have the skills and experience THEY want.

2. Do you have the personality, style, temperament, and attitude that will fit within OUR organization. Particularly as it relates to the department/group/etc. where you would be working? These are based only on THEIR subjective perspective that may not be shared with you.

3. Do I like you and do I believe you are telling me the truth? Do I think you have been forthright and candid? (This one often trumps 1 and 2.)

Here are suggestions on how best to respond to this question:

  • Research the company. Know what is in the news about them. Understand their business and products. Prepare a list of questions you want to ask. They need to see that you have done your homework. For suggestions on how and where to do research on companies, click here.
  • Start with a brief introduction about your early life, perhaps where you grew up, what courses you particularly liked in school, extra-curricular activities you participated in, and any other event where you excelled or accomplished something memorable (to you). Even if it was something you achieved when you were seven or eleven and may seem silly now. (Humor goes a long way in an interview. Particularly if it is about you showing your self-awareness and humility.)
  • Explain why you chose your career path, mention any instructors or others who particularly influenced you or your decisions, and what courses in school you particularly enjoyed and why. (Interviewers want to hear you speak positively about others you encountered along the way.)
  • Describe your career progression very briefly, why you chose certain jobs or left them and how you were promoted. Describe any close or continuing relationships you developed with colleagues. Be brief and only cover highlights. Do not just repeat what is in your resume. (Interviewers want to hear that you planned your career path and didn’t just bounce from job to job without much thought or a plan.)

How long should you take to answer this question? No more than two minutes, period. You will need to practice before you interview so you will know what you can include within the two minutes.  If they want more information, they will ask for it. You want to encourage a two-way conversation. If you do all the talking or if they do all the talking, neither of you will get to know whether the position and you are a good fit. Keep in mind that question No. 3 is the most critical assessment.

For more information on making a change in mid-career and interviewing, click on the link to go to the career center.

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