How to Answer the Interview Question: "Tell me About your Educational Background"
Imagine: it has been seven years since you completed your degree in biochemistry and applied physics. Since then, a lot has happened; you’re not the environmental physicist you initially intended to be.
Instead, you’re a self-taught web developer seeking your first web development role.
So, how do you answer the interview question, "Tell me about your educational background"?
'Tell me about your studies' is quite a common interview question. This article will go through what a potential employer is looking for when they ask it.
Spoiler: it is less a detailed history of your every achievement, and more an understanding of your knowledge, commitment and decision-making skills.
How Else Might This Question Be Asked?
Before delving into interviewers' potential motivations and what makes a good answer, first consider how the question might be phrased and what this tells you about the employer.
Tell Me About Your Academic Background
When an employer asks for information on your academic achievements, they’re not expecting you to list every subject you’ve studied and the grades you achieved.
Instead, they want you to highlight the academic achievements you are most proud of and reference how they have shaped the professional you are today.
Tell Me About Your Studies
Now, this interview question is slightly different in that it is not necessarily talking purely about formal education.
The important thing to remember though is that you need to be able to evidence any achievements.
How Does Your Education Relate to Your Career?
An employer may ask you this if there is no apparent link between what you studied at university and the role you are applying for.
How to structure your answer is discussed in detail further down in this article.
But, in brief, what the interviewer wants to hear here is that there is a deliberate connection between your past and present.
Why Do Employers Ask the Question?
You are more likely to be invited by an employer to tell me about your educational background if you graduated not long ago or you’re applying for a role that requires certain qualifications.
While the employer would have already selected you for an interview after reviewing your resume, they may not know the intricacies of what you studied.
When they ask you to tell me about your studies, they invite you to evidence how your academic knowledge will benefit their organization.
They are looking for clear indicators of how your educational experience has prepared you for the job on offer.
However, one of the desirables was ‘wind turbine engineering’. If you wrote a paper on the subject, built a prototype or even studied the economics of wind farms, here’s your chance to express your knowledge and impress them beyond your resume.
By asking you to "tell me about your educational background", an employer is also seeking to understand how driven and targeted you are.
If you have four degrees in completely unrelated subjects, it could suggest to an employer that you are flighty and perhaps unsure of what career path to take.
However, if you can join the dots in the interview and explain what motivated you to embark on a course and how your choices have a logical purpose, you will show a strong level of self-awareness.
Of course, quite often, the question "What is your educational background?" is often company policy, especially during the graduate recruitment process where the employer is looking for specific qualities.
Suppose they have shortlisted a dozen graduates to interview, all with virtually the same qualifications.
In this scenario, they’re more interested in how you approached your studies and the transferrable skills have rather than what you studied (more on this below).
How to Answer "Tell me About your Educational Background"
When an employer asks you to tell me about your educational background, what they’re really asking you is, "What skills have your educational studies equipped you with? And how are these relevant to the job?"
Research the Organization and Role
Before you even attempt to answer the question "Tell me about your academic background", you must research the employer and the role.
In your interview preparation, list the 'Essential' and 'Desirable' criteria on the person specification for the role. Then, go through your history and find an example from your educational background that shows how you meet these.
This will form the basis for your answer.
If you have an extensive educational background, you might be wondering where to even start with answering the question "Tell me about your studies".
The logical place is with your most recent formal education.
For most, it will be either a university course or a high school diploma. For others, it could be a doctoral degree.
However, do not just repeat what’s in your resume. The employer is looking for more detail.
They want to hear you talk passionately about the studies that most appealed to you and what they taught you.
Mention Relevant Placements
Remember, an employer is seeking to identify the most knowledgeable and experienced candidate.
If you’re fresh out of university, you may feel you lack work experience.
Draw the employer’s attention to any practical experience you had. Make sure you reference what you learned from your experience and why it is relevant to the role.
For example, you may have worked on a prototype for a company in the same industry or spent a year on placement at a similar place.
Emphasise Your Strong Transferrable Skillset
You may need to dig deep with your answer and think about all the transferrable soft and technical skills you acquired during your studies.
Here are some examples of some soft skills you could talk more about (be ready with a real-life example of each one):
- Ability to work under pressure
- Public speaking
- Creative thinking
Likewise, you will also want to mention any relevant technical skills you acquired. These could include things like:
- Project management
- Big data analysis
- Content creation
- Academic research
Show Commitment to Continued Learning
Employers favour candidates who have a thirst for learning.
If you can demonstrate how you have continued to advance your knowledge in a specific field, you will stand out.
Continued education says to the employer that you are driven and committed.
Example Answers to Questions About Your Studies
To help you structure your answers so that you can use your educational background to its full advantage, here are three example answers. Each is to the question phrased in different ways.
How Does Your Education Relate to Your Career?
This is a relatively direct way of asking what they want to know and is a good place to emphasise your transferable skills.
I majored in History and Sociology with first-class honours, which has directly prepared me for the role of a research assistant.
Each subject I studied involved having an intense understanding and application of quantitative and qualitative research.
I even studied behavioural science as part of my sociology course, which enabled me to delve deeper into the psychology of subjective interviewing to alleviate bias.
Tell Me Why You Chose the University That You Did
This is more focused on your academic education. The interviewer wants to hear about factors when you make big decisions.
Well, I wanted to make sure that I chose the course that would not only push me but specifically enable me to pursue a career as a Blue-Chip Project Manager.
Therefore, I made a shortlist of three colleges offering similar opportunities, all with a placement year.
Then, I visited each of the colleges, in turn, asked lots of questions, sat in on lectures and spoke to others who had majored that year before arriving at my chosen college.
I also explored the preferred colleges listed by the employers I could see myself working at.
Why Did You Choose to Step Away From Your Area of Academia?
This is an interesting take on tell me about your educational background. It may come up if you are making a career change from academia to industry.
The employer may also ask you if your degree is very specific, and the role you’re applying for is seemingly unrelated. Therefore, you will need to form a strong answer.
Initially, I studied Data Science and Business Analytics because I wanted to be at the forefront of using technology to drive business change.
During my studies, I was placed within an HR team that wanted to use data analytics to understand employee behaviour.
While working with the HR project management team, I discovered that I was interested in understanding and supporting employees to reach their goals.
Therefore, I chose to supplement my studies by taking various Personnel and Behavioral Psychology courses, which makes me quite a rounded candidate for the HR graduate position.
What to Avoid in Your Answer
There are several things you will want to avoid when answering the question "Tell me about your educational background":
- Talking about irrelevant studies – Keep your answer focused. Unless you’re applying for a theatre hand, there’s not much point in discussing your drama studies.
- Exaggerating your knowledge – You may have experienced a two-week educational placement at a leading magazine and have several articles published. While this does show that you are a promising writer, it does not make you an established journalist. Saying so may have you come across as aggrandising and untruthful.
- Comparing yourself to others – Try not to say, ‘compared to others in my year’. You may be the only one to have arranged an overseas placement, but you won’t want your drive to be mistaken for arrogance.
- Overworking your answer – Your answer to "Tell me about your studies" doesn’t have to be very long. It just needs to be relevant. You’ll tie yourself in knots if you overexplain your background.
You can’t go wrong if you provide a clear answer that explains your academic decisions to an employer.
If you started a course and realized it wasn’t for you and enrolled in a different one the following academic year, explain the reasons to the interviewer. They’ll appreciate that you know your own mind.
When an employer says to you, "Tell me about your educational background", they are genuinely interested in your answer. After all, in part, you have been selected for interview because you have the right qualifications.
However, they really want to know how you apply yourself, what skills you have and how they can benefit from your academic knowledge. If you can answer all three of these questions in one answer, you won’t go wrong.
Lastly, good luck – if you’ve been selected for an interview, you’re already part-way there to landing the job!