On the surface, the question ‘Tell me about yourself’ seems simple. Do not be deceived. This is perhaps one of the hardest questions to answer, no matter how prepared you are.
If you are asked this question at interview, it is important to remember what your interviewer is looking for. It’s easy enough to start talking about your favourite hobbies and interests, but is this really what they want to hear? Is your answer relevant to the job you are being interviewed for?
Some estimates suggest that the interviewer can make up their mind about you within the first 30 seconds - and the question ‘tell me about yourself’ is often one of the first questions asked. Given its ubiquity and open nature, it’s important you’ve put sufficient thought into your response to respond convincingly.
Think hard about how you want to answer this question; it's not so simple.
Employers don’t ask it to make your life difficult; they ask it to see how you think and respond to what seems an informal question. The three main reasons for asking it are:
This question not only gives you a chance to pitch yourself and expand upon your achievements; it gives you an opportunity to show your human side. Examples of achievements outside of work or university show that you have a well-rounded life.
You should always prepare adequately before attending an interview, focusing specifically on how to draw out the key points contained in your CV and cover letter.
Unstructured or unexpected interview questions present a particular challenge: you are being asked to think on your feet and assessed on how you do it. Which is fair, as most jobs require you to make some on-the-spot decisions. Anyone can make suitable preparations in advance; a question like this shows your ability to think quickly and adapt.
So thinking on your feet is key, but even more relevant to this question is how you select information that will deliver a strong answer. The recruiter is trying to determine whether you really understand the critical skills, experience and abilities for the job you have applied for.
A strong answer won’t focus on you; it will focus on what you are going to do to help the company. Each business will place emphasis on a unique set of abilities, skills and experience for a given role. So while it’s still important to speak about the qualities that you have, what is much more important is to discuss qualities that the company wants.
Carefully review the job description and person specification as well as the company website to determine key qualities that are repeated or emphasised. These are the qualities that you need to focus on in your answer. But how exactly do you do this?
Try to use storytelling. The best way to answer is to incorporate your skills into a success story at work, during a voluntary placement or during a period of work experience. You can even relate it to a group academic project or something you did at university. When did you solve a problem, use a certain skill to achieve a positive outcome or excel in a challenging situation? These should be the building blocks of your answer.
Good preparation is essential for this question. Don’t simply read your CV to them like a script. Make sure to keep your answer clear and concise, and if you can, add extra information not mentioned in your CV.
Your interviewer will probably be most interested in information involving the job you are applying for. If you can, see if you can build into your response positives that relate to the role.
If you become stuck or confused, ask the interviewer to clarify the question or say: “What would you like to know about me?” This gives your interviewer the chance to get you to tell them exactly what information he or she is looking for, and should help you avoid going off on a tangent.
The best possible answers will reference the core competencies that the company wants the ideal candidate to possess and – using personal experience – you need to formulate your answer around a strong example that demonstrates how you possess them. Don’t cram too much in – think of one good example that illustrates those competencies well, and use the STAR technique (described later in this article).
Don’t brag. Humility is vital to almost every job, as working within a group environment requires teamwork and not one person claiming all the credit for everything. Even if you have climbed Mount Everest twice in the past six months, stay humble about your achievements. Being overly confident may have the opposite effective of what you are trying to achieve and could, potentially, cost you the position being offered.
Don’t start from the beginning. An interviewer will be most interested in your recent achievements, not those from twenty years ago. Many candidates simply repeat their accomplishments in chronological order from their CV, which will tire the interviewer. Sticking to the most current and important successes not only saves time but also ensures that the answer is relevant.
Don’t drag on. Your interviewer most likely has many interviews to conduct that day, and most likely does not want to be stuck listening for 45 minutes to the time you won the regional hockey championship. Keep your answers as concise as possible. Try to spend only a few minutes answering the question, and in those few minutes try to fit in what you believe is important in relation to the job.
Stay relevant. When you’re answering the question, make sure to keep all information relevant to the question. Some people will begin to talk about their background, or believe that the question means it is suitable to go into an informal chat, but you need to remember that you are still in an interview. Keep all your answers relevant to the position at hand and the achievements listed on your CV.
Make a copy of the job description or person specification for the role and underline the main skills-based keywords. Use this to build your success story using the storytelling technique mentioned earlier.
Let’s say, for example, that you were applying for a role in marketing and the job description repeatedly mentioned customer service. Using this information you would then need to formulate your ‘story’ around a time when you delivered excellent customer service, using the STAR approach. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. You can read about how best to use it here.
In brief, using the marketing example:
Situation. Begin by providing a little background information on the scenario in question.
Task. Explain what needed to be done, eg you needed to streamline customer service and improve the way in which progress updates were provided to clients.
Action. Describe what action you took. For example, you thought customers were experiencing long wait times for updates on projects, and so you arranged a meeting to discuss possible solutions.
Result. What was the outcome? For example, in delivering great customer service, perhaps you transformed a negative customer experience into a positive one, or secured repeat business. If you can quantify the result that’s even better.
Let’s take a look at one poor sample answer, followed by three much better examples.
“I was born on the 22nd July into a large family in Tottenham. From there I went to primary school, college then university, where I studied philosophy for three years. After that I worked in Lidl for a couple of months before I was fired, and now I’m here. In terms of hobbies, I used to play football in primary school but I stopped playing after I sprained my ankle, and since then I just go out clubbing at the weekend.”
“I am a recent philosophy graduate and have been working in retail for an extended period of time, where I learned to focus within a group environment, as well as honing my organisational skills through the day-to-day running of the business. Aside from my work, I am an active individual, having previously played football for my university, but the most important aspect of my life is socialising with my friends and taking responsibility for my family, especially my younger siblings.”
“I am a proficient and ambitious marketing professional. Every time I begin a new project, I aim to exceed expectations and provide an exceptional standard of service. As an example, I once assisted with a complex marketing project incorporating a number of digital platforms and channels, for which the client only had a small budget. I reviewed all of the options available, and deployed an organic search strategy which in a period of six months increased their website traffic by 50% and sales by 20%.
“I would describe myself as a versatile, industrious and resourceful professional who is always willing to go the extra mile for customers. In one of my most recent projects, I was working with a client who had integrated a new Learning Management System to their existing website, but it wasn’t functioning as it should. I offered to take a look at their website and reinstall the LMS.
"At first the client was hesitant, as they had worked with a previous provider who accidentally taken their company website offline for several months after an error with handling the LMS. So, this time, they said that they wanted to figure it out themselves. When I explained to them the procedure that I would use, step by step, the company were confident that I could address the problems they were having. I managed to complete the installation of a new LMS system with no disruption to their business and the new system even increased enrolments too. The company were so pleased with my work that they recommended me to several other businesses.”
For further information on how to answer interview questions, read: