How to Answer “Tell Me About Yourself” in a Job Interview
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One of the most critical factors for success at a job interview is preparation. Prepare and practice interview questions and answers and be prepared for anything.
One question you can be sure you’ll be asked is the open-ended “Tell me about yourself.”
Open-ended questions can often be the hardest to answer. The number of options you have can be overwhelming. Where do I begin? What areas should I focus on?
In this short article, we will help you understand how to talk about yourself. We’ll explain what the interviewer is looking for in your answer and—perhaps more importantly—how you can use this question to steer the job interview in the direction you want it to go in.
The information in this article will help you to answer common job interview questions, especially open-ended ones.
What the Interviewer Is Not Asking
Don’t be fooled by the casual, friendly tone of your interviewer. They are not asking you about what kind of music you listen to, what your favorite movies are, what you like doing on the weekends.
The interviewer has a very specific job to do. They need to find the right person to fill their open position—the right person who will successfully integrate with their team and the company culture. The interviewer is not asking about you for any reason other than to help them decide whether or not you will be a good fit.
Why the Interviewer Is Asking This Question
There is an unspoken agreement between interviewer and interviewee. Both parties know this question is coming. And both parties understand the answer will be guarded and not completely revealing. So why bother asking it in the first place?
The truth is that an interviewer will ask this question for 1 of 3 reasons.
- The interviewer is unsure how to evaluate you for the company. They ask you an open-ended question hoping that you will give them the information they need to either move your candidacy further along or eliminate you from contention.
- The interviewer wants to put you at ease at the start of the interview, and they think this is a good way to achieve that end.
- The interviewer places a high priority on company culture and interacting within the framework of a team. This open-ended question is a straightforward way to gauge the candidate’s comfort and sociability levels.
What the Interviewer Is Looking for in the Answer
If we understand why the interviewer asks this question, we can understand what information they hope to glean from the answer.
- The interviewer wants to see you at ease. They want to gauge how well you do in a low-stakes social situation. But more so than that, they are being empathetic. They know a job interview is stressful, and this is their way of letting you have control over at least a part of the process.
- The interviewer wants you to give them pertinent information not on your resume—information that would help them decide about you.
- The interviewer wants you to say something that aligns with their culture or shows them that you would be able to integrate with the team successfully.
A Template of How to Respond
The interviewer is giving you carte blanche to steer the interview in any way you feel comfortable with. This is not a courtesy they will extend often. Take advantage of it. If you do so effectively, there is a good chance you will be in the driver’s seat for the duration of the interview!
Choose the Appropriate Tense
How do you define yourself? Past, present, or future?
If you wish to define yourself by what you have done, your answer will focus on the past.
- I grew up in Boston. I was really into tennis as a teenager. I even thought about going pro until I hurt my knee…
Defining yourself by past actions does come with a few inherent downsides:
- We can’t change the past. It’s done with. It’s over.
- Any relevant information they need about your past is likely already on your resume.
- Defining yourself by your past can show a lack of vision or a lack of ambition.
Additionally, if you don’t have much experience, defining yourself by past actions might not be the best strategy. For some examples of how to answer “tell me about yourself” when you have no experience, check out this article.
If you wish to define yourself by what you are currently involved in, your answer will focus on the present. This can add a sense of immediacy and can help put the interviewer in the moment.
- I’m interested in technology. I’m currently taking a course in coding while implementing what I’m learning by developing my own site.
If you wish to define yourself by your dreams and ambitions, your answer will focus on the future.
- I would love to run my own company one day. I’ll need to acquire more business experience and put some capital aside. But I’m also planning to have children, so I’m putting money aside for that as well.
There isn’t a correct answer as to which tense you should focus on. It comes down to how you want to present yourself and where you want to put the emphasis. And there is no rule you can’t use all three—provided you do so in a logical and fluid order: past, present, then future. Remember, this question is an opportunity for you to steer the interview and the focus to where you want it.
The Barnum Statement Is Your Friend
A Barnum statement is a vague—and potentially contradicting—statement that allows the listener to interpret the meaning in a specific way. They are commonly used in horoscopes where the reader is meant to take a broad statement and assign it a very specific and personal meaning. And it works!
Barnum statements could apply to nearly anyone, and they’re an easy way to have your listener relate to you.
- I enjoy being around others, but I find that I still need time to be alone with my own thoughts.
- I love taking a closer look at the details. Then when I step back and see the bigger picture, I can have a greater appreciation for it.
These statements are broad and almost contradictory. They could apply to anyone—including the interviewer.
Close On the Subject You Would Like the Interview to Focus On
Segues are difficult for an interviewer. If you close on a topic relevant to the position you are applying for and invite the interviewer to delve in more deeply, that is more than likely what they will do. It beats them having to think of how to segue out of your answer and into one of the other questions they have prepared to ask.