How to answer “Tell me about yourself” in an interview

Tell me about yourself? It seems such an innocuous question, designed to break the ice and put you at ease before the real interview starts. Well don’t be fooled! This question has the potential to win or lose the day, so don’t sleepwalk into disaster by taking the wrong approach. Plan your strategy beforehand….

What do they want to know?

There is purpose behind every question, so you can be pretty certain the interviewer is asking with intent. What they’re looking for is a sense of who you are, the person behind the interview mask. It’s also a good way to see how you respond to such an open, unstructured question. editAll too often candidates prepare for the very specific questions around job and role, but fail to tackle the broader topics with quite the same diligence.

Many employers will note how confident and articulate you appear, which points you choose to emphasise and how you build rapport. Your response will set the tone for the remainder of the interview; you want to engage the interviewer and whet their appetite for what’s to come.

A word of warning: this is not an open invitation to share your life story. It’s not a cosy fireside chat –  be aware of time and place. You are in complete control of the narrative, so think trailer not director’s cut!

The wrong direction

There are a number of ways you can take a wrong turn with this question. A pretty common mistake is to look bemused and ask, “What do you want to know?” Not only can this sound (unintentionally) confrontational, but it can make you seem woefully ill prepared.

Many candidates – perhaps overcome with nerves – interpret this question literally, and start rambling ad nauseam about any and everything. It’s pretty common to hear something like this:

I’m a final year politics student at X University and staying on campus this year in a house-share with four friends. I’ve lived in London all my life and have a really great social life, which I’ve been able to continue as a student. I’ve got lots of different interests and belong to loads of societies. I particularly enjoy travelling and had a Gap Year in Thailand and Vietnam before I started here. I’ve seen a lot of Southeast Asia now. Last year I travelled round Europe and also completed an internship, so it was pretty hectic. My boyfriend has just secured a job with Y Company so I’m really keen to stay in London and develop my career here. 

This might seem a perfectly reasonable response to the question, but it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny – it lacks purpose, focus and any attempt to align skills, interests and experience to the job role. There’s no sense of coherence and the balance of personal to ‘professional’ is skewed.  On hearing this, the interviewer may be thinking:

  • Can this individual focus and commit? They seem to be pretty vague on the details – is there any evidence of follow through? How long have they been doing x or y?
  • There are no specifics here – which societies? What level of responsibility? Any useful skills or experience they could apply?
  • Concerns around motivation – is s/he applying because they need to stay in the area? Does the personal trump the professional?

A better approach

I may be swimming against the tide here, but I’d caution against using this question as *just* a sales pitch. Not only will your response sound predictable and contrived, but you run the risk of alienating the interviewer within the first few minutes. Do remember, most interviewers will decide within the first few minutes whether they like you or not and ‘likeability’ can often win the day.

Compare this response to the one above and note the difference in content, tone and style:

I’m in my final year at X University studying politics which has given me a unique opportunity to understand and analyse motivations of groups and individuals and be aware of my responsibilities as an active citizen. I’ve also relished the chance to hone my critical abilities – although my friends may sometimes disagree! One of the things I’ve enjoyed about university is the chance to broaden my horizons, and try new things. I’ve even become an Exec member of the FilmSoc. This year I interned at a public affairs consultancy and was fortunate to contribute to a high profile campaign, enabling me to consolidate my research and analysis skills. This experience affirmed my desire to pursue a career in this field, which is why I’m sat here today.

I’m not suggesting this is a perfect or definitive response but it does hit a number of key points:

  • The candidate has summarised their motivation for studying politics and how this contributed to their personal development. They’ve even managed to inject some gentle humour.
  • We can tell the individual has made the most of the university experience to stretch and challenge themselves which would translate well to the professional workplace.
  • There’s a strong sense of purpose and career aspiration, and clear evidence of suitability for the role. The candidate articulates this is in a natural and compelling way.
  • This answer moves seamlessly from the personal to the professional and the general to the specific.

Why does this work? Because we see a little personality (but not too much), a good smattering of skills and strengths, and a positive attitude brought together in an engaging and coherent manner.

Final tip: don’t court controversy….

Always err on the side of caution. An interview is not the time to spark debate or raise contentious issues. When the interviewer asks, “Tell me about yourself” , take a moment to pause and reflect. Don’t give them cause to question your values, ethics or commitment. Clichéd it may be, but you’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression.

2 thoughts on “How to answer “Tell me about yourself” in an interview

  1. Pingback: How to answer “Tell me about yourself” in an interview | Bournemouth University Placements & Careers Service Employability Blog

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