When students ask Student Careers and Skills about how to answer this question, they are often concerned by it because it is so open-ended. How do you know what to say when there is so much that you could say?
In fact ‘tell us about yourself’ is a gift of a question for the person being interviewed, precisely because you get so much flexibility about how to answer it. Other questions will require you to think of specific examples, or focus on your strengths and weaknesses (so prepare for such questions too), but for a question like this, you can decide what is important.
So how do you decide what to tell the interviewer?
A counselling student made a very interesting comparison the other day when I was running a workshop about job applications. A good counsellor will seek to understand the world from the point of view of the client they are working with, and a good applicant is doing a not dissimilar thing during the recruitment process – trying to understand the world from the point of view of the potential employer.
The interview has only one purpose – to decide which person or people will be offered a job. Even an apparently innocuous question may form part of the interview process. ‘How was your journey?’ is often an opening question, designed to put people at their ease, but – putting yourself in the recruiter’s shoes for a moment – what might the following answers suggest to you about your potential recruit?
- ‘It was awful! The bus only got me to the station two minutes before the train was due, and then the train was late, and then I couldn’t find a seat!’
- ‘Oh, my Mum drove me.’
- ‘It was fine, thank you. I was glad that I’d decided to catch the earlier train since I knew I would still get here on time, even though it was delayed.’
So too with the ‘Tell us about yourself’ question – if you put yourself in the employers’ shoes, this can help you to think about what key information about you will help persuade them that you are right for the job. In most cases you will know what the employer wants because they will have provided this information, through the Person Specification or Job Description or initial job advert, and other information which you may have been able to pick up about the job. So tell them how you fit this information.
Focus on what the employer needs to know
This can also help to avoid some pitfalls, such as seeking to summarise your entire life history. Or, for example, quoting basic information about yourself which the employer could just read off your CV or giving information which is important to you but irrelevant to the employer – or telling a funny story about your sister’s cat.
Here is an invented example from someone who is applying for a job as a fundraiser at a charity. They have no fundraising experience, but they are confident that they have the skills for the post and they have been interested in the organisation in question for some time. They know that the person they are talking to has already seen their CV. Does their answer focus on the most important things about them? Can you think of ways to improve it?
‘Thank you for inviting me to interview. From the point of view of this application, there are two things I am particularly keen to tell you about. One is my placement last summer. One of the things I loved about that job was that I was working with different people, members of the public, every day. Although that role wasn’t as a fundraiser, it did require me to build up a quick rapport with people whom I’d not met before, which the job description suggests will be equally important in this role. Equally valuable I think was my experience as the Secretary of the University’s Charity Society. Although our focus was on information giving rather than fundraising, my involvement enabled me to gain a good insight into organisations such as yours. In fact we had Ms Charity Sector, one of the Project Officers in your Coventry office, come to talk to us. All this whilst working towards a 2:1 in a subject which I’ve really enjoyed!’
If you know what the employer is looking for and can tailor what you say about yourself to provide evidence that they have found what they are looking for in you, then you will have provided a strong answer to the question ‘Tell us about yourself…’.