Professional Development

‘Tell me about yourself’: How the heck to answer that dreaded interview question

The deceptively simple question is still used by many interviewers. Is it still necessary, and if so, how do you respond?

How much should you prepare for this simple question?

(Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels)

“Tell me about yourself.”

Those four little words can be the trickiest, stickiest part of a job interview. So simple, yet so loaded.

If you Google the phrase, you’ll find a never-ending list of tips and tricks for this question alone. Some jobseekers cram for interviews like they’re tests, pre-planning the “correct” answers to common interview questions.

But should “Tell me about yourself” even be in your interview script?

Asking the question

If you’re on the hiring end, there are a few reasons why you might not want to ask the question — not least of all because it is so common that people will pre-plan their answer ahead of time based on the advice of online experts. If you want to know if that’s the type of jobseeker you’re talking to, by all means, ask it. But if you expect a tailored answer to this question, you might be disadvantaging people with different work and learning styles, including neurodivergent folks.

If you ask the question “tell me about yourself” hoping to hear buzzwords like “team player” or “fast-paced,” think about who exactly you’re envisioning in the role, and if it that is advantaging certain groups. The above phrases, for examples, are commonly associated with men, and can have an unconscious negative association when used by women and nonbinary people.

Also, be aware that the question can be seen as fishing for personal information that you are not allowed by law to ask. (More on this later). A lot of these questions concern topic that primarily affect marginalized jobseekers — which is why the Equal Employment Opportunity Act forbids them.

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As an interviewer, you can make the question more effective by making it more specific. For example:

  • “What’s one thing about your experience I won’t see on your resume?”
  • “What brought you to this point in your career?”
  • “What’s your current/most recent project?”
  • “What are you most proud of in your work that has never received any awards or recognition?”

Keep the questions focused on work to make it clear that you’re not asking about their family life, hobbies or where they like to vacation. (You can ask about their hobbies separately. Family life, not so much.)

But maybe you like the simplicity of “Tell me about yourself.” Maybe you like the unpredictability of it and what it says about the interviewee and how comfortable they are with the status quo. If you aren’t expecting a certain “correct” answer, there’s nothing inherently wrong with asking it.

Answering the question

So … how do you answer the eternal question?

As an interviewee, you may have taken workshops or even classes on how to answer the “tell me about yourself” question. Or maybe you haven’t, but you’re entirely qualified. Do you have to play the game? Crack the code? Memorize a script?

Obviously, it all depends on the interviewer and employer. Some may like the “just be yourself” approach, others want to see that you’ve prepared tirelessly for the interview.

While there may not be a one-size-fits-all answer, in general you should focus on these three points:

  • Present — What you currently do
  • Past — How did you get to this point
  • Future — What made you want to apply for this job

That’s really it. Don’t get lost in the details of #2 — keep it relevant. If you’re currently a receptionist applying to be a software engineer, you don’t need to talk about how you became a receptionist, but how and why you decided to pivot by earning a coding certification.

To boil it down further, it’s about what you do and why you want to do it in the position you’re vying for.

It’s such a basic question, and one often asked in a friendly tone as you take a seat that you may feel like answering more casually. You probably shouldn’t. In fact, there there are some things you should definitely avoid no matter what:

  1. Talking about your family — It’s too soon and it’s information the prospective employer is not entitled to. They’re not allowed, for example, to ask if you or your partner are expecting a baby, because they’re not allowed to discriminate against you for it. Don’t volunteer that information. The same goes for birthplace, religion, gender identity or marital status. “I was born and raised here in Newark, studied at the College of Business, and my wife and I just bought a house to raise our twins” sounds innocent enough, but only one part of it — the college you attended — is relevant.
  2. Simply repeating what’s on your resume — If you’re sitting in the interview chair, your resume has been read. And while you can’t be 100% sure that the person interviewing you has read it, reciting your education and work experience is not going to cut it. That’s the part they already know.
  3. Unleashing buzzwords — No matter what some interview advice columns might say, the last thing you should be is a cliche. Do you like to day you “think outside of the box”? Use that skill to find another way to say it, preferably using a recent example. You’re a “team player”? Don’t tell them that outright, tell them a story that illustrates why.
  4. Going on too long — “Tell me about yourself” may be vague, but what they are not doing is asking you your life story. Some experts recommend keeping your spiel to five minutes; some recommend about two minutes, others say you should keep it under 30 seconds. The sweet spot is probably somewhere between 30 and 90 seconds.
  5. Asking what they can do for you — You might be champing at the bit to ask about compensation and benefits, but this is not the time to bring it up. “I left my job because I wasn’t earning enough, so I’m looking for a job with good pay and benefits” may be 100% true, but you have to tell them what you can do for them first before bringing up compensation. Don’t worry — that conversation will come up later in the interview (at least, if you don’t blow the first question).
  6. Copying a textbook answer from the internet — The “perfect” answers to the “tell me about yourself” question you can find on the internet should not be used as templates where you drop your details in to customize it. You’re not going to impress anyone reciting a generic answer that is (or should be) meant as a general guide of what points to hit. These answers are missing the most important part of the answer: you. A rote answer won’t show your personality. Instead of “I am passionate about learning new skills,” add a quick personal anecdote, like “When I was 10, I taught myself HTML to customize my Myspace page, and I haven’t stopped learning to code since” — but, you know, accurate to your own life. Show your relevant passion instead of telling them. And of course, no textbook answer can replace you expressing your knowledge about the company you’re applying for.
  7. Memorizing — If you do enough interviews and get hit with the same questions, you’ll probably keep a basic, evolving, script in your mind, and that’s natural. If you’re trying to nail your interview with a picture perfect answer, crafted over hours and practiced in front of your roommate, it probably won’t give you an edge. Memorized answers usually sound like memorized answers. The question might be more specific and complex than it seems, but you should know your own background and motivations without a script. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with taking notes before an interview and practicing answers to keep the information fresh in your mind. Just be ready to mix it up. That way, if they do mix it up by asking you an alternate question, you’ll still be just as prepared.

In the end, one of the biggest ways to tell your interviewer about yourself is not with a perfect answer to “tell me about yourself,” but in your inquisitiveness during the interview.

“Always ask questions,” said Patrick Johnson, VP of talent acquisition at The Bancorp, at a NET/WORK workshop in 2019. “If they say ‘do you have any questions?’ — ask a question. We look for inquisitiveness. In reality, no one’s looking for someone in the tech field who just wants to stay in the same job for 20 years.”

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