How to Answer “Tell Me About Yourself,” According to Recruiters
The goal of any job hunter is to make it to the interview process, but nerves might kick in once you walk through the door. Don't let this one interview question trip you up.
Photo: Flamingo Images/Shutterstock
Preparing for the interview
After perfecting your resume and cover letter (making sure you’ve used these power words to make your resume stand out), and attending dead-end career fairs, scoring a job interview feels like an accomplishment in itself. Naturally, with so much on the line, you might find yourself feeling nervous when you walk into the interview room. But your nerves are justified, and you shouldn’t relax yet. Job interviewers might trip you up by asking tricky interview questions, but you can be ready for anything as long as you come prepared.
So, tell me about yourself!
You’ve picked out the perfect interview outfit, nailed the handshake, and maintained eye contact, and now the dreaded question has arrived. Though this classic interview question is a staple of the hiring world, these five chilling words can turn any prospective hire’s blood cold. If you don’t come prepared to answer this question, your interviewer might look at you, smiling, as you stare back at her blankly, struggling to divulge a single autobiographical detail. “Tell you about myself?” you might think. “I can’t seem to remember anything about myself!”
Know your professional story
When you go into an interview, think of yourself as a service or product, and know exactly how to pitch yourself. Think about the needs of your potential company, and which parts of your past experiences match those needs. You should:
- Be self-aware.
- Be professional.
- Remember it’s not a date.
Self-awareness is a great indicator of emotional intelligence, which is a soft skill that hiring managers seek. “When I ask this [tell me about yourself] question, I’m not so much looking for a specific answer as I am self-awareness and preparation,” says Alex Robinson, HR Manager at Team Building Hero.
And as for professionalism? That should be a given. Employers want to know that you are a mature and seasoned enough communicator to maintain professional relationships. Caitlin Cooke, an advisor for career accelerator Pathrise, tells job candidates to lead with “any formal education or training information,” and to “make sure to include your graduation date if applicable.” After that, she suggests that you transition into highlighting your best accomplishments related to the field, and cover “any technologies, tools, languages, or other keywords that are relevant to the role.”
Finally, “remember, it’s not a date,” says Ian Clark, Head of Americas at Frank Recruitment Group. “Too often, I see people give long answers that reel off into irrelevant personal interests and only succeed in making an interviewer switch off.” Your interviewer does not need to know everything about you in order to invest in you, and would probably prefer that you don’t disclose too much. (Find out the best way to explain a resume gap.)
While it’s important to be professional, don’t be too rigid—your unique persona is what will make you stand out. Allow your personality to shine, but not so much that it blinds the hiring manager. To do so:
- Share what aspects of work you enjoy most.
- Know what motivates you.
- Convey enthusiasm!
“I advise job candidates to choose one or two aspects of their work that they are especially passionate about, and focus on them in their response,” says Glenda Gracia-Rivera, a Director of Professional Development and Training at Rutgers University. Interviewers can usually tell when someone is truly dedicated to their career, and this is an appealing trait in a new hire.
Knowing what motivates you is helpful for your own productivity, and useful to your potential employer. “How people describe themselves can often help describe what they value,” says Carol Woods, the Director of People Operations at Homebase. “Seeing what they choose to highlight and [what] they gloss over can help you suss out accomplishments they’re most proud of.”
Gracia-Rivera also believes that conveying enthusiasm is the key to success. Interviewers want to see “someone who is engaged in work that matters to them, and can speak to it in a way that conveys enthusiasm for bringing that same energy into the new company,” she says. Having an enthusiastic and open approach will balance out any rightful professional bragging that you do, and instead of “coming off as a jerk who’s just rattling off numerous accomplishments,” you’ll sound like a better, more personable candidate, says Gracia-Rivera. (Learn the words you should definitely use during a job interview.)
Share why you’re the “perfect fit”
Before you go into a job interview, make sure that you’ve read the position description twice, thrice, or even ten times. Have the job requirements and responsibilities memorized so that you’re able to demonstrate your preparedness and level of qualification. To show that you’re the perfect fit:
- Sell yourself.
- Explain the traits that make you suited for the job.
- Know the value you could bring to the organization.
Frederick Shelton, the CEO of legal recruiting firm Shelton & Steele, notes that the “Tell me about yourself” question is the prime time to “sell yourself.” “Give your opening pitch but don’t get TOO detailed as you want to leave room for questions later,” says Steele. This is an especially important time to formulate a reply that will “guide the interviewer into asking the questions you want asked.”
Laura Handrick, the Careers and Workplace Analyst for FitSmallBusiness, sees the opening “Tell me about yourself” question as the perfect opportunity to share your natural strengths. “I’d be impressed if [a candidate] said something like: ‘I’m a natural organizer. I’m the one who helped my sister buy her first home, plans the family reunion, and organizes the gift exchange at Christmas,'” says Handrick. Sharing these innate skills with the interviewer will make them confident that you are an apt candidate.
Finally, “knowing your specific value to an organization demonstrates that you not only understand the role, but that you are confident in your skills and ability to succeed in it,” says Alexandra Clarke, Director of Recruiting for ForceBrands. This self-knowledge also pairs well with the previous tip, “be authentic.” (This is the best quality in an employee, according to the late Steve Jobs.)
K.I.S.S them hello
Shelton suggests that you “keep it sweet and simple,” or K.I.S.S., whenever you arrive at an interview. In order to keep it equal parts simple and sweet, remember to:
- Avoid recapping your entire life.
- Present your information quickly.
- Create a good impression.
“What [recruiters] don’t want to hear is a recap of your life or an outline of your resume,” says Lauren McAdams, a career advisor and hiring manager at Resume Companion. Remember that they already have your CV and cover letter on the table in front of them, and have (hopefully) read through it prior to meeting you. You’re in the interview room to fill in the gaps that a piece of paper cannot.
Simon Royston, Managing Director of The Recruitment Lab, hopes that interviewees will know how to answer “Tell me about yourself” and give all of the required information in “about sixty seconds.” He wants to hear information “presented in a slick, logical fashion…If you are talking for longer, then, in my experience, you are saying too much and have drifted from the key points.”
Royston also notes that he considers this question a “home run.” It’s a chance to “start the interview on a positive footing and really showcase your skills and strengths and highlight why you are right for the job.” If you’re asked “Tell me about yourself,” consider it a blessing. This seemingly uncomplicated question is daunting, but it serves as a perfect opportunity to introduce your personality and history in an authentic, professional manner. Once you’ve answered “Tell me about yourself,” don’t forget that there are some questions you should be asking during your job interview, too.