One of the interview questions that most intimidates job seekers is one that most interviewers assume will be easy: “Tell me about yourself.” It sounds straightforward — but as every job seeker knows, it’s not that simple. What do they want to know? Are they looking for a complete history of you? Do they want to know about your personality and personal life, or should you focus strictly on work? Is this supposed to be a 30-second overview or a more involved rundown? Luckily for you, there’s a pretty simple way to approach this question. Here’s how to answer “tell me about yourself” in a job interview.
First, understand what your interviewer is looking for.
“Tell me about yourself” doesn’t mean “give me your complete history from birth until today.” It doesn’t even mean “walk me through your work history.” It means “give me a brief overview of who you are as a professional.”
You might wonder why interviewers even ask this question; after all, they have your résumé! If they’ve read it, they already know your professional background. (And personally, I don’t use this question, largely for that reason; I just don’t find it very useful.) But interviewers who ask this question are generally looking to get a broad overview of how you see yourself as a professional as a sort of introduction before starting to dive more deeply into the specifics. Some interviewers, ironically, even see this question as a icebreaker question that will help candidates relax. Little do they know!
So, what exactly should your answer include?
The specifics of your answer will differ from person to person, but generally a good answer will summarize where you are in your career, note anything distinctive about how you approach your work, and end with a bit about what you’re looking for next.
For example, one version of a good answer might sound like this:
“I originally got into fundraising because I really wanted to work with mission-driven organizations and I know how crucial it is to raise money to support work like yours. Pretty early on, I found that my science background was especially helpful in being able to talk with prospective donors about the work we were doing at organizations like A and B. I love being able to show donors how their gifts translate directly into outcomes like C and D, and I think my ability to do that while translating the science into layman’s terms is responsible for some of the largest donations I’ve raised. For example, last year I raised our single largest donation in our history by doing ___. I’m excited about the role you have open here because it would let me continue to use my science background while raising money for an issue I feel strongly about.”
That answer is short, but it hits on why you’re in the field, a special skill or talent you bring to it, what resonates with you about the work, an impressive accomplishment you’ve had, and why you’re interested in the role you’re interviewing for.
But don’t get too tied into this format! This is one example, but there are lots of ways to do a brief professional overview. As long as you’re giving a basic sense of what differentiates you professionally — and you’re not just regurgitating your résumé — you should be fine.
Your answer only needs to be about one minute long.
“Tell me about yourself” isn’t usually going to be a major part of the interview — it’s the easing-in that happens before you get into more nitty-gritty topics, so it doesn’t need to be an extensive treatise. Roughly one minute is a good general guideline.
And one minute might sound very short, but it’s actually pretty long when you’re talking out loud; time yourself and you’ll see. (The sample answer above took me only 45 seconds to say out loud.)
That’s not to say you can’t go longer if your interviewer looks interested and engaged. As with any interview response, watch the cues you’re getting from your interviewer and adjust accordingly.
Don’t drag yourself.
This isn’t the time to explain you were fired from your last job or to confess your difficulties finding the right career path or to acknowledge you might be underqualified. Your answer shouldn’t be an aggressive sales pitch (that’s annoying), but you want to stay upbeat and enthusiastic-sounding about both your career and this particular job opening.
Keep your focus professional, not personal.
Some people answer “Tell me about yourself” with things like, “I’m originally from Idaho but came to Boston 15 years ago,” or, “I’ve been happily married for a decade now and have two beautiful kids.” Don’t do that; keep it professional. If you have an interesting hobby or outside interest, it’s fine to throw that in toward the end (“And I do a lot of baking and last month won a state prize for a cake decorated to look like Queen Elizabeth!”), but it shouldn’t be the focus of your answer.
That said, some interviewers may want to get to know you more personally and not just hear about work. If so, let them ask! It’s better for an interviewer to have to say, “Tell me more about you as a person,” than for you to volunteer a bunch of personal details to an interviewer who wasn’t looking for that.
Practice your answer ahead of time.
Whatever you do, don’t try to wing your answer to this question in the moment! If you do, you’re likely to ramble and not hit the key points you want to make. Instead, as part of your interview preparations, work out your answer ahead of time and practice saying it out loud. There’s something about saying the actual words out loud to yourself a few times in the privacy of your own living room that makes the language easier to retrieve when you’re sitting in the interview chair.
Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.