It’s common for job interviews to open with a question that sounds simple on its surface but which many people find difficult to answer: “Tell me about yourself.”
Job seekers often aren’t sure exactly what interviewers want to know when they ask that question. Are they requesting a full history of your life? Should you include personal details, like where you grew up and your family life, or are you supposed to focus exclusively on work? And how detailed should you get — a 30-second overview that hits the highlights, or something more involved?
Once you understand what your interviewer is looking for, this question gets much easier to answer.
So what is the interviewer 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 by way of introduction, before starting to dive more deeply into the specifics. Some, ironically, even see this question as a softball ice-breaker that will help candidates relax. Little do they know!
What exactly should your answer include?
The specifics will differ from person to person, but generally a strong 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 result directly in outcomes like C and D, and I think my ability to do that while translating the technical language into layman’s terms is responsible for some of the largest donations I’ve raised. For example, last year I raised the 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 to this format! This is one example, but there are lots of ways to phrase 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 may sound very short, but it’s actually pretty long when you’re talking out loud — time yourself practicing and you’ll see. (The sample answer above took me only 45 seconds to read 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 be self-deprecating or disclose everything that may make you a weaker candidate, like that you were let go from your last job or have struggled to find a foothold in your field. Your answer shouldn’t sound like an aggressive sales pitch (few interviewers want that), but you should sound enthusiastic about your career and this particular opening.
Keep your focus professional, not personal.
“Tell me about yourself” can sound like it’s inviting personal details like “I was raised in Tennessee but have been based in Connecticut for the last decade” or “I’m really passionate about bird-watching” … but it’s not! Keep your answer focused on your professional life, not your personal one.
Some interviewers may want to know more about you as a person, but let them tell you if that’s the case. It’s better to wait to be explicitly invited to go in that direction than it is to volunteer a lot of personal information to an interviewer who really just wanted to hear about your career path.
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 preparations, work out your answer ahead of time and practice your delivery. 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.
Find even more career advice from Alison Green on her website, Ask a Manager. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.