How do you respond to "Tell me about yourself" in a job interview?
April 3, 2011 7:57 PM   Subscribe

How do you respond to "Tell me about yourself" in a job interview? Details inside.

I realized that "Tell me about yourself" is a vague question that gives me a lot of leeway and really allows me to highlight my skills and how I can help the company.
How do I do that? What are your stories like? Did they simply describe your past experiences? Your career goals? How do I frame it in a way that isn't just me stroking my own ego? How do I sound more authentic and less like I just rehearsed a speech?

Examples are also very welcome.

Bonus question: I graduated from college recently and at this point in my life... I don't have any specific career goals. Basically, I want to just gain some experience in different fields and see what fits. I'm not sure how to frame that in a positive way for employers.
posted by joeyjoejoejr to Work & Money (19 answers total) 108 users marked this as a favorite
Humanize yourself. Tell them where you came from, why you decided to be what you wanted to be. It's harder for them to just see you as just a resume to be rejected when they know just a small tidbit of the human being you are.
posted by inturnaround at 8:01 PM on April 3, 2011

Humanize yourself, but tell the interviewer things he wants to hear, only less obviously. For me, in Vancouver, that means convincing the interviewer that I want to work in Vancouver, not in my hometown or in Toronto, where there's more money to be made. So I say something like this: "I grew up in [suburban Canadian city] but spent a few years living in [massive Asian megapolis] and after that I wanted to find a compromise between the two. Vancouver is the best of both worlds, which is why I came here to [do what I'm doing]." At this point, the interviewer is interested in me enough to ask follow-up questions and it's no longer as much of an interview and more of a conversation.
posted by smorange at 8:10 PM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I always try to work in 1-2 parallels to job qualifications in my "about me". A bit lame perhaps, but I've had a pretty decent interview track record. I'd do one sentence on personal background, then skip to college and job experiences, and follow up with a few personal interests.

The "college" anecdote would be something like, "In my undergrad years, I worked on Project X, which was really interesting because 'blah blah blah'. Working on that project was the first time I encountered rigorous statistical methods, and soon I was obsessed with with the ins and outs of Y Analysis. My results showed this great thing about blah blah blah, and led me to pursue Field Z." And "coincidentally" analytical skills and proficiency with an analytical software package happen to be high on the list of job qualifications.

If the interview's going well, the interviewer might ask more about Project X, a more interesting subject than the same old conversation she's been having in every other interview. And it doesn't feel to either party like a random digression because I already tied the project to analytical skills.

And I don't think it's bad to sound rehearsed: it means you cared enough to prepare.
posted by lesli212 at 8:21 PM on April 3, 2011

"Well, let's see - you already have my educational and work background on my resume. By the way, was there anything on my resume that you wanted to know more about? I'd be happy to go into more detail. I graduated law school in 2007 after realizing that the practice of law wasn't for me - but it absolutely wasn't a waste. It turns out that it turned me on to the wild and crazy world of regulatory compliance. I really think that there are some people who are just born with the right personality for this kind of work - y'know? Ha! I know I was. When I was three, my parents took me to the zoo and I noticed a mouse eating the elephant's food and I asked my parents if we shouldn't report it to someone. I have a natural propensity to look for Right and Wrong. Luckily, law school taught me the importance of establishing boundaries in otherwise murky and grey areas. And I'm blessed with the ability to read reams of truly dry material and write with great respect for the economy of words. I know, it probably marks me as a freak, but I really love the stuff. It is so... precise. Anyway, aside from that - I grew up in the area, I've got an adorable dog, and I am a classical musician. What else can I tell you about?"
posted by jph at 8:22 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First: KEEP IT SHORT. If you're in college or 1 year out, 60 seconds. If you've been working for 5 years, 120 seconds. If you've been working for 10 years, 180 seconds.

I once had a candidate that went on for 5 full minutes about his life, speaking in a way that I couldn't get in a word edge wise. FAIL. And for the love of god, do not use this time to read back your resume.

Second: Practice. Leave a voicemail for yourself answering "Tell me about yourself". Then play it back. Improve. Repeat. How to avoid sounding rehearsed? Look the person in the eye, be animated, try to repeat words that she used. (Worse than sounding rehearsed? 5 minutes of wandering and um's)

Third: Now, the content. (Yes, this really is third) Your answer should reflect what the position is looking for, ideally through your personal interests and a related past experience. Touch upon it lightly - tease, so that the interviewer will want to learn more.

Tip: How to brag without bragging. "At Acme, I was incredibly fortunate to be on the team that created SuperToilet Gold. Even though I worked 20 hours a day in the office, it was so exciting to see our customers ooh and ahh at the new surround sound system that started out as a daydream of mine."

No employer wants to hear that you don't have specific career goals - so please don't ever say that. For the love of god, please pretend that you are super interested in this job because of your career passions. How about this?

"Out of college, I decided to become a field reporter for Reuters in Somalia because of my background in journalism, and my passion for travel and adventure. But as I wrote more about the pirates, I realized that there was more to the story - where did they get their supplies? how did they finance their missions? The more I dug into this, the more fascinated I got about finance in general. There are people with money. There are people who need money to make money. Investment banking helps bridge this gap, and that's why I'm here today interviewing at Goldman Sachs. Besides, after working with pirates, I think I can work with even the most demanding of clients here."
posted by veryblue1 at 8:28 PM on April 3, 2011 [55 favorites]

"Tell me about yourself" is sometimes a sign that your interviewer is not prepared, and has barely had time to skim your resume before he sat down with you. (This is especially true if you get the question more than once during the day of interviews.)

I usually take this as an invitation to give my "elevator pitch" about my particular skillset, and I use that as a jumping off point to give a brief narrative about where I've been in the industry and some of my noteworthy cases/projects (and how that fits in with the needs of the company/firm I'm interviewing with). This is NOT reading back my resume; rather, it's hitting the high points in a way that hopefully reminds the interviewer why I'm there and what I'm all about.

The worst interviews are the ones in which this doesn't spark more conversation, but oftentimes, while you're answering the question, the interviewer is reading your resume and has figured out what they want to ask more about, or you've given them something that will give you a jumping-off point for more conversation.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 8:35 PM on April 3, 2011

>Best way to get an idea of what works and what doesn't is to ask other people to tell you about themselves. Best way to do that is pretty unethical, but it's fine... advertise a job or a room in your flat.

Sorry for this derail, but your recommending publishing fake job/housing listings to get interview experience? 'Pretty unethical' is right. This is awful advice.
posted by brightghost at 9:30 PM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Tell me about yourself" is a shitty non-question from an unprepared interviewer.

"Are there any specific things you would like me to elaborate on that aren't explored in my resume and application letter and other relevant documentation which I have provided and which is now in front of you?" is the only real answer.
posted by tumid dahlia at 10:11 PM on April 3, 2011

Response by poster: veryblue1 -
You're probably right about saying "I have no career goals" but I'm afraid that while feigning interest with my spiel, the interviewer's BS detector is going off the charts. It's something I'm trying to get over, believe me. It seems there's always a certain amount of BSing going around during a job interview, in any case.
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 10:13 PM on April 3, 2011

I'm afraid that while feigning interest with my spiel, the interviewer's BS detector is going off the charts

Well there must be some reason why you applied for this job and not some other job, right? Some reason why you picked your major over all the other available ones, if it's relevant to the job you're applying for? Figure out what those reasons are and you'll be a lot more convincing, even if you have to exaggerate your "passion" a bit.
posted by vytae at 10:19 PM on April 3, 2011

Best answer: "Tell me about yourself" is a shitty non-question from an unprepared interviewer.

"Are there any specific things you would like me to elaborate on that aren't explored in my resume and application letter and other relevant documentation which I have provided and which is now in front of you?" is the only real answer.

That's a terrible attitude to bring into an interview. Whether it's true or not, your interviewer is going to pick up your hostility and prevent you from getting the job.

You're a recent college grad. I've interviewed at least a dozen recent college grads. All listed the exact same classes and similar unrelated work experience, and filled it the remaining space with a lot of fluff from the career center. On paper, they were indistinguishable and boring. But some candidates, when asked this "non-question", talked about the complex projects they completed, the concepts they learned on these projects, how their part-time jobs somehow related to this job, and the interesting things the company was doing and how they hoped to work on these interesting things. These were good answers.

Other candidates complained about their lazy classmates, talked about how the classroom material wasn't relevant, vaguely described projects with no result, and recalled how the job description "matched their skills". These were bad answers.

Don't think of the question as a lazy interviewer's fallback. The question is a simple method to gauge how you communicate thoughts and ideas: whether you can hold a simple conversation with being boring or over-communicative.
posted by meowzilla at 1:15 AM on April 4, 2011 [13 favorites]

In response to your bonus question: I interview recent college grads for entry-level positions with my company. The worst, absolute worst, thing they can do is respond to the question "So, why are you interested in working for [Company Name]?" with something like "Well, I need a job, and you were hiring, so...." or "I'm actually interested in working in [unrelated field], but that's hard to get into" or whatever. (Yes, actual examples.)

Do I automatically believe everyone who says that [Company Name] is their dream company? Of course not. I honestly don't care if their reason is bullshit. I assume everyone entry-level doesn't know what the job is actually like and will be giving it a try-out, and it really won't be for everyone. But I want someone adept enough to know they should show enthusiasm about the job.

So, yeah... if your interviewer is anything like me, telling them you're not interested in that particular job, you're just trying things out to see what interests you, is the kiss of death. Surely there's at least one reason why you applied for that specific job? Think about that.
posted by pie ninja at 2:29 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I always ask this question a lot - it doesn't mean anything, so what the interviewee makes of it is a pretty transparent window into who they are. There's no real way of gaming it. Most of the time, the interviewer is in control, but this question gets at what happens when the interviewee is offered the driver's seat. Do they notice they've been offered it? If they do, how do they take advantage of it? Where do they try to direct the conversation? Ideally, they should highlight their strengths, because mostly I'm going to be digging around for flaws, and I also like to ask some questions that let them put their best foot forward and this lets me know what I should be asking. Also, if they get rattled by the hard questions, I can go back to things they feel more confident about so they don't sabotage the rest of the interview with nervousness.

One way to approach it: imagine that afterwards, the interviewer is going to run into their boss, who will say "Hey, how did it go with joeyjoejoejr?" What do you want them to say?
posted by AlsoMike at 2:31 AM on April 4, 2011 [7 favorites]

HR be damned - "Tell me about yourself?" is a great interview question because it comes up all the time in real-world business contexts: when project teams are getting together for the first time, when making a sales presentation to clients and at the start of a training courses for example. In these circumstances it is quite common for people to reveal themselves as overly egotistical, long-winded, vindictive and hostile or shy: not ideal qualities for a colleague.

In a group context the question is normally asked in a round-robin style - which means that there will normally be somebody else who speaks before you and who therefore gives you cues about what you might say and how long you might take so say it. In the interview you have no such support so you need to be careful and observant:

I would recommend a couple of additional techniques:
1. If you start by describing where you were born then you risk waffling; so start with the present (why you are here today for this interview) and work backwards (why you are are a great candidate, how you came to be such a great candidate). As others have suggested - keep it really concise and don't be afraid to include some teaser information.

2. Keep a really close eye on the interviewer(s): feed them some information and then look at them to see if they are still interested. Are they meeting your eye? Smiling or nodding at you to go on? If not then shut up.
posted by rongorongo at 3:37 AM on April 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

Data point: I would usually start my interviews with 'What did they tell you about this opportunity?' but 'Tell me about yourself' would have done about the same thing: Start the interview by giving the candidate a chance to warm up with the thinking and the talking, and let their personality start to emerge with a softball question, while giving me a chance to review (review, not look at for the first time) the resume and highlight any areas I wanted to ask about. If someone were interviewing me, I would respond to 'Tell me about yourself' with the 60-second tour of the relevant portions of my work experience, just in case the interviewer hadn't scrutinized my resume, and I would find some way to wind it up with something like '... when I realized that more than anything else, I was looking for a position that let me utilize my problem-solving skills in the finance world, which is why I'm so excited to be talking to you about working at Your, Firm.' Then you've started the interview out on a path, on which the interviewer might choose to follow you, letting you feel more in control; you've given them work highlights, in case they didn't already lodge themselves in the interviewer's brain; and you've shown that you know something about the job (what with the highlighting of the relevant work experience) and the firm. You might even have kept them from asking why you left your last position.

On the bonus question: I don't think I would be honest about not knowing what I want to do, unless you're applying for entry-level stuff, but you or others are free to disagree with me.
posted by troywestfield at 6:48 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Obviously you don't want to tell about your bad habits but it wouldn't hurt to tell them about your golf game or about charity work that you've done. Show that you are active by mentioning your training for a marathon or something similar. Mentioning something about sports can typically be a plus.
posted by JJ86 at 9:40 AM on April 4, 2011

Check your me-mail. I just wrote an article about interviewing that hasn't been published yet... I'd like to share my draft with you.
posted by ohyouknow at 1:25 PM on April 4, 2011

Talk about what you're proud of doing, accomplishing, or trying in your last job or three.
posted by talldean at 7:18 AM on April 5, 2011

Best answer: I've received a few me-mails for the article that's going to be published in June, so I thought I'd just copy & paste it here if that's easier & more helpful for fellow mefites:

By the end of a successful job interview, you’ve demonstrated that you have the skills and experience to be a tremendous asset to your prospective employer. More importantly, you’ve convinced potential new colleagues that you’ll be a great person to have around the office—that you aren’t the least bit annoying and that you’ll get along with everyone. How did you accomplish all that? You followed these 12 tips, which I’ve developed through years of advising anxious job seekers.

Before the interview:

1. Celebrate. Hooray! You’ve landed a job interview! Someone looked at your résumé and thought, “I’d really like to meet this person.” On paper, your background and skills match up with an opportunity you find fascinating. That alone is a huge accomplishment. I encourage my candidates to feel as optimistic and excited about their interviews as possible. I know they’ll get the job when they’re over-the moon excited—and when they can effectively bring that positive energy with them on the day of their interview.

2. Do your homework. Take time to research your prospective employer and every single person who will be interviewing you. While you certainly don’t want to mention that you thought one of their status updates was funny, you do want to be able to mention during the course of the conversation something from their professional background that you either relate to or find especially impressive.

3. Write it out. I encourage my candidates to write out answers to common interview questions. (Google “common interview questions” for an adequate list.) Preparing answers to difficult questions will help you stay calm and focused on the day of your interview.

My candidates struggle most frequently with the seemingly benign, “So, tell me about yourself.” This is not an opportunity to tell your whole life story. Nor is the interview a free therapy session. Instead, this is an opportunity to explain to your interviewer why you’re sitting in their office. For example, I might say “I began my career as an attorney but quickly realized that recruiting is much more gratifying to me. I’ve been in this field for the past six years and my clients adore me. I decided I wanted to meet with you because your company….”

As you’re crafting your answers, make them as specific as possible. If you’re asked, “What are your greatest strengths?” don’t just respond with a list of adjectives because that doesn’t tell your interviewer anything real about you. Define what you mean by “responsible,” give an example of how you’ve been amazingly responsible in the past, and then discuss what you were able to achieve with your amazingly responsible self. Writing out your answers ahead of time will help you come up with smart things to say, and (more importantly for some of us, ahem) help you to keep your answers concise.

4. Prepare smart questions
. How can you demonstrate that you’re assertive and that you’re genuinely interested in a job? Ask lots of thoughtful questions. Go into your interview prepared with a list of diverse, courageous questions. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen candidates make is avoiding talking about the potential red flags they’ve identified. Was there something about the job description that worried you? Have you heard you might be replacing a person who walked on water as far as everyone you’re meeting with is concerned? If you’re serious about rolling up your sleeves and taking on this job, then these issues should be raising important questions in your mind. Ask those questions.

The day of the interview:

5. Look (and smell) your best. Dress professionally (rarely will a candidate go wrong in a well-tailored black or navy suit), don’t wear any cologne or perfume or smoke something that might make you smell disgusting to someone whose nose works differently than yours does, and turn your cell phone off.

6. Be early, but not annoyingly so. Arrive 15 minutes early, not 30 minutes early or 2 hours early. Arriving more than 15 minutes early is a huge pet peeve of a lot of my clients who feel pressured into re-arranging their schedules when they hear a candidate is waiting for them in the lobby.

7. Calm yourself. If you start to feel anxious in the car or in the elevator on your way up to the interview, force yourself to yawn a few times to regulate your breathing. Another tip for alleviating anxiety: when you’re seated in the lobby, keep both of your feet firmly planted on the floor. Keep them that way throughout your interview if you can. And try to remember that anxiety is just the evil twin of exuberance; give yourself permission to feel excited!

8. Be friendly. As you walk in the door, remember that your main goal is to go in there and make some new friends. Every single person you meet with (and this absolutely includes the receptionist) is wondering if they’re going to like you. And you should be wondering if you’re going to enjoy their company too. So be genuine, polite, warm, and open with everyone you meet. And think about your body language: don’t cross your legs, do not cross your arms under any circumstances, and maintain healthy eye contact.

9. Mirror. Be acutely aware of your interviewer’s energy and body language so that you can practice something I call mirroring. Here are some examples from previous experiences: If your interviewer greets you with, “Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry if I’ve kept you waiting! My baby barfed on my blouse this morning and it took me forever to change and get out the door. What a crazy morning!” you want to match her energy, but in a genuine way. Feel free to share a similar story about your cat spitting up on your sofa just before a dinner party was about to begin (for example). Note that you always want your story to be shorter. And pay attention to your interviewer’s body language as you’re speaking. If her eyes drift away from you, if she keeps glancing at her clock or her computer… wrap it up!

If, however, you meet with someone who is incredibly formal and starts the conversation with a terse “Why do you want to work here?” you will want to stay on your toes and refrain from telling any cat-vomit stories. Pause before answering each question to gather your thoughts—which should be easy, because you’ve already practiced what you’re going to say!

10. Keep it conversational. If at any point your interviewer sighs deeply and says, “So, do you have any questions for me?” know that you have not done your job. You’ve bored your interviewer and haven’t been engaged throughout the meeting. To avoid this deadly situation, do your best to treat the interview as a conversation, asking your thoughtful questions along the way rather than saving them until the end.

After the interview:

11. Email your thanks. Email personalized and thoroughly proofread thank-you notes to every single person you met with if you were able to get their business cards (yes, separate emails for each person). Email is preferable because the recipients can immediately reply and give you a sense of where you stand. Also—I have to mention this because it’s happened to so many of my candidates in the past—do not use an email address that is overly creative or vaguely inappropriate.

12. Be patient. Companies can, and often do, take up to a month to extend offers. (Yet once you receive an offer, most employers will require a decision from you within 72 hours.) If you don’t get the position you were hoping for, know that something better is waiting for you. The more interviews you do, the sharper your interviewing skills will get. And the more interviews you go on, the more likely you will be to find a place that is truly a good fit for you. Best of luck!
posted by ohyouknow at 5:49 PM on April 5, 2011 [29 favorites]

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