Interviews have long been established as a critical component - usually serving as the ultimate deciding factor - of the job search and hiring process. And, much like Forrest Gump’s chocolate box analogy for life itself, the challenge with interviews is that “you never know what you’re gonna get.”
However, there is a common exception to this analogy, in the form of four simple words: Tell me about yourself. This phrase is frequently used to start both formal and informal interviews and serves as an opportunity for candidates to introduce themselves before the interviewer(s) get into specific questions.
Given the popularity of this prompt, it is one you would be wise to prepare for and even practice your response. While keeping in mind you should always avoid sounding rehearsed in interviews, generally knowing and practicing how you will respond to “tell me about yourself” will have a significant impact on not only making a great first impression, but also helping you to feel more comfortable as you settle into the interview setting.
Some common advice you will hear on responding to this prompt includes:
- Respond in chronological order
- Avoid long-winded responses (exceeding 2-3 minutes) by giving unnecessary details, or simply reciting from your resume
- Mirror the components that are recommended for an “elevator pitch”*
These are all sound suggestions, which will especially help with outlining and organizing your response. Still, “tell me about yourself” provides such a great opportunity to stand out and leave a lasting impression, so I am going to offer a few ideas for a different approach.
Tell a story. Simply put, storytelling has been one of the best practices for connecting with other human beings throughout our history. When done effectively, storytelling allows you to seem real and relatable to people who otherwise know little or nothing about you. So rather than listing out several examples of your professional and academic experience, consider telling a story that shows why you are interested in the position, in the company/organization, and why you are qualified. Then, you can plug one or two of those examples in as contextual evidence, and save the rest for additional talking points throughout the interview.
Establish a theme. We don’t often think about the challenge of being in the employer’s position in the interview process. While you have the challenge of standing out in a competitive applicant pool, interviewers have the challenge of ultimately choosing the best person for the job. Establishing a theme about yourself can effectively address both sides of that equation. Here are two examples of a theme you could establish:
1. People person - No matter what I do in my professional career, I want it to revolve around people because I’m motivated most when I’m interacting with and helping others.
2. Curious/knowledge seeker - Throughout my education and past experiences, I’ve realized I’m one of those people who has to know the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of things.
Your theme should be something simple that connects to your career interest(s), and/or why you’ve made the choices you have - as reflected in your resume, cover letter, and any other interactions with the employer. As with the storytelling approach described above, make sure to ground your theme with one or two examples, and connect it to your interest in the job.
A good theme will allow you to take more control over what the interviewer remembers about you. You should also be able to reinforce it throughout the interview, especially when asked self-assessment questions (i.e. what are your strengths and weaknesses?) and behavioral questions (i.e. tell me about a time when…).
Align your response to the job description/company culture. First and foremost, make sure your response is true to who you are. At the end of the day, you and the employer are both looking for the best fit through the job search and hiring process. Just as you will probably know if the position or company is not a good fit for you, it is equally important to represent yourself authentically so the employer can determine if you’re a good fit for them. With that being said, do your best to clearly align your response with critical components of the job and/or company culture (gleaned from studying the job description and researching the company), especially by using similar language. When combined with the strategies described above, you will now be able to also reinforce why you’re a great fit for the organization throughout the interview.
In order to master your “tell me about yourself” response, try some self-reflection using these ideas. Write down some of the things you’d like to highlight, consider the theme or story you might create from those highlights, and begin to practice your response out loud. Recording your response and playing it back to yourself, and practicing it in front of friends, family, or your career consultant will help you hone your words and walk into any interview feeling confident and in control.
*Check out relevant tips and examples of the “elevator pitch” by watching this video from PwC