“Tell me about yourself!” The question seems cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason because it is still the question asked at every single interview. If you’re like most people, you’ve probably stumbled through this question a little differently each time, vaguely talking about your work history or your hobbies.
In general, the best way to respond to “tell me about yourself” is by giving the interviewer a high-level overview of your work history, and a sneak peek into why you’re uniquely qualified for the job you’re applying to.
What a Good Response to “Tell Me About Yourself” Will Get You
It’s commonly said that “tell me about yourself” is essentially the first impression you’re going to make in an interview. I would argue that your real first impression is actually made when you walk in the door. It’s made by what you wear to the interview. If you’re on time or a minute late. Those few minutes of chit-chat before the “real interview” even gets started.
So in reality, your response to “tell me about yourself” is either going to give you a second shot at making a first impression or simply reaffirm the interviewer’s opinion of you from those first moments.
Nailing that first impression is definitely not something to ignore when heading to your next interview, and if you want to learn more about making a great first impression, check out this article here. For now, let’s continue with how you can get the most out of your response to “tell me about yourself” in your next interview.
What the Interviewer Wants to Get Out of This Question
First, it’s best to understand why “tell me about yourself” is so important to the interviewer; what are they really gaining from it? Unlike most interview questions that I would consider “disqualification questions”, this one is often really about hearing what you have to say about yourself in your own words. Now sure, some hiring managers will use this to throw you out if you say the wrong thing, but that’s really the minority of cases in my experience.
There are some other purposes of this question that I might consider incidental or side benefits from the interviewer’s perspective. For example, it’s the first question, so it’s partially used simply to reorient the interviewer to you and this interview after coming from three other interviews or another work event. It also sets the tone for the rest of the interview and gives the interviewer a jumping-off point if their interview isn’t as structured.
But even with all of these “added benefits” the main driver behind this question is still to hear what you have to say about yourself in your own words. They want to hear about your journey how you got here and why that makes you well suited for this role. Unfortunately, that makes this an extraordinarily open-ended question.
While open-ended questions give you more avenues of approach, they can also be overwhelming, so what I’d like to do is to help narrow down your lanes of approach in order to develop the best answer for you. With that let’s hit on some of the basic guidelines we should be following when forming our response to this question.
Response Strategy #1 – The Hard Sell
A common question out there is “should my answer be personal, or should I stick to my professional experiences?” If you’ve already checked out some other opinions around “tell me about yourself”, you’ll have noticed that there are as many opinions as there are people, but one of the most common themes I’ve witnessed is that “personal responses have no place here”. The only thing that matters is you as a professional.
They’ll say that the only good response to “tell me about yourself” is to wow them with your professional accomplishments, stand out as a high achiever, and make sure they know that this role was designed for you alone (and that they’d be lucky to have you!)
This needs to go beyond just breezing over your resume, it’s a tailored response for this specific role where you really sell them on not only you’re being qualified for the job, but that you’re the best applicant for the job and the most valuable candidate out there for this company.
Most “gurus” out there will say to avoid personal stories altogether. That the purpose of this question is solely to get to know you as a professional and why you are qualified for the job you’re applying to. They use this question as their ‘hard sell’ right out of the gate. They say “these are my professional experiences and achievements that show I’m qualified, and that I’ll bring value to this company when you give me the job.”
This is a fine answer, and can really set the mood and impress your interviewers right off the bat. And you should, in fact, have this type of answer in your back pocket for every interview you go to. My criticism of this type of response to “tell me about yourself” is that there are multiple questions where this “hard sell” is a much better fit. “Why are you the best candidate for this job” or “why should we hire you?” These are softball questions that are designed with this type of response in mind.
With every interview question asked, we are given one more opportunity to win points in the eyes of the interviewer, but we also want to make sure we round out our answers and use each question to its maximum benefit, With that in mind, the next approach you might consider taking to the question “tell me about yourself”, and my personal favorite, is the personal journey.
Response Strategy #2 – The Personal Journey
If you want to take your response to the next level and stand out as a person, not just a bag of qualifications, you need to give them something in this response that lets them know what kind of person you might be if you joined the team. They know that you’re qualified already, that’s what got you to the interview. What the interviewer doesn’t have yet, and what this question is specifically set up to find out, is the answer to the question “what kind of person am I talking to?” To do that, throwing in some personal details is key.
Now you don’t have an hour to get into your life story or a hilarious adventure you took in college. While that story might be a hoot, it does nothing to make the interviewer think you’d be a good fit for the team. So with that kind of personal story, you really should skip it altogether.
When I say personal, I’m not talking about your third-grade field trip to the zoo that started your lifelong love of penguins (unless you’re applying for a zookeeper position.) If you’re applying to be a financial analyst, you can skip that type of personal story.
When you give your personal Journey as a response to “tell me about yourself”, you’re doing it within the context of this job position. “How did you end up at this point in your life where you’re applying for this job?” You’re going to attempt to answer four questions in your 1-2 minute response, that if done well, will make you the most memorable candidate.
Part 1 – When Did You Get Bit by the Bug?
This is going to be the industry you’re in; why are you passionate about it and when did that start? You might have accidentally stumbled into the financial industry after taking a position within a bank’s IT support desk. You might not care about their bank account, but they sure as hell do! And the fact that you’re helping somebody with something they find so important is something that’s become an obsession for you and is the reason you’ve continued in this industry.
Part 2 – How Has Your Passion Grown With Your Accomplishments?
This allows you to still tout your major accomplishments that are relevant to this job and make you look good, but with the added twist of amplifying your passion for this career and this job role, which is something you won’t get from just regurgitating your resume bullets.
Part 3 – What Is a Major Lesson You’ve Learned Along the Way?
Stick to one, you’ve got limited time here and you can make this the one thing they really remember about you. This can be a simple and relatable lesson that you’ve learned that will define who you would be as a candidate. Maybe “I learned that communication is the key to success” or “A high-performing team will outpace a high-performing individual every time.” These types of lessons directly show what types of things you value and how you can be expected to behave and achieve if you were to get this job offer.
Part 4 – How Can You Bring Your Passion and Expertise to This New Role?
This is the most sales-pitchy part of the response, but nobody said you shouldn’t be selling yourself. You should be selling yourself based on your strengths and characteristics that nobody else can compete with. Something like:
“I’m more excited than ever to continue my journey at this company. I’m looking to provide even more value and expertise to a company by taking on broader responsibilities, which is why I’m here today applying for this job position at this company.”
Now maybe you’re sitting here saying “but James, I’ve got my interview in an hour, I don’t have time for this, I just wanted a simple answer that won’t make me look like a moron!”
And you know what, I hear you.
Response Strategy #3 – The Resume Regurgitation (a.k.a The Safe Option)
If you don’t have time or simply don’t want to put together some elaborate response that’s sort of personal but not too personal, that still plays to your strengths but doesn’t feel too sales-pitchy, then the easiest and safest way to answer this question to simply go over your resume and highlight your work accomplishments.
For this response strategy, I’ve gone ahead and created a free worksheet that you can follow along with, which you can pick up here. To make this response as simple as possible, I’ve broken it down into three parts: where you are currently, where you’ve been, and why you’re here.
Part 1 – Where You Are Currently
The best place to start off your response by simply sharing what you’re currently doing. You’ll want to keep it professional; that’s why you’re at this interview, and that’s what the interviewer really cares about. Here you’re going to share where you’re currently working and what role you’re currently in. Importantly, you’re going to tie this somehow to the job that you’re applying to.
I say this all the time, but every single interview question, starting with tell me about yourself, is an opportunity to get the interviewers to imagine how you would fit in the role you’re applying to. That’s why it’s vital to start things off by tying what you’re currently doing to the job you’re applying to.
Part 2 – Where You’ve Been
Here you’re simply walking backward through your previous jobs or experiences. Quickly mention the role you were in and your biggest accomplishment or takeaway from each. Ideally, every accomplishment will tie into the larger narrative that you’re perfect for this role.
If you can’t find a way to directly relate that experience to the specific job role, you can at least tie it back to some soft skill that the company is looking for like teamwork or communication. These are fairly universally desired skills, just take your pick from desired skills in the job description.
Part 3 – Why You’re Here
Finally, if you’re feeling good, you can finish off your response by looping back around to why you’re at the interview in the first place. You’ll want to express why you’re interested in this job role, at this company, and that you feel your past experiences make you the ideal candidate for this specific role. This last part is optional, but it’s going to be an easy way to throw in at least something personal without getting too off track.
Limiting your response to these three parts is the safest answer because it’s largely just reading through your resume. Your resume is what got you here, so you’re not going to trigger any disqualification criteria by going over it again. You’ll also basically have a script to read from and have the opportunity to reiterate some of your biggest work accomplishments. You won’t win any points with this answer, but you’ll have an answer that will get you safely to the next question, which is still better than shooting yourself in the foot with a bad answer.
Key Takeaways (TLDR)
“Tell me about yourself” is the nearly universal way almost every job interview begins. While there are countless ways to respond to this prompt, there are three that stand out the most:
The Hard Sell – You go in hot and set the tone for the interview. You’re competent, you’re qualified, and you’re the sole candidate that deserves this job.
The Personal Journey – You show the interviewer that you’re more than your resume. You’re passionate about this industry and this job. That passion, along with your qualifications, is what makes you the perfect fit for the team.
The Resume Regurgitation – You’re not sure what would work best, so you stick to the basics. Your resume is what got you the interview, so you run through the highlights and remind the interviewer of your qualifications.
To be clear, “tell me about yourself” is probably the most open-ended question you’ll get in your interview, which is why there is any number of good ways to answer it. You need to be honest with yourself about the kind of impression your interviewers are likely to walk away with. If you can’t sell a personal story as authentic and genuine, you might come across as a bit stale or rehearsed. If your hard skills aren’t that strong, making the hard sell of “I’m a technical wizard you can’t do without!” is probably going to backfire.
There’s no one objective best response for “tell me about yourself”, but there is the best response for you. Whichever approach you go with, be sure it highlights you as a candidate and as a person. This response will set the tone for the rest of the interview, so be sure it’s congruent with who you are throughout the rest of the interview, or at least who you want the interviewer to see.