Steven Haverlock, Jopwell intern
Being granted a job interview is a cause for celebration and a source of agita, all in one. You’re closer than ever to the finish line (getting hired), but meeting a potential employer one-on-one is one of the biggest hurdles to jump — especially if you get tripped up on the very first question: “Tell me about yourself.”
Ideal interview questions are straightforward or can be addressed by doing a bit of research about the company or organization beforehand. Open-ended questions, like those asking you to talk about yourself, don’t seem to have a right or wrong answer. Whether out of nerves, a lack of understanding about what to say, or not having come prepared with an answer, some interviewees balk and go off the rails. Here’s why interviewers ask that question and some advice on how you can respond in a competent way.
Why Your Interviewer Is Asking
“Inside secret,” says Annie Hopkins, Director of Campus Recruitment at Jopwell, “interviewers usually start interviews with ‘tell me about yourself’ because they haven't done any prep work and are buying themselves time while they look over your résumé.”
That doesn’t mean it’s a totally throwaway question.
“It's an easy question to ask but a really hard one to answer because as a candidate you could take it in so many directions,” she explains. “I've seen students dig themselves into a deep hole: They start to ramble, will take the question very literally (i.e. ‘I was born in NYC in 1999 and lived there for the first four years of my life...’) and will take up valuable interview time when they could be answering much better questions.”
She encourages candidates to remember that they aren’t paying a social call and to interpret the question in the context of the interview. Your interviewer likely wants you to explain why you are applying for the job and how your experiences (professional or otherwise) led you to meet them.
What You Need to Say
Assume that “Tell me about yourself” is really saying, "Walk me through your résumé," and relate your professional experiences to the position you’re seeking. You don’t need to state your credentials point by point (that’s what your résumé and cover letter are for) but you should explain how each of those jobs or roles ties into the position for which you’re applying. Hopkins offers a sample response:
Q: “Tell me about yourself!”
A: “Sure. I was so excited to apply for the ________ position at (insert company/organization) because after spending four years doing ________, I see this as an incredible next step. It’s a job where I can really showcase my skills in ________. As you'll see on my résumé, in my most recent job, I was able to hone my skills doing ________. So when I saw those referenced in your job description, I knew that this could be a great fit. I was also really excited to learn that this company is really focused on ________, ________ , and ________. In college, I was a member/the president of the ________ club and gained a significant amount of exposure to ________, ________ , and ________. Ever since then, I've wanted to pivot to a company that explores those values/areas.”
How Long You Need to Talk
Hopkins says that unless you’re being asked an in-depth question about yourself and your experiences or are giving a more technical explanation, you don’t need to take longer than 90 seconds (or roughly two minutes) to answer this or any interview question. “Interviewers get bored really easily,” she explains.
You don’t need to delve into your personal life when talking about yourself either. “This isn't a personal call,” she says. “I don't think interviewers are expecting you to go into your personal story. It's really up to the candidate on how they want to weave it in. I coached one student who was first-generation — both American and college student. He felt strongly that his experiences had helped him build resiliency and drive.”
If, like the aforementioned candidate, your personal story has a direct relation to the job you want (and you can explain how without going on for too long), feel free to mention it. Otherwise, talk about yourself succinctly and clearly, and power through the rest of the interview.