Best Interview Answers is an ongoing series that presents our recommendations on how to effectively answer interview questions.
Today’s Interview Question: Tell me about yourself
Open-ended questions like “Tell me about yourself” are frequently asked at the beginning of interviews to get the conversation started. Other examples include “Walk me through your resume,” “Tell me something about yourself that’s not on your resume” or “How would you describe yourself?” It’s natural to be thrown by these kinds of questions, according to the Indeed Career Guide (Interview Question: “Tell Me About Yourself” (Tips and Example Answers). It can be challenging to identify what the interviewer really wants to know, but there’s an opportunity for you to set the tone of the conversation because your interviewer is allowing you to choose how to respond.
The answer to “Tell me about yourself” isn’t quite as simple as it might seem. Uncovering the best way to describe yourself takes some thought and practice. You want to show the hiring manager not only that you’re competent and aware of your skills, but that you’re a good fit for the team. As job search expert Alison Doyle points out (Interview Question: “How Would You Describe Yourself?”), your response can also provide insight into how you perceive yourself, which can be useful in helping the potential employer assess your self-awareness, confidence and demeanor.
The Tri-Valley Career Center recommends that you start with the present and explain why you feel you are well-qualified for the position (see 60 Toughest Interview Questions & Recommended Answers). If you want to expand your answer, mention personal traits you want the interviewer to know about you, such as professional, detail-oriented, strong verbal and written skills, ability to get along well with co-workers, etc. Avoid rambling answers that recap your life stories, ancient work history or personal matters, and don’t ask “What would you like to know?” The key to successful interviewing is to match your qualifications to what the interviewer is looking for, so try to speak to the specific needs of the company as outlined in the job description.
The Muse staff writer Stav Ziv (A Complete Guide to Answering “Tell Me About Yourself” in an Interview (Plus Examples!)) suggests a simple and effective formula for structuring your response: present, past, future.
- Present: Talk a little bit about your current role and perhaps a recent accomplishment.
- Past: Mention previous experience that’s relevant to the job and company.
- Future: Segue into what you’re looking to do next, why you’re interested in this job and how you are a great fit for the role and the company.
You can tweak this timeline to fit your needs. For example, if there’s an interesting story about what brought you into your field, you might decide to start with that “past” story and then get into what you’re doing in the present. Whatever order you pick, make sure you ultimately tie it to the job and company so your interviewer is left with the impression that you would be a good fit.
Since this type of open-ended question most often comes at the beginning of an interview, it is essential that you keep your response positive. The first impression the interviewer gets of you is likely the one that will stick. If you were fired or laid off from your last job, this probably isn’t the best moment to mention it. As you move further into an interview, the situation often gets more comfortable, so wait until you get a specific question about why you’re looking to change jobs or why you have a gap on your resume to address those topics. And don’t badmouth your previous employer. If the first thing you tell an interviewer is how awful your boss is and that you’re trying to escape the misery of their micromanaging clutches, that could be a big turnoff.
Career coach Laura DeCarlo (How to Answer This Interview Question: Tell Me About Yourself (Smart 2-Part Answer!)) emphasizes the importance of preparing yourself to answer the “tell me about yourself” question. She recommends that you:
- Carefully review the job description to note where you meet or exceed the requirements.
- Research the company.
- Identify and review your successes and accomplishments.
- Identify and list your relevant expertise, strengths and unique value.
- Write out a response to the question (subject to change based on the opening and company).
- And, practice, practice, practice so you sound natural and confident.
With advanced planning and practice, you can become familiar with your target employer and how to sell yourself for the job. “Tell me about yourself” then becomes a positive and fun exercise in demonstrating your value and getting one step closer to winning a great new job.