This question covers the dreaded "Tell me about yourself" question. Most people hate this, but it's the question that starts off 99% percent of job interviews. Successful candidates invest a good deal of time preparing their response to this question because it makes a world of difference to their interview performance and results.
Why they ask this question
Let's get started. Why does every interviewer ask this question along with variations like, "Walk me through your background”, or “Tell me more about you?"
It sounds like a harmless way to start a job interview. It's very open-ended, not particularly difficult. Everybody should know a little something about themselves that they can talk about, right? From the interviewer's perspective, it's an easy way to get the conversation going.
They just want to get you talking and dive into the relevant information. For the candidate, the dread comes from the fact that the question is so open-ended. You could answer in so many different ways, and people aren't quite sure what the best way is.
"What does this person want to know about me?" They stumble, they falter, they talk too much about ancient history, and that's a terrible way to start an interview, by fumbling around and sounding confused, or worse, boring your interviewer. Instead, you should embrace this question. Answering this question well is one of the most effective things you can do in the entire interview.
It allows you to set the tone. It gives you some power and autonomy in this interview situation where you may otherwise feel nervous and at the mercy of your interviewer. By starting strong, you make a great first impression and shape the dialogue that comes next. Take the time to prepare how you want to tell your story, and ensure you make a first impression that leads to a job offer.
How to respond
Think about your "Tell me about yourself" response as an elevator pitch.
A short, punchy and focused overview that's concise enough to deliver during an elevator ride.
Your elevator pitch as a job candidate should include your top selling points for the position. Your top selling points are going to be a little bit different from job to job. You want to give a little bit of your personality and your interest in the opportunity along with your selling points.
You want to sound natural and spontaneous while also covering the points that you want to communicate to make the best possible impression.
Handy Hint: Outline the bullet points that you want to cover and leave room for spontaneity in terms of exactly how you deliver the points each time. Then, with a little practice, you'll find that your answers will naturally evolve as you get comfortable with what you want to say. Once you know your key speaking points, you'll have room to be flexible and deliver differently in every single interview.
So, let's get started with outlining your elevator pitch with a simple three-step formula.
Step one. Say who you are.
The first key component is a confident, compelling statement of who you are professionally.
The most common candidate mistake is starting this answer by going back to the beginning of their resume and walking through their experience chronologically, and often, in way too much detail.
This approach is weak because it leads with out-of-date and irrelevant information instead of leading with what's most impressive about you right now. For most candidates, this includes a reference to their current position, as well as an overview of the breadth and depth of their related experience.
Interviewer: Tell me about yourself.
Candidate: "Well, I'm a recent BA graduate with a strong background in the pharmaceutical industry." This puts the emphasis on that shiny, new BA and the candidate's industry experience.
Candidate: "I'm an experienced B2B salesperson and I’ve developed and managed a new customer base. I’m experienced in all phases of B2B from email Marketing, new business prospecting and negotiating profitable sales.”
This is a nice, big-picture, high-level introduction for someone who has a diverse skill set within a B3B role. It concisely summarises a diverse background.
Now, let's look at a not-so-good example. "Well, I grew up in the country. As a child, I originally wanted to be a fireman, then later, became quite interested in dinosaurs. I excelled in the sciences from early on, placing first in my fourth-grade science fair.
You know, funny story about that…" Okay. Way Too Much Information.
Reality Check: The interviewer doesn’t really care. This, of course, is an exaggerated example but so often candidates go the TMI route.
To answer, “Tell Me About Yourself”, you want to start strong and grab their attention before getting into the details. Tell them how you want them to see you.
Step two. Why you're qualified.
Step two is kind of like the meat in the sandwich of your "Tell me about yourself" answer.
The idea here is to plan in advance which details to share that are most likely to knock the socks off of this interviewer. Remember, your interviewer doesn't have endless amounts of time. Focus on two to four, maybe five points that you'd like to make. The goal is to keep it under two minutes total, so think about it. What are those two to four points?
Focus on the biggest selling points first. The really exciting things they want to hear that will make the interviewer sit up, take notice and say, "Ah, this is interesting." This could be a classic reverse chronological overview of your last few positions, or it could be a list of key accomplishments tailored to the job requirements.
"I’ve spent the last two years developing my skills as a BDM for (Megacompany), where I've won several performance awards, and I've been promoted twice. I love working in teams and solving customer problems."
This is a very concise example, and yours can certainly have a bit more detail. Just keep in mind that the overall answer should be no longer than two minutes.
What's good about this answer? Well, the emphasis is on relevant experience, and not just that, but proof of performance. It's not a summary of job duties. A lot of people make that mistake, both on their resume and in the interview. When asked about what you did somewhere, you're not just going to rattle off the duties that any human would have done in the position.
You're going to focus on what you did that was above and beyond. Accomplishments, competencies, all of it tailored to what's relevant for the job description.
Step three. Why you're here. This is your chance to express enthusiasm for the position in one, maybe two sentences. Keep it short and sweet here. Here's an example of one way to do this. "Although I love my current role, I feel I'm now ready for a more challenging assignment, and this position really excites me."
This is very general. You could use it for a lot of different positions. If you can make it a bit more specific for the job, even better, but something along these lines will work well. The goal in this moment is to wrap up your elevator pitch in a concise, confident way and show your enthusiasm.
Once you've got bullet points for each of the three steps, it's time to put them all together into a polished, powerful elevator pitch. The key is to practice a bit and find your rhythm, find your flow. You can practice a time or two with your notes handy. Then, once you've internalized the general outline, it's going to feel more natural, and your personality is going to come through. To give you an idea of how it can all come together, I want to share an example answer.
The Interviewer’s Perspective
When the interviewer asks, “Tell me about yourself”, what is he/she trying to achieve? Well, for the interviewer, it’s an easy and open-ended way to start the conversation.
The ultimate goal for this interview is to find out enough about you to decide if you’re a good fit for the job opening that he is trying to fill. In most cases, they want to like you. Their life will be easier if they can find a great candidate quickly. However, they are also on guard because a bad hire will reflect poorly on their judgment and possibly be a mark against him when it comes time for more challenging assignments.
They are hoping that this question will get you talking. This question is almost always asked first, perhaps right after some chit chat about traffic and the weather.
Your answer to this question will dictate the interviewer’s first impression of you, and will set the tone for the entire interview, letting you lead with your strongest selling points.
How Not to answer, “Tell Me About Yourself?”
In this section we’ll cover some of the most common mistakes you might make when answering “Tell me about yourself”.
The Resume Rehash — Many candidates respond by launching into a recitation of their resume from the very beginning. That can turn into a very long monologue that starts with one’s oldest — and probably least relevant and impressive — experience. By the time you get to the good stuff, your interviewer has zoned out and is thinking about lunch.
Even if the interviewer specifically asks you to “walk him through your resume,” don’t take the suggestion too literally, you’ll only confuse your interviewer with information overload.
You can still lead with your elevator pitch and then segue into an overview of your most recent position, leaving plenty of opportunities for the interviewer to jump in and engage with you.
False Modesty — Many candidates make the mistake of being too modest. They reply with a humble or vague introduction that fails to clearly communicate their strongest qualifications for the job.
Some of these candidates are just humble people who aren’t comfortable with “selling” themselves, but if you can’t sell yourself they won’t be hiring you to sell their products and services.
Today, the competition for any good job is fierce. Don’t rely on the interviewer to see past your humble exterior and figure out how great you are.
You don’t have to brag, “I’m the best salesperson in the world.” Instead, you can state, “I led my division in sales for the last three years and had the opportunity to bring in more than $18 million worth of new business during that time.”
The First Date Approach - This is not a first date. Your interviewer does not want to hear that you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain. Many recent graduates misconstrue the question and talk too much about their personal lives and hobbies.
This is probably because many only have admissions and other school-related interview experience (clubs, programs, etc.). For these types of interviews, there is much more interest in who you are as a person. In job interviews, focus on who you are as a professional unless asked about hobbies or outside pursuits.
The Clueless Ramble — Many unprepared, yet otherwise smart, candidates totally flub this question because of overthinking. Their answers sounds something like this: “You mean about my job experience or about my schooling or what kind of information are you looking for?”
I know that these candidates are aiming to please and that “Tell me about yourself” can be interpreted in many different ways. However, asking for too much clarification only makes you look hesitant and confused. Dive right in with your elevator pitch. If they are looking for something else, they will ask you for it.
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