This might be the most common interview question you’ll hear to break the ice at the start of your interview: “Tell me about yourself”.
It’s not just a casual icebreaker though – there are a couple of BIG traps with this question.
So I’m going to walk you through two proven methods to answer this interview question, and what to avoid saying.
We’ll start with a more “traditional” method for answering, and then I’ll share a newer approach that I also like a lot in certain situations.
So make sure you read until the end.
First, here’s a brief video explaining how to answer. You can use this if you prefer learning by video.
Now, here are the 3 key steps to answering “tell me about yourself” that we looked at in the video above…
The big thing you’ll be doing with your answer is walking them through your career and explaining how you got from Point A to point B (point B is your current situation in your career).
What you choose for the starting point (Point A) is flexible. Here’s a general guideline:
I explain this further in the video posted above. Check it out if you want more detail!
As you tell your career story, explain the decisions and moves you’ve made and highlight impressive facts along the way.
Were you promoted? That’s always a great sign and worth mentioning.
Did you accomplish something significant? Have you worked with a great mentor and learn a lot?
Did you build new skills or overcome challenges? Get specific! Tell details.
But random impressive facts aren’t enough. You should be thinking about how this ties in with the company you’re talking to.
What does this particular job involve? Is there a lot of leadership? Talk about your experiences leading (no matter how small!), how it went, what you learned.
Does the job involve a high level of technical skill? Talk about how you learned and advanced in that area through each step of your career!
You need to tailor your answer to them, just like I recommend tailoring your resume. Do not just list what you think is most impressive in general!
And when you finish the story, you should bring them up to speed on your current situation. For example you might end your answer by saying, “…and that’s why I’m currently open to a new opportunity and why I wanted to interview with your firm”.
This is for a mid-level candidate… somebody with a few years of experience.
Interviewer: “Tell me a bit about yourself”…
I graduated with a Business degree in 2010, and was offered an account management position from a telecommunications company I had interned with. I loved working with customers and managing and growing my accounts, but the industry we were in just wasn’t very appealing to me. I stayed a full year and learned a ton about how to build and manage accounts successfully and I ended up becoming a top performer in my group before leaving. I left at the 1-year-mark to pursue a very similar position within an industry I’m much more excited about- healthcare. I’ve been at this healthcare startup space for 2 years with this company and I feel ready to take my career to the next level so that’s why I’m currently looking for a new opportunity.
The end of this is a big opportunity to customize your answer for the company. If the interview is with another healthcare company, it makes sense to mention your passion for that industry… like in the example answer above.
But this wouldn’t be a great answer if they’re in a different area like online marketing.
When you talk about what you’re looking for next, mention whatever you see this company providing for your career (leadership, technical challenges, exposure to new areas, etc.)
That gives them a specific reason why you’re excited to be talking with them along with answering the original question!
When they say “tell me about yourself,” it’s going to be tempting to give a long-winded answer. It’s such an open-ended question.
And we covered a lot above, but there’s something just as important as any of that. You need to be concise.
Your communication and ability to stay on track with your answer is something they are watching closely.
The interviewer wants to see that you can tell your story from Point A to Point B without getting sidetracked, distracted or scattered.
Because it tells them how you’ll communicate as an employee… when there’s a problem, when there’s a disagreement, or when you simply need to share your knowledge or opinion.
If you take this answer beyond 2 minutes you are shooting yourself in the foot. In fact I’d say below 90 seconds is ideal. Practice at home with a timer!
That’s why I recommend choosing a starting point based on your experience. Because if you have 25 years of experience and you start at the moment you graduated college, your answer will be too long.
It’s also why you need to tailor your answer. If you share everything instead of picking relevant pieces, your answer will be too long.
I’d suggest drawing out a map or a visual timeline of your answer which will help you practice and stay on track. Here’s what to do:
Grab a pen & paper.
Decide what your “Point A” is going to be using the guidelines above. Write it on the far left.
Decide on “Point B”, pick something that explains your current situation and why you’re interviewing. If possible name something you’re looking for that the company is offering. (e.g.- you want more leadership and this position offers the chance to lead a team of 5 people).
Then fill in some talking points between A and B. Take a look at the job description. What does the company seem to value most?
Try to have at least one talking point for each role, possibly more.
And don’t forget to explain job changes. In my example I explain why I left the telecom company and what my thought process was in that job search. It’s good to show that you make logical decisions and have reasons for the things you’ve done.
Here’s a rough example of what all of this might look like:
You can be more or less detailed depending on what helps you.
It’s just a way to map out your story. Which will keep you from getting sidetracked and having your answer drift in random directions.
Once you like what you have, practice with a timer. Once you can repeat the story in under 2 minutes, without looking at the diagram, you’re ready!
You want to sound 100% sure of your facts. And it’s okay to sound like you’ve practiced it and repeated it before. It’s a common question that many companies ask.
Note: If you’re having a phone interview, you can use this diagram in the interview itself. Nobody can see you, so take advantage!
And if you want more questions and answers to practice, check out this page.
Some experts say that if the interviewer wanted your career story, they could have looked at your resume, or asked a question like, “can you walk me through your background?”
…And they make a great point.
So there’s another approach for answering, “tell me about yourself,” that I also like.
In this method, you’ll skip the story of your career and talk only about the present.
The goal is to sell yourself and explain how you can help them right now if they hire you.
“Well, I’m currently working at XYZ Company and I specialize in doing ___. The reason I applied for this job is I saw ___ on the job description and I think I would be able to help you ___ and ___. One of my key accomplishments in my current role was helping my employer do ___, and I’m confident I can help your team get similar results here.”
“In my most recent position at XYZ Company, I specialized in doing ___. The reason I applied for this job is I saw ___ on the job description and I think I would be able to help you ___ and ___. One of my key accomplishments in my last role for XYZ Company was helping them ___, and I’m confident I can help your team get similar results here.”
If you have work experience, both options we’ve covered are very good, and it really depends on what you feel most comfortable with.
Choose the one you like best. They’re both excellent ways to answer the question, so don’t stress over it!
However, if you are entry-level and have no work experience… or internships at the very least… then I would go back to the top of this article and use Method #1 when answering, “tell me about yourself.”