I still remember the first time someone asked me to tell them about myself. For context, I was fresh out of college, in a new city, and scared to death that my career would never start.
It happened during one of the first in-person interviews I had in the city. I walked into the room and a group of people looked up to greet me by name and with smiles. We talked about the weather, what the traffic was like, and if I easily found the building. Then, the woman sitting directly in front of me said, “Alright! Let’s get started with the questions. We’ll leave time for you to ask some at the end, too. So. Tell me about yourself.”
My immediate reaction (said only in my head, of course) was, “Is that a question? It wasn’t in any of the ‘most commonly asked interview questions’ blog posts I read.”
After filtering out those immediate thoughts I said, “Uhm. My name is Laurie?” *Nervous chuckle.*
All right. All right. Now that we’ve all just cringed (or, hopefully, shared a laugh), let’s make sure you never have to experience such a facepalm moment.
Why this is such a tough interview question?
1. It can be awkward to talk about yourself.
Have you ever attended an event where there was a guest speaker? Oftentimes, someone introduces the guest speaker by giving the audience some background information on their credentials, vouching for these credentials, and what the audience will learn from their lecture. It goes a little something like this:
Believe it or not, “Schitt’s Creek” was her last shot in the dark at being an actress. After a long period of not booking a single gig, she was about to give up on her acting career. In fact, had her agent not talked her into this one last audition, “Schitt’s Creek” would not have been the amazing show we all know it to be. Here to share her story with us and talk about the importance of not giving up on our dreams because you never really know just how close you are to achieving them, everybody, please welcome two-time Emmy Award-winning actress, Annie Murphy.
This is perfect for someone to introduce Annie Murphy because it shows the contrast between where she was in her career before “Schitt’s Creek” and where she is now, how important she was to the success of the show, how good the show is, and tells you what the takeaway from her talk would be. But can you imagine Annie introducing herself with these same words? I equate answering this interview question to Annie having to introduce herself and trying to hit on the same points as the introduction above. Awkward, right?
2. There’s so much you could say.
When I was first asked this interview question, I was 22. Although that’s young, that’s also a lot of years to pick out just a couple of tidbits from. And, how would I know what tidbits would prove my fit for the role?
Mistakes people make when responding to this interview question
I promise we’ll get to exactly how to answer this interview question. But first, let’s talk about what to avoid.
Forgetting to relate your answer to the job. During an interview, part of your job is to demonstrate your fit for the role. So your answer to this question needs to be directly related to the position you’re interviewing for.
Going on for too long. There isn’t a ton of time during interviews, so it’s best to keep your response short and sweet.
Being too all over the place. This point goes hand-in-hand with the previous point. When you keep your responses short and sweet, you also keep the conversation on track and focused on why you’re the best candidate.
Summarizing your resume. Chances are, the interviewer has already reviewed your resume. And if they haven’t, they at least have it in front of them and will be able to look at it later. So there’s no need to summarize what’s on your resume. Instead, use this as a chance to highlight some things that wouldn’t be on your resume (more on this in the next section).
How to answer this interview question in three steps
Here is a simple three-step process to quickly and confidently answer this question in a way that will help employers understand why you are the best fit for the role:
1. Past – Summarize how your past experience brought you to apply for the job.
2. Present – Explain why you are interested in this job.
3. Future – Talk about how this job fits in with your career goals and plans and why those plans matter to the employer.
Here’s an example of what I’d say to you if you were a hiring manager for career coaches:
I started my career off in marketing because I loved that it’s a field that is both analytical and creative. But after taking a step back to think about what energizes me and what I love about marketing, I realized that I love helping others succeed and marketing simply gives me the tools to do that. As a career coach, I get to work with others to define what success looks like, and then I use my marketing skills to help them put their best foot forward in their job hunt so they can find fulfilling careers and start to build a life that’s right for them.
Here’s a breakdown of this answer:
1. Past – I have a background in marketing and found a way to correlate it to the job-hunting process.
2. Present – I realized that I’m really good at helping others achieve their goals and needed a career that celebrates this strength.
3. Future – Being a career coach means helping you start a fulfilling career so you can start to create a life that is right for you. And this matters to you because I will help you put your best foot forward in your job hunt.
As you can see, this three-step process is NOT a template. You can’t take my example and try to plug in your answers. But that’s exactly what makes this process work great. Answering the interview question, “Tell me about yourself,” successfully means it can’t be a canned answer and it needs to be specific to you. But, this three-step process gives you the framework you need to confidently answer this question while avoiding the facepalm moment I experienced and the mistakes mentioned earlier.
“During an interview, part of your job is to demonstrate your fit for the role.”
-Laurie Nilo, Career Coach
About the author: Laurie Nilo is a former marketing professional turned career coach who helps job seekers start fulfilling marketing careers. She guides career coaching clients through a self-discovery process that helps them develop career paths that align with the life they want to live. Then, she uses her background in marketing to help clients prove to employers exactly why they need to be hired. Laurie has been featured in Thrive Global, In Her Shoes, and Skillbank.