Death, taxes, and in every interview you ever have, you’ll be asked some variation of “tell me about yourself.” These are a few guarantees in life.
Okay, maybe “tell me about yourself” as an interview question isn’t quite the same guarantee, but it’s still incredibly common in interviews. Not only does it show up on almost every “most common interview questions” list ever made, it's often ranked number one.
And while there are a few questions that are also used in almost every interview (strengths and weaknesses, looking at you), perhaps no question leaves more room to the imagination than simply being asked to talk about yourself.
One thing to note this question is purposefully vague, ideally to make the beginning of the interview more comfortable. But for many, it doesn’t feel that way. While many interviewers consider “tell me about yourself” to be a low-stakes conversation opener, interviewees can feel very differently.
Despite what some online sources may claim, there isn’t one “correct” answer to this prompt. However, the difference between a great response to this question and a mediocre one can be the difference between a job offer and a rejection.
We may not have all the answers, but when it comes to “tell me about yourself”, we have some advice that can help you find yours.
Why it’s always asked
Despite being one of the most commonly asked questions in interviews, you might never have considered why it’s being asked. The use of “tell me about yourself” is multifaceted, in part because the person answering the question guides the direction of the discussion more so than the interviewer.
Every other question asked in the interview is more likely to have a direction in which the interviewee is pointed. Strengths and weaknesses, a time you worked well on a team, a time you failed and had to adapt. All of these fairly common interview questions have a much more specific topic the answerer is given to stick to. It is the vagueness of “tell me about yourself” that makes it useful on multiple levels. Here are a few reasons interviewers ask this question.
1. It’s an icebreaker
One of the biggest reasons an interviewer asks this question is to use it as an icebreaker. The beginning of an interview can be like any conversation with a stranger: a little awkward. “Tell me about yourself” gives you an easy topic that you know off the top of your head – yourself!
This question greases the conversational wheels and gives both the interviewer and interviewee a chance to get into the flow of conversation before going to the hard-hitting questions.
2. To let you lead
Once you’re in an interview (depending on the job), you’re about to spend anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes talking about yourself. This question is basically a freebie question, one that you know is probably coming and that you can use to start the interview off strong. Interviewers use this question to give you the chance to pitch yourself and explain in broad terms what brought you to this interview and why you would be a good fit for the job before getting into the nitty-gritty of specificities.
3. To learn about you
This might be the most obvious reason an interviewer would ask this question, but it has a bigger purpose than learning you have two dogs at home. Company culture is of huge importance in today’s workforce, and part of fostering a great company culture is making sure that new employees are a “culture fit”. This means that the employee's core values, actions, and goals align with those of the company as a whole.
A study conducted by Kristof-Brown out of the University of Iowa found that employees who fit in the company culture have higher job satisfaction. Satisfied employees are more productive and more likely to stay at the company long-term, so finding employees who fit or even enhance the company culture is key to many recruiters. The value of asking the candidate the open-ended “tell me about yourself” can be the first step in determining culture fit.
Asking a question that allows people to show some of their personality and describe their career on their terms allows recruiters to better determine not only if you are qualified for the job, but if you would be a good fit for the company.
How to answer
We know the what, we know the why, now it’s time for the how. Like I said earlier, there is no correct answer to this question. But there are some tactics that you can apply that will make your answer more effective and useful to your end goal: a great interview, and hopefully, a job offer.
Depending on your level of interview anxiety, answering “tell me about yourself” can be a walk in the park or incredibly daunting. Whichever side of the spectrum you fall on, there are a few tried and true tactics that can help you answer this question in a way that sets you up for a great interview.
While most people know it’s important to prepare for an interview, “tell me about yourself” is often overlooked. You know yourself better than anyone, why do you need to prepare?
It turns out there are a lot of reasons. Not being prepared can make you seem unprofessional, or like you aren’t taking the interview seriously. It also increases the likelihood that, if you are prone to anxiousness during an interview, you will get panicked or rushed. This question is vague, with no other direction given other than to talk about yourself. That’s a pretty broad topic! It’s up to you to give yourself direction and have an answer that sounds put together and professional.
Preparing ahead of time ensures that you are cool, calm, collected, and the right candidate for the job. The next section gives you an idea of what you can prepare for the next time an interviewer hits you with the big question.
Mention past, present, and future
No matter what position you’re applying for, if an interviewer provides the “tell me about yourself” prompt, you should always include a small timeline of your career.
First, always include your work history – this is a job interview, after all. The interviewer wants to know about your career history and how it led you to the job you’re applying for. If you have a lot of experience, you don’t have to go through every single detail. Choose a few major points along your career to highlight.
Try to pick what is most relevant to the position you applied for. Note that this doesn’t have to strictly stick to professional experience. For instance, if you were applying for a computer engineering position, you can talk about how you were interested in building computers from a young age, or about a coding course you took at a community college. While those aren’t professional experiences, they are still relevant to what led you to this moment.
Also included in your answer should be the present state of your career. Since you’re interviewing for a new position, laying out where you currently are can help the interviewer understand why you are wanting to make a move. Talk about your most recent position that you hold/held, your responsibilities, and how they influenced your decision to apply for this position.
To close out your career timeline, always add a little about your career aspirations. Talk about your goals for the future, what you would like to accomplish, or the job that you’d like to get to eventually, and talk about how the job you’re applying for is a stepping stone to get to that point.
Think of your answer like a story – the story of how you got here. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. That doesn't mean you have to go in order of past-present-future. You can frame it in the way that best suits your story. Many career websites suggest using a “present-past-future” model, where you start with your current position, responsibilities, and qualifications, then move on to the steps along the way, and finally end on what you are working toward.
Go with the structure that you find to be the most comfortable, and that best highlights what makes you a great candidate.
Tailor your answer to each job
As you gain more experience in the workforce, the list of your career-related material that could be used to answer this question gets longer and longer. Study up on the job requirements and duties and connect them directly to your personal work experiences. It can even be as simple as highlighting different responsibilities depending on what sort of job you’re interviewing for.
Here’s an example: Let’s say your current position is as a customer service representative. If you’re applying for a data-entry job, you might highlight your ability to input customer data across multiple platforms. If you were applying for a job in a marketing department, you can highlight how you directly interacted with customers and had to represent the company. With just a little tweaking, you can use the same work experience for two different jobs.
Use it to your advantage
Just because this question is usually used as an icebreaker doesn’t mean it’s a throwaway! Answering this question is how you can make a great first impression and set the stage for the rest of the interview. It’s also the time in the interview where you can steer the conversation. You decide what you think is most relevant and what makes you most qualified for the position, giving the interviewer a jumping-off point.
You can also use your answer to this question to your advantage by adding context to your situation. Things happen in life that might cause you to have a gap in your resume, or lead you to shift to a career or industry you’ve never been in before. By getting ahead of the interviewer and offering context at the beginning of the interview, you will demonstrate your confidence and transparency.
This doesn’t mean your answer needs to be a tight 30-second answer. If you’ve learned nothing else from this, you should now know that you should be using this question to your advantage and actually talking about yourself. Besides, you need to include some of the important information mentioned above!
However, you don’t want to go on forever. You run the risk of saying more than you should or losing the attention of the interviewer. This reiterates why it is so important to prepare before the interview. This way you can make sure you hit all the important information that should be included in your answer clearly and succinctly!
Now that we’ve talked about how you can tackle this question, let’s talk about what you should stay away from.
Don’t get too personal
Even though this question can be a great place to showcase some of your personality, it’s not the place to overshare about your life. Getting too personal with this question, while it won’t always make your interviewer completely turn off, might be used as an example of a lack of professionalism.
This isn’t to say that you can’t mention your personal life at all. Everyone has lives outside of work (as they should!) and it’s okay to acknowledge that. Just stick to things that further your overall message, like your passion projects or how your career helps you meet personal goals – but leave out your favorite color or your favorite reality show.
Since one of the “do’s” is to be concise, it’s probably pretty obvious that one of the “don’t’s” would be rambling. Nothing feels worse for both interviewer and interviewee than someone talking in circles trying to get back to their original point, only to realize there was no point to begin with.
Rambling signals to the recruiter that you were unprepared for this interview. It might also tell them that you aren’t great under pressure or able to adapt to unexpected situations. In any case, rambling is going to hurt you in an interview.
Don’t go down rabbit holes
More likely than not, the rest of the interview will be filled with questions that offer more specific prompts. You will have plenty of time to discuss specific projects, situations, or problems that you have encountered in your work experience that have prepared you for the position you’re applying to. This question isn’t the time to get into weeds about your work history or qualifications.
It’s fine if you have a particular anecdote or example that emphasizes your qualifications or aptitude for the position, but try to keep it brief. You can always bring it up later in the interview. Because you give the interviewer a hint, they might even bring it up themselves.
Don't be afraid to show your passion
While now isn't the time to get super personal, it is the time to show your passion. Remember that culture fit we talked about earlier? Talking about what you are passionate about and the way it relates to your job is a great way to determine if the fit between you and your company is there.
Whether it's a love of helping other people or being creative, mentioning your passions and how they enhance your work is a great way to let the interviewer get to know you on multiple levels. don't be scared to talk about what you care about.
Every interview will be a little different. Different job positions, different companies, different qualifications needed. But one thing that probably won’t be different is that tried and true interview opener: “tell me a little bit about yourself!”
We hope this article gives you a little more direction on how to talk about yourself, and do it so well that you land your next great job.