It's that dreaded interview question: the recruiter opens the dialogue with the classic "so, tell me a bit about yourself" and you immediately wince, your mind going completely blank. This is painfully comic due to the fact that you, as the candidate, can surely tell people more about yourself than anyone else?! Yet there you are, floundering for words and tripping over the hurdle that is the first interview question.
So, how to correctly answer the "tell me about yourself" question? Below you will find all the best tips you need to know. In this article, you will find:
Before we address how to answer this preliminary question, let's first understand:
It is important to bear in mind that the recruiter has only met the paper version of you, reduced to an orderly list of qualifications. Upon joining the team, however, you will be regularly be required to interact with colleagues and clients so it is not surprising that the HR manager wants to get a feel for your character and the mood you might bring to the office.
It is also interesting for them to see how you esteem yourself reflected in descriptions of your past experiences and current endeavours. From your answer they will be able to quickly establish what you believe is the most important aspect about you in relation to the position on offer and will be able to better guide the conversation, exploring the extent of the skills you claim to have.
After all, it is in both the company and the recruiter's interest to bring out the best in you so they are able to get to know the valuable qualities you will supposedly be applying once you land the job! Companies are always willing to help a new employee settle in and train them in a couple of areas that are perhaps specific to the platforms the team uses - so it is understandable that a newbie might not be familiar with such platforms - but they do not want to take a risk with a candidate who is clearly unprepared for the role in multiple ways.
Be aware that there are variations of how the interviewer will introduce the question, but you will need to answer in the same way for whichever wording they choose.
Here are some examples of how they might lead you in:
Do not be fooled by however casual the phrasing the recruiter decides to use, the same professional introduction is required from you, regardless. The question is designed to help the candidate and the interview transition smoothly into a more in-depth conversation about your career.
So, when asking you something unique about yourself, the recruiter is not trying to be overly friendly and is mostly certainly not interested in your fascinating ability to wiggle your ears - best save that trick for dinner parties...
Moreover, even if the recruiter uses another different variation of the "tell me about yourself" question, do not ask them what they mean. However vague or open-ended the question might sound, do not ask them to qualify. You will appear unfocused and unconfident if you ask "are you referring to my education or extra-curricular interests or..."
The only reason not to launch into your pitch would be if they specifically ask you what 3 adjectives you would use to describe yourself, for example. This is also a common question so have three adjectives prepared that are not the typical cliché 'self-descriptions' and demonstrate you have actually taken the time to reflect on yourself.
Know thyself, as the Greeks would say...
So, what to take away from this section? Do not be thrown off guard if they do not ask you word for word "tell me about yourself", but trust your gut and give the shining elevator pitch that you are about to script with the help of the following tips!
We just want to save you from making this face...
Before you formulate your perfect interview answer, let's take a look at all the positive tips to follow or incorporate into your elevator pitch in order to stand out and dazzle that recruiter.
The first wrong step you are taking with the "tell me about yourself" is considering it a daunting but rather irrelevant inquiry you need to rush past as fast as possible to get into the pertinent interview questions.
However, the "tell me about yourself" should not be discarded as a mere icebreaker, but as equally important as the old "what is your greatest weakness?" It is necessary to change your perception and see it as an excellent opportunity to start the interview on your own terms. The recruiter has invited you to give an elevator pitch in which you should highlight your personality and share your most impressive skills or experiences - what could be more a positive opening to an interview than this?
Those working in Human Resources are inundated daily with 100s of CVs and résumés that they must skim read to separate the wheat from the chaff. This means you need to take advantage of the "tell me about yourself" question to remind the recruiter exactly why you were chosen to be called for interview and signal important details about you that they might have missed. Wouldn't you prefer this great chance to single yourself out from other applicants over beginning the interview with some quick-fire unprepared questions? We certainly think so!
You must go into the interview with an optimistic mindset. Whatever the little voice in your head is telling you, the HR employees are not trying to trick you. When nervous, you are more likely to think irrationally and feel intimated as if the interviewer is conspiring against you, doubting every line of your CV.
In the professional world or work, this is obviously not the case; recruiters are not there to question everything you have achieved, but they do have the right to ascertain the extent of your knowledge in order to avoid hiring someone under-experienced. They are all too aware of how many candidates bend the truth or straight-out lie on their résumé...
The key is in the question "tell me about yourself". Provide important details about your school and professional life; the recruiter does not want to hear about where you go on holiday each summer. You will not come across as driven and focused on the job in question if you go off on a tangent about some unusual hobbies. You can talk about what you do in your free time if it relates in some way to your professional life or academic interests. In this way, the recruiter will see that even outside the office you are passionate about this area (whatever the sector may be).
Although it seems amusing, many candidates make the mistake of panicking at the question and immediately falling back on what is familiar: their family. Obviously, this will not help the interviewer get to know you any better than when they read your details on paper and it could be harmful to your application.
What's more, women in particular must not fall into this trap: it is important to omit any reference to your spouse, the fact that you're newly wed, or your children altogether. Unfortunately, even in this day and age, recruiters can be too quick to make unsupported and often sexist assumptions about you suddenly disappearing on maternity leave or being too busy driving children back and forth to be able to commit sufficiently to the role.
It might seem an obvious point to make, but when people are nervous they often go completely silent or ramble on without any direction in their sentence. Prepare your elevator pitch beforehand to ensure that it is neither an underwhelming one-liner nor a 1-hour lecture about your life story.
You should follow the orders...
...as these are the most logical structures.
You might like to begin with the past and work forwards to where you are currently in your career and where you see yourself heading, or, you may prefer to begin by foregrounding the current role you have as it is your most recent piece of experience and likely to be the most high-ranking qualification in your professional journey.
If you begin with the past, select only the 'milestones' as your go through your employment history as not only will you be talking for years otherwise, but also, the recruiter is probably not interested in that volunteer position you had at your local vets when you were 16... What's more, by the time you get to your recent roles which most interest the interviewer, they may well have mentally dozed off.
Summing up your whole professional life is no easy task as there is much information to condense. That is why it is important that your most impressive achievements stand out. Make sure to speak slowly and confidently, and pause where necessary to emphasise particular endeavours you are proud of. If you rush through a list of schools, universities, and previous companies you have attended, although this shows you have had a full life of relevant preparation, no specific skill or accomplishment stands out to stick in the recruiter's mind.
There is no doubt that the contemporary world suffers from qualification obsession and so your go-to achievements are probably some sort of grade or examination. This is great and must certainly be brought to the interviewer's attention but do not forget to talk about your strengths as a person, too. Soft skills are just valuable as hard skills, so make sure to mention the qualities that make you a responsible team player.
Everything requires marketing nowadays, be it a product, a service, or even you yourself, it is necessary to prove what makes something different and unique. So what do you bring to the table that others cannot claim to? If you are realistic with yourself, you will admit that your competition has been called to interview for the same reason as you: they have equally formidable CVs. What gives you the edge?
Whilst the interview seems all about you, if you consider the bigger picture, it's really about the company and its traditions, customs, or codes that already exist and need to be not only fulfilled but expanded or improved upon by a new employee.
You should not just focus on selling yourself in general, but tailoring your candidacy to the specificities of the company in question. Link your experiences and skills to how they would benefit concrete aspects of the new role you are applying for. Be strict with yourself and only mention achievements that are really relevant - as wonderful as winning a Gold Award in your highschool Maths Challenge, it is unlikely to land you an editing job, for example.
You were probably offered the interview in the first place because your cover letter wasn’t generic, but rather you know why you want to work with that particular company and what you could bring. So yes, this does mean that each "tell me about yourself" answer will need regular adapting, but it is less effort than you think as the base skills and experiences you will describe remain the same.
Do not use vague emotional statements such as "this position really excites me". The recruiter will be thinking "but why?!" Your enthusiasm is promising but it must always be grounded in your relevant capabilities.
This point goes hand in hand with the previous one but it is worth emphasising: extract keywords from the job offer and sprinkle them into your answer. This will demonstrate that not only have you read the advert properly but that you are aware of what will be required of you in this role and that you can prove your suitability. Watch how the recruiter's ears prick up when you deliver exactly what they are wanting to hear.
This is a phrase that you need to be careful with as it can be a double-edged sword.
And here's what not to do... unless you want this guy on your case...
Don't waste valuable interview time telling the recruiter what they already know - they have read your CV! As mentioned above, the reason they ask this question is to find out more about you and get a feel for your personality that they cannot sense from a piece of paper.
The interviewer wants to see which details you prioritise and believe worthy of emphasising; reciting your resume line by line will give the interviewer no clue as to which experiences you valued highly or most suited your profile.
You can, of course, memorise the majority of the "tell me about yourself" answer you have scripted - just don't let this show! You must not recite a monotonous monologue like a robot. Take pauses and use different linking words as you would normally do in conversation in order to come across as natural and confident enough to have come up with a concise self-description on the spot.
Although keeping your elevator pitch career-based is vital, you don't want to seem excessively intense with no hobbies, no smile, no life outside the office. You need to show a bit of personality and cheeriness to be able to connect with the interviewer and be memorable; that said, it's best to avoid going to the other extreme and playing the class clown.
However good manners you have, it is downright foolish to be overly modest and play down your achievements in an interview!
On the other hand, neither will being a boastful bigmouth do you any favours! You must present yourself as an avid independent worker yet someone who could also integrate into a team and value the ideas of others.
Sometimes there is nothing louder than that which you don't say. Leaving out your current role will seem suspicious, so it is better to prepare how you will talk about the subject if it is a delicate topic in advance than to be called out by the recruiter on why you haven't yet mentioned it. Even if you quit, or had to leave for some reason, it is always best to address the matter, with a professional explanation that is as objective as possible. You need not give a whole discourse on why you felt you were undervalued, just a quick unemotional sentence about why you wanted to move on will do.
However much you may have disliked someone at your previous job, it reflects badly on you if you criticise them in front of a potential new employer. Rise above any recent dramas and ensure that as much of that precious interview time is spent focused on you and only you! You don't want to come across as a tell-tale or someone excessively sensitive; even if you are confident that you were in the right, don't give the interview an opportunity to assume negative things about you.
Now you have seen the Do's and Don'ts of how to answer the "tell me about yourself" question, let's see some concrete examples so you have all the resources to formulate your own dazzling answer that will let you stand out.
1. I am currently the Back End Developer at a start-up in the Food Sector. I have been a bit of a tech geek and an enthusiastic gamer since a teenager so it made sense for me to study a degree in Computer Science at university. I completed various work experiences during the summer holidays of my degree which helped me to get accepted onto a graduate course at IBM; I thoroughly enjoyed my two years there where I learned to put the basics into practice in a real business. I have been working at the start-up since then for 3 years now where I have specialised in server-side logic and trained many of the IT interns myself. Hence I am looking for a role with greater responsibility and would also like to return to a larger company as I prefer the dynamic.
2. Throughout high school and university, I have always loved drama; I was awarded a Gold Level with Distinction in LAMDA and have performed in every play and musical imaginable! With the gift of the gob, as my mother calls it, I make an excellent Sales Representative. I entered the industry as a Lead Development intern for a small web design company where I was soon taken on as a full-time employee, and 2 years ago I transitioned to a Sales Rep role. I am especially proud of the sale I made a few months where I scored the company its biggest deal to date through a particular partnership. I feel I am ready for a position in a larger, more established company as I would love the challenge of handling partners and deals of higher stakes more regularly.
3. I read Modern Foreign Languages at Trinity College, Cambridge University where I developed a sharp sense of communication and a keen eye for grammar. In my final year, my dissertation scored very well and was chosen to be published. After graduating, I got an internship as Assistant Editor in the Marketing department of a large international company in Paris where I proofread all the literature sent out by the firm and even wrote a lot of the content myself. Whilst meticulously correcting communications material I developed a strong interest in the creative process behind them, and am applying for this role as I believe it would give me the perfect opportunity to continue using my precise verbal skills whilst allowing me more creative freedom.
So, are you ready to prepare the most outstanding "tell me about yourself" answer? Yes - smash that first interview question! Let us know in the comments section below how it goes for you, or feel free to share any tips that we have missed! Good luck with your upcoming applications!