Wondering how to answer 'tell me about yourself'? Don’t let this common interview question trip you up.

When I think back on the various job interviews I've had for new positions or promotions, the ones that went the best were the ones where I was well-prepared, coupled with being myself. Of course, I still had plenty of butterflies in the pit of my stomach, and the general request of, "Tell me about yourself,” didn't help.

Whether an interviewer is interviewing someone new to the workforce or someone who has 20+ years of experience under his or her belt, "tell me a little about yourself" is likely to be the first request he or she makes. From an interviewing perspective, it's not the best choice to use given it's very open-ended; but several interviewers, including myself, tend to start an interview with this type of question. This is in part because it can be a nice ice-breaker to get the interview started. It also provides the interviewer with a starting point that can allow for follow-up questions—this is especially true when the interviewer is as nervous as the interviewee (it happens!), or in some instances, is simply unprepared for the interview or how to answer ‘tell me about yourself’, or not the best interviewer (I've seen all of these be true at one point or another). With that said, even the best of interviewers will open with this question.

Regardless of why you're being asked to spill the beans about who you are, you're in the spotlight and want to be prepared to answer, "Tell me about yourself," the "right" way to stand out among your competition. This is especially true when you consider that—as reported on business2community.com—though the average interview length is 40 minutes, the interviewer knows if they will hire a candidate within the first 90 seconds. With that said, consider the following tips when being asked to "tell me about yourself" during a job interview.

Be confident.

Before you even get the chance to figure out how to answer 'tell me about yourself,' the interviewer needs to sense you're confident. Per the same report on business2community.com mentioned above, interviewers made the determination not to hire a candidate within the first 90 seconds based on bad posture (33 percent), a weak handshake (26 percent), and overall confidence (38 percent), to name a few of the reasons. Your goal is to answer with confidence, without being cocky, so you'll hold the attention of the interviewer for the next 38 and a half minutes of the interview.

Be honest and be yourself.

The most important thing in an interview is to be yourself, regardless of what you're asked. Trying to give ‘tell me about yourself’ answers you think the interviewer wants to hear vs. what you truly think or who you really are will get you in trouble down the road. Job and cultural fit are essential to success in any position, so it's better to know during the interview if you're not thrilled with the company's culture or if you and your potential manager's (who will likely be interviewing you) personalities clash.

Focus on work-related accomplishments.

The meat of your response in speaking about yourself should focus on your work-related accomplishments, education, training, and experience. Sharing some of your professional goals is also fair game.

Give a little personal history.

I know some might disagree with this, but I believe it's good to give a little personal history or insights into who you are when determining how to answer ‘tell me about yourself’. Sharing what inspired you to make the career choice you made is OK, for example. I'm not saying to get too personal (see my next point), but sharing, "I grew up in a one-stop-light town in the middle of nowhere and decided to go to West Virginia University because it was close to home and a good option for me," or "I love to play golf in my spare time," are OK to share. This is especially true if you've done your research and know that the interviewer has similar interests and can relate (bonus for you!). 

For those who are new to the workforce, they might not have a choice but to use some scenarios that are more personal in nature, because they might not have many work stories or experiences from which to pull. When I was interviewing for an internship in graduate school with General Electric, I remember being asked something along the lines of, "What's one of the most difficult scenarios or challenges you've dealt with to date?" My answer? Marriage. It was the most honest answer I could give, and I explained why.

Even though I did have work experience, because I worked throughout college in the service industry, marriage was still the first thing that came to mind. I was able to make the answer work-related by sharing that marriage requires communication, compromise, teamwork, understanding, and more, all of which are requirements for success in the workplace. I received and accepted the offer and was later offered a full-time position. I share this as an example showing that it's OK to be yourself and share "personal" details if your intuition or gut guides you to do so, especially if you can find a way to relate it to the position for which you're interviewing.

Be careful in giving too many personal details.

Though I believe it's OK to share some personal details about yourself, as outlined above, it's also wise to use good judgment and proceed with caution in your ‘tell me about yourself’ answer. In most scenarios, you want to steer clear of discussing family, religious beliefs, and so on. These tend to raise red flags or stir up heated debates that are best to avoid. Whether we like it or not, people have biases, and you don't want to be judged or lose a position because someone is concerned about your "personal" affairs or beliefs.

Do your research.

As is the case for any interview, you want to do your homework about the company, as well as those who will be interviewing you if you can. If you have someone inside the company to speak with, consider asking them some questions to help you prepare if you feel comfortable doing so. This will give you some insight into what you and the interviewer might have in common that you could share about yourself in the interview, as mentioned earlier. It could also give you an idea as to the personality of the interviewer, so you know if the interview will be "all business" or more relaxed and casual.

Consider what the interviewer wants to know.

Attempt to think of this question from the interviewer's point of view to help you craft a response. Interviewers are primarily listening to see if you have the experience to do the job with the ability to learn (refer to "Focus on work-related accomplishments" above) and secondly, if you'd be a good fit for the work group and organization (refer to "Be yourself and be honest" above).

Avoid rambling and remain focused.

For some, answering this request is like pulling teeth, for others, they like to share and share and share some more! It's better to find a happy medium, which I've personally had to work on, as well (I'm the one that sometimes likes to share and share and share some more). Consider ahead of time the highlights you'd like to cover when sharing about yourself, and stay focused on those highlights during the interview. It's good to provide your ‘tell me about yourself’ answer in under a minute or two, and I would say it should only go over a minute if the interviewer has asked follow-up questions based on what you've been sharing.  

Practice ahead of time.

This point is mentioned above, but worth reiterating. Practicing and jotting down notes as to what you plan on sharing with the interviewer is a great way to be more at ease, relaxed, and prepared during your interview. I find it helpful to practice out loud with someone I trust, as well. A word of caution, though, is not to sound too rehearsed when you're in the interview room.

Interviewing is a part of life but doesn't need to be dreadful or painful. Interviews are opportunities for new doors to open for us, as well as new experiences to be had. Instead of letting your nerves get the best of you during an interview, prepare yourself mentally to answer "tell me about yourself" and consider the request not only a great way for the interviewer to break the ice but a great way for you to break the ice, as well.

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Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

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