You arrive at your job interview rested, relaxed and ready. You’re feeling good. Introductions are made, greetings are exchanged.
Then, before you’ve even had time to settle into your seat, you’re hit with the dreaded question: “Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself.”
“Most candidates find this question to be a particularly difficult one to answer,” says career coach and Columbia University professor Lee Miller. “Be prepared to deal with it. These days, it’s unavoidable. A lot of interviewers open with it as an icebreaker or because they’re still getting organized, but they all use it to get a sense of whom you are.”
Miller interviewed lots of job applicants in his former life as a human resources executive. He says he began most of his interviews with the “Tell me about yourself” question.
“I did that for a number of reasons, the most important of which was to see how the candidates handled themselves in an unstructured situation. I wanted to see how articulate they were, how confident they were and generally what type of impression they would make on the people with whom they came into contact on the job. I also wanted to get a sense of what they thought was important.”
Six Tips For a Perfect Answer
According to Miller, there are lots of ways to correctly respond to the question, but only one wrong way, and that is by asking, “What do you want to know?”
“That tells me you have not prepared properly for the interview and are likely to be equally unprepared on the job. You need to develop a good answer to this question, practice it and be able to deliver it with poise and confidence.”
Here are some other pointers for answering the question:
- Highlight your most important accomplishments. The most effective way to do this is by telling a story. For example, if you think persistence is one of your strongest qualities, tell a story about a time – perhaps when playing a sport – when you were knocked down but got back up and kept going.
- Don’t bore them with your biography. “The biggest mistake people make is thinking the interviewer really wants to know about them as a person,” says New York career coach Jane Cranston. “They start saying things like, ‘Well, I was born in Hoboken, and when I was three we moved …’ Wrong. The interviewer wants to know that you can do the job, that you fit into the team, what you have accomplished in your prior positions and how can you help the organization.”
- Think of your response as a movie preview. A preview heightens interest. It promises exciting things to come. It steers the conversation toward topics you are eager to discuss in more detail.
- Keep your eye on the target. The goal is to show that your qualifications are a perfect match for the position. Don’t ramble, recap your life story or tell about your first job in junior high. A good start is to describe your most recent job and explain how it prepared you for this position.
- Keep it short. A one-minute answer is ideal, says Maureen Anderson, host of “The Career Clinic” radio show. “The employer wants to know a little bit about you to begin with — not your life story. Just offer up two or three things that are interesting — and useful.”
- Write your answer in advance and read it to your mirror. “[P]ractice it, time it and rehearse it until it sounds natural,” says Anderson. “Then practice it some more. The goal is to tell the employer enough to pique their interest, not so much that they wonder if they’d ever be able to shut you up during a coffee break at the office.”
Have you been hit with the dreaded question in an interview? How did you answer it?