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05 Apr 2021 Austin Belcak

“Tell Me About Yourself” – How To Impress Your Interviewer

Imagine you're at a dinner party. You've just met someone new and the first thing they ask you is simply, “tell me about yourself.” Even though you're the world's leading expert on yourself, this question might still catch you off guard, fumbling for the best place to start.

That's because the question is so broad and open-ended. It could go a thousand different directions. Do you open with where you grew up? Where you went to school? Your current job? There are so many ways to approach it.

Now take that same scenario and apply it to a job interview.

If you haven't prepared for the question, that same feeling of “gosh, where to start?!” might strike you at the interview table. The difference here is that the stakes are way higher. This interview could change your life—you can't afford to wing it and hope for the best.

That's where interview preparation comes into play. Most job interviews will contain a set of core questions that never change (regardless of the role). “Tell me about yourself” is one of those core questions. And, since you know it’s coming, you can prepare for it. Formulating and practicing your response beforehand will ensure you come to the table ready to nail it.

In this post, I'll go over everything you need to know to deliver a killer response to the “tell me about yourself” question in your next interview!

Let’s dive in…

Why Does An Interviewer Ask The Question “Tell Me About Yourself?”

An interview isn’t a one-way street—it’s a conversation between two individuals. As such, it’s important to consider where the interviewer is coming from. This will add context to the conversation and help you see the bigger picture. So, let’s start with a quick overview of the interviewer’s perspective.

Why Do Interviewers Ask This Question?

There are two reasons why interviewers like to ask, “tell me about yourself” early on in an interview:

  1. It’s a great way to get an engaging conversation started.
  2. They want to hear what you lead off with and how you present yourself.

In addition to being a good icebreaker, your response to this question will typically give the interviewer a few “nuggets” they can pick up and run with.

Other interview questions tend to be narrower in scope. If the question is, “tell me about a time you failed,” or “tell me about a time you exhibited leadership,” there’s not as much of an opportunity to share your story as you see fit (or touch on things that may be overlooked). These are also known as situational interview questions. The question, “Tell me about yourself” gives the candidate a chance to fill in the blanks and tell their story on their terms.

What Answer Are Interviewers Really Looking For?

At the end of the day, interviewers are looking for people who are confident in themselves and their abilities. The best candidates know their strengths, address their weaknesses, and understand why they’re a great fit for the position.

That last piece is essential. When interviewing candidates, they're looking for people who know why the company is hiring for that role, and can then explain why they’re an ideal match. Generic “cookie-cutter” responses should be avoided at all costs.

We’ll get into more detail below, but in general, your interview responses should always reflect the notion of, “I know why you’re hiring for this role, and here is why I’m a great fit for it.”

Why This Question Is A Great Opportunity For You

The “Tell me about yourself” question is a chance for you to control the theme of the conversation. Up until that point, you’ve been relying on your resume, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile to tell your story for you. But, unfortunately, those mediums aren’t a great way to form a narrative and pitch yourself effectively.

When an employer is reviewing your resume, there may be unanswered questions or potential red flags that come up in their mind—especially if you’re coming from a non-traditional background or you’ve had some sort of career break. Those types of things can lead people to create negative assumptions in their minds. “Tell me about yourself” is a great opportunity for you to fill in the gaps, provide context, and emphasize what you feel is important.

Crafting The Best Answer To The Question Tell Me About Yourself

Common Mistakes (What NOT to do)

Before we break down the strategy for a killer response, let’s explore some of the most common mistakes people make when answering the “Tell me about yourself” question. We've already touched on one mistake: generic replies that aren’t tailored to the company. Here are some other problematic tendencies you should avoid.

Reciting your resume. Don’t fall into the trap of simply reiterating the information on your resume. The interviewer read it—they don’t need to hear you verbalize what they already know! “Tell me about yourself” is an invitation to fill in the blanks and paint the career story behind your resume. Tell them what it is about you and your experience that makes you qualified and interested in the position. Don’t waste the opportunity by rehashing every job title you’ve ever had.

That being said, it’s important to talk about your professional experience. But, instead of reciting your previous titles and responsibilities, you should be weaving them into a compelling narrative.

Being too modest. Modesty is usually a good thing…nobody likes an egocentric show-off. But job interviews are not a time to be humble. You need to sell yourself. If you don’t hype up your talents and achievements, you’ll wind up selling yourself short.

Don’t get carried away, though. There’s a difference between confidence and arrogance. Ideally, your accomplishments will speak for themselves. For example, you wouldn’t want to say something like, “I was the best sales rep on the team.” Instead, you should share the positive effect and outcomes of your work—preferably with a quantifiable metric (e.g. “I exceeded my sales quota by 25% in each of my last four months in that role.”).

Unstructured rambling. You might have some great things to say, but if your points don’t follow an organized structure, your response will lack clarity. Your answer should be a story, and great stories flow from scene to scene with natural segways.

Solid preparation is the best way to avoid rambling. Practicing your response ahead of time will help you refine your delivery. I’ll share more advice on structure and practice in the next section.

The Anatomy Of A Killer Response

We’ve reflected on the background and explored some common mistakes. Now it’s time to dive into my strategy for knocking the “Tell me about yourself” question out of the park!

Continuing on the topic of structure, I’ve developed a 3-step framework to help my students systematically assemble a stellar answer. That framework includes The Background, The Hook, and Your Goal.

#1: The Background

Research shows that people remember stories over straight up facts. Your background will allow you to set the stage, craft a story, and add some drama. Here are two approaches you can use to build up your background:

Friends & Family

A great way to kick off your narrative is to open with, “I’m known as the XYZ among my friends and family.” It’s a very natural intro that sets you up for a comfortable tone. For example, if you’re good with computers you could say something like this:

Example: “I’m known as the ‘tech guy’ in my family. I’ve always been the one they turn to when they need their iPhones, routers, etc. fixed…and that’s what got me interested in tech in the first place.”

Pivotal Moment

Another way to lead off is with some solid storytelling to isolate a pivotal moment in your life. This technique adds drama and draws the listener in from the get-go.

For example: “I’ll never forget the moment I watched the video about Apple’s new technology to help blind people “see” images by explaining what they’re looking at. I was so inspired by the thought of using tech to improve someone’s life so drastically. I want to create impactful tech like that—and that’s how I first became interested in development.”

#2: The Hook

Once you’ve laid down your background, the next step is to move into what I call “The Hook.” This segment is crucial. It’s the point in your response when you really start to pitch yourself in relation to the role you’re interviewing for.

Your approach to the hook will depend on how closely your prior experience aligns with this new role. If your resume has all the qualifications the employer is looking for, then you’ll want to use the hook to highlight skills and achievements.

However, if you’re coming from a non-traditional background or you think the interviewer might have some doubts about you, you’ll want to use the hook to handle potential objections.

Let’s dig deeper into both of those scenarios…

Highlighting skills/achievements

If you feel very solid about your qualifications, this section is for you. Your previous experience matches what the employer is looking for, so you just need to drive it home and dazzle the interviewer.

Select a past achievement that’s highly relevant to the company/role you’re interviewing for. Then, tie that accomplishment to this new role by drawing parallels between them. How would the skills/knowledge you gained from your past accomplishment help this new company?

Example structure: “I’m grateful to have at my last company, and I’m excited by the opportunity to expand my horizons and bring that same [skill/knowledge] to this team, where I think it would really help the .”

Handling potential objections

This technique is near and dear to me because it’s the method I used when I was transitioning from medical device sales to tech. Since I was coming from a non-traditional background, I knew there would be some doubts about my experience and abilities. So, I used this part of my response to showcase why that didn’t matter and talk about the experience I did have instead (even if it was outside the “four walls” of a formal job role).

Real-world example: “You might notice there isn’t much traditional digital experience on my resume. That’s because I come from a scientific background. That’s the path I thought I wanted to take when I was in college/a recent grad. But I’ve realized my true passion lies in digital marketing. So, while I don’t have the traditional, on-paper experience, that doesn’t mean I don’t have any experience in the field. In fact, I have quite a bit…”

I then went on to describe the huge success of one of my digital marketing side projects. This showed that I was both hungry and competent in the digital marketing space (despite my lack of formal work experience).

To illustrate the mindset here, I like to use the final rap battle in the movie ‘8 Mile.’ Eminem comes in as a total underdog. But, in the final face-off, he goes first and calls out every diss he thinks the opponent will come at him with. The result? His opponent is left speechless!

#3: Your Goal

To bring your answer to a strong close, you’ll want to finish with your overarching goal. In other words, why do you want to work here? You’ve set the stage with your background, you’ve shown them why you’d be a great fit with your hook…but what’s really driving you to be interviewing for this role?

The general concept here is: “I’m currently looking to move into [role/function] because [personal reason].”

Tell the interviewer what you're looking for and show them how that aligns with this specific role.

Example structure: “Right now, there isn’t much room from growth at my company. I’m currently looking to move into a [title you’re interviewing for] role where I can share my knowledge with a new team and help a truly inspiring product like [Prospective Company’s Product] scale to new heights.”

Phone Interview Answering Tell Me About Yourself Interview Question

Taking Your Answer To The Next Level

The above framework will form the “bones” of your response. Now let’s move into some additional tips to take your answer from a triple to a homerun! Doing these three things will help you stand out from the crowd in a positive light.

#1: Perform Extensive Research On The Company

Recall from above that great interview responses are essentially saying: “I know why you’re hiring for this role, and here’s why I’m a great fit for it.” To be that specific, you need to understand the company’s current goals, challenges, and initiatives. How do you learn about those things? Research.

The more you know about the company/team, the better. Your diligence will pay off big time during the interview—it will show that you’ve done your homework and you’re taking this opportunity very seriously.

You can use this post for a detailed guide on how to research a company before your interview. Here are some key highlights:

  • Listen to the company’s earnings calls (if public).
  • Read news and analysis on Seeking Alpha (if public).
  • Search on YouTube/Apple Podcasts for interviews with senior employees.
  • Scan the company’s social media.
  • Reach out to team members directly.

#2: Be Authentic & Include Personal Interests

Some career coaches say you shouldn’t talk about your personal life at all during a job interview. I disagree.

Briefly mentioning your hobbies/passions can be a great way to lighten the mood and show that you’re not a robot, but an actual human with interests outside of work. Maybe you love to travel or you’re passionate about woodworking…go ahead and mention that. It shows you’re more than just a few bullets and buzzwords on a resume.

Even if you don’t include personal interests, you should still be yourself. Show the interviewer who you are by using your natural speech, body language, expressions, etc. You want to be professional, but you don’t want to put on a front for the person sitting across from you. That’s not how you’re going to show up at work every day.

#3: Practice!

I won’t say practice makes perfect—but it definitely makes you a hell of a lot better! Here’s how you should be practicing every interview question (not just “Tell me about yourself”).

  • Write down your answers to the most common interview questions.
  • Read your answers multiple times until you begin to memorize them.
  • Recite your answers from memory until it becomes easy.
  • Begin recording yourself with video/audio (webcam, phone, etc.).
  • Watch the video. Reflect and analyze until you feel that you’ve nailed the delivery.

When reviewing your videos, make sure you’re emphasizing the right things and using the right body language. If you do that, you’re going to be super prepared and you won’t be thrown off if you’re nervous. You’ll be able to deliver your response in any situation no matter how you’re feeling!

Tell Me About Yourself Example Answers

We now have all the building blocks of a great answer to “Tell me about yourself.” Let’s see them in action! Here are three examples to get you in the right mindset.

Family & Friends Example Answer:

This first example starts with the ‘friends and family’ approach. Then, since the candidate is coming from a non-traditional background, the hook is used to handle objections. Finally, the goal ties the candidate’s personal values to the company.

“I’ve always been known as the ‘tech guy’ among my friends and family. If I had a dollar for all the iPhones and internet connections I’ve fixed, I could retire! Tech has been a part of my life since I could walk.

I was disappointed when I got to college because there weren’t any internet marketing classes or website design majors. The closest thing was computer science and that wasn’t really what I wanted to do at the time. I was more on the creative side than the analytical side.

So, I ended up choosing a major that had a clear, guaranteed career path. I didn’t want my parents to pay all that money, only to have me graduate with no jobs available. It seems obvious now (and to people who have been in the industry for a while), but I didn’t realize you could make a living designing websites until after I graduated and entered the real world.

So, while I don’t have the traditional tech background, in order to prepare, I’ve been taking front end development classes. I’ve been freelancing out my skills as well. I’ve now built quite a few websites outside of work in my spare time. I also love Python, so I was excited to learn that your team uses a lot of Python on the server side. I actually built a mobile app that ran on Python last month.

I’m now looking to move into a dedicated developer role to expand my technical skills. But I also want to start building technology that has a direct impact on people’s lives…tech like [Prospective Company’s Product]. That’s very important to me, and it’s an area where I feel that I could really make a difference.”

Pivotal Moment Example Answer:

This second example leads off with the ‘pivotal moment’ approach. That moment is then used to segway into an achievement for the hook. Finally, the candidate concludes with the benefit he would bring to a new team in the goal section.

“About 2 years ago, I had an epiphany. Our sales team was using a highly traditional model—banging the phones, cold calling day in and day out. I came across a webinar by a guy who was leveraging digital marketing to drive sales. He was really into email marketing and had a bunch of data behind it. So, I spent the next few months implementing a few of his tactics and tweaking them, and I ended up closing my largest deal ever the following month. And, from that point on, I consistently exceeded my quota.

I was able to share this knowledge with the rest of my team. And, while I’m grateful to [Company] for awarding me the OneTeam award for the biggest deal of the year, I was much more excited to be able to use the techniques I learned to help the rest of my team.

Since we implemented my training, 3 out of 4 of the sales teams have over-indexed on their quota…which is fantastic. But, right now, there isn’t much room for growth at my current company. I’m currently looking to move into a sales management role where I can share my knowledge with a new team and help a revolutionary product like [Prospective Company’s Product] into the marketplace.”

Objective Handling Example Answer:

This last example is similar to the first in that it uses the ‘friends and family’ intro combined with an objection-handling hook. But it then goes one step further to highlight a personal interest. The candidate uses her love of travel as a selling point in her conclusion. Also, notice how this candidate has done extensive research on the company’s initiatives (which is why she’s able to tailor her answer so precisely).

“I’m known as a total literature nerd among my friends and family. I’ve always been passionate about the written word, which is what eventually led me to major in English at Boston University. After college, I began my career in journalism since that was a conventional path many English majors take. I’m very grateful for the two years I spent working at Pinnacle Magazine. One of my proudest moments there was my exposé piece on the pollution in Bear Creek.

But my career trajectory really took a turn when I discovered UX Writing. I was using one of my favorite fitness apps when it struck me that the interface copy was super engaging and well-written. It occurred to me that a great writer was behind that copy–and with that realization, I began my exploration into UX writing. I’ve been completely hooked ever since.

I know that my resume lacks formal work experience in the UX field, but I’ve been relentlessly educating myself and putting my UX writing skills to the test. I recently completed the UX writing course from Ignite Academy, which concluded with a comprehensive sample project. The founder of the program (a seasoned UX pro) liked my project so much that he featured it as a case study on the course website.

I’m also very passionate about traveling and trying new things, which is part of why I feel that I’d be a great fit for this role. I watched the CEO’s recent press talk about his vision to turn the product into a hub for users to not only find great vacation rentals but also discover awesome local experiences to get the most out of their trip. I think that’s a perfect next step for the platform, and I want to bring both my writing ability and love of travel into this role to help the platform’s User Experience embody that goal.

I was fortunate to speak with Diane Brantly from your UX department. She told me a little more about the initiative, and how you’re trying to incorporate more motivational copy to inspire users to explore new experiences. That’s actually one of my strong suits. If you review my UX project, you’ll notice that I use a lot of motivational messaging to spur engagement. And, combined with my love of travel, I feel that I could create copy that really resonates with the Airbnb audience.”

Final Takeaways

The “Tell me about yourself” interview question can seem intimidating on the surface. But, hopefully, you now realize that this interview question is one to look forward to! It puts you in the driver’s seat, allowing you to handle the answer any way you’d like.

Even if you’re coming from a non-traditional background, you can still put together a winning answer. With the right preparation (using the techniques above), you’ll be able to tackle this question with confidence and move one step closer to that dream job!

Austin Belcak

Austin is the founder of Cultivated Culture where he helps people land jobs without connections, without traditional experience, and without applying online. His strategies have been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, & Fast Company and has helped people just like you land jobs at Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, & more.

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