The Interview

How to Answer "Tell me about yourself"

Many internship and first-time job seekers have no idea how to respond to one of the most common interview questions: Tell me about yourself.

You, frankly, don’t know what the interviewer wants to hear.

Even worse:

Job openings today get as many as 250 applicants on average. And out of that group, only four to six people get in front of an interviewer. That’s a measly 2%. So if you do manage to score an interview, you’re up against the most impressive candidates on paper.

Mission impossible?

Absolutely not. You just have to come ready with a competitive edge. That means convincing them that they’d be crazy to hire anyone but you.

Today I’ll show you how to separate yourself from the pack by coming up with a great answer to that dreaded question “Tell me about yourself.”

We’ll start by looking at the interviewing process from the employer’s side, then talk about what not to do followed by some sample good answers. In the end you’ll know how to connect all your experiences into an answer that’ll vault you to the top of their list.

tell me about yourself

Here's what will be covered in this article:

The Employer’s Dilemma: Avoiding a Bad Hire

Think about it:

Every employer of course wants to find and hire the perfect candidate. But what’s more important than that? Avoiding a bad hire.

Having the wrong person in a job negatively impacts an organization more than most people know.

According to the Harvard Business Review, the monetary impact alone of hiring the wrong candidate can be upwards of $50,000. Add to that the potential disruption to internal teams and external customers, and from the interviewer’s perspective, he or she must avoid a bad hire at all costs.

So how do you show them that you’re definitely not the bad hire that they’re avoiding?

Connect your qualifications, talents and experiences to what you can do for them. Show them how you’re going to be a great fit at their company.

Sarah Dabby, Head of Talent at ClickTime, a rapidly growing SaaS company in San Francisco, sums up the recruiter’s perspective: “A company is posting a job because they have a need. Put the company’s needs first and demonstrate how you can fill that need.”

When formulating any answer, ask yourself, “Am I directly saying how I can help this business?”

Make sense?  Okay, now don’t take off the employer’s shoes just yet.

Next let’s continue formulating your “Tell me about yourself” answer by looking at the three most common mistakes that interviewers tell me that candidates make with their responses.

common mistakes in answering tell me about yourself

Common Mistake #1: No Plan

Financial services behemoth JP Morgan reported hiring only 2% of graduate applicants in 2016. You can bet every person they hired came to the interview with a plan.

And it’s imperative that you do too. What kind of plan?

Think of it as a strategy for demonstrating how you’re different from the other candidates but exactly like the company’s ideal candidate. Include things like what your former managers, college professors, coaches, and colleagues complimented you on in the past. Did they praise your technical expertise? Were you viewed as a great team player?

As Mickey Swortzel, Co-Founder of the New Eagle family of businesses in Ann Arbor, MI, states: “You need to think about the message that you leave with the interviewer. What makes you different?”

The purpose of an interview isn’t so much getting to know the candidate but convincing hiring decision makers that you’re the right person for the opening. Elizabeth Rogowski, a Direct Hire Recruiter with Employco in Westmont, IL, says that an interviewee needs to “try to highlight a fit,” which means that you need to prepare for the interview.

And if you aren’t prepared, it shows. Swortzel confirms, “If they aren’t prepared, candidates will ramble more than they should.”

Common Mistake #2: A Bio, Not a Direct Answer

When asked to talk about themselves, too many candidates launch into a biography. They talk about their family and general interests rather than focusing on the value they bring to the company.

Keep it brief and relevant. Unless you’re applying to be an evil supervillain, don’t get caught monologuing about your whole life story.

Rachel Meyer, Director of Talent Management with Travelers Haven notes, “The most common, and biggest, mistake I come across is candidates who talk about themselves in a way that doesn’t relate to the role they’re interviewing for. It tells me they aren’t sure what they’re looking for and aren’t serious about the position.”

Pro tip: Review the job description before the interview. Come up with three specific selling points (skills, personal characteristics, and/or work-related experience) that are relevant to the opening and build your answer around them.

Then stick to your script to avoid nervous rambling.

Common Mistake #3: Oversharing

We’ve all met people who feel compelled to explain why they couldn’t get along with classmates or former colleagues, or want to tell you every detail of their personal lives. This type of oversharing is another way people knock themselves out of contention for good positions.

According to Swortzel, “You can overshare regarding weaknesses and former co-workers.”

Avoid discussing weaknesses; let the interviewer broach that topic after you make a good first impression.

Also, employers don’t want to hear about any past workplace drama. You might think you’re explaining a bad situation to get it out of the way. But an interviewer is likely to get the impression that you bad-mouth colleagues.

Introducing past poor work relationships into the conversation is a recipe for disaster.

How NOT to Answer “Tell Me About Yourself”

Now that we’ve looked at some common mistakes when answering this question, let’s put those together into a model of what not to say.

Meyer offers this example of a poor answer:

I’m interested in a lot of things, which you can see from my diverse experience on my resume, and looking to get my foot in the door with a fun company that challenges me. I was a varsity cheerleader in college, which inspired me to be a sports newscaster.

This answer is less than stellar for several reasons:

First, it doesn’t solve a business challenge. The interviewee doesn’t refer to a specific accomplishment or skill that’s relevant to being a sports newscaster, other than the cheerleading gig, which is a stretch. In a nutshell, this answer is a personal bio rather than a business answer.

Second, the interviewee also had no plan and focuses too much on what’s in it for her (i.e. “a fun company that challenges me”). Interviewers want someone who is interested in their company.

Swortzel likes to see their enthusiasm, going so far as saying, “I want someone who wants my job.”    

Use LinkedIn to Establish a Connection

At this point we’ve spent some time looking at what not to do. Now I want to start putting together the building blocks for creating your own great “Tell me…” answer.

Look:

With the proliferation of career advice, it’s tempting for people who are uncomfortable with interviewing to just pick an example. If that’s you: STOP.

Giving stock answers turns off recruiters, according to Rogowski.

When it comes to putting together your own bona fide, unique answer to this question, the best place to start is LinkedIn. “Try to develop a personal connection,” says Rogowski.

LinkedIn is a great resource for researching the company and the people who will be interviewing you. Starting your pitch with a personal connection helps the interviewer start visualizing you in the role from the beginning.

Do you both follow Bill Gates on LinkedIn? Use that as a talking point and make sure the interviewer knows you took the time to look him up on LinkedIn.  

Does the company’s mission relate to your passion? Tell the hiring manager about it.

How to Tackle the Problem of “No Experience”

It’s the common catch-22 for students and new grads looking for internships and first jobs: You can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job.

Sound familiar?

Not to worry. There are several ways to address this challenge. 

Rogowski suggests that talking about relevant experience outside of the classroom helps you in this situation: “If you’re going for a nursing role, talk about volunteering. If you’re going for an IT role, talk about hackathons.”

You can also bring in work experience from unrelated entry-level jobs. Swortzel notes that for many interns or new grads, talking about any job is a plus, even if it isn’t in your target industry.

Here’s a data point in your favor:

A Pew Research study showed that by the middle of this decade, employment among young people had dwindled. Only a little over 43% of 18- and 19-year-olds had summer jobs.

A proven history of reliability, teamwork, and other traits developed at entry-level or volunteer jobs has a meaningful impact on interviewers and separates you from your never-employed competitors.

So if you have limited experience, Meyer provides this good “Tell me about yourself” sample answer:

I’m passionate about giving back to the community and find that a lot of my involvement in organizations and team sports have become valuable business traits. For example, through philanthropic work with my sorority, I learned how to communicate with local businesses and created a donation campaign that raised $3,000 for a non-profit organization. The networking skills I learned from that will be invaluable to this account executive position.

This answer is strong for three reasons:

  1. It highlights skills such as networking, strategic planning, and cultivating prospects that are applicable to an account executive positon.
  2. The answer showcases a quantifiable accomplishment (raising $3,000) that is relevant to a sales-oriented role.
  3. It references passion and values which are traits employers look for in good employees.

How to Talk About Your College Education

As a current student or recent graduate, it’s perfectly acceptable to use what you learned in college in your “Tell me about yourself” answer. After all, you just devoted a lot of time and money to it.

Just don’t lose sight of the fact that a company wants to know what you can do for them. That humanities course that sparked your love of Russian literature? Great for you personally, but probably not of interest to them professionally.

Keep your answers limited to the position. For a finance internship, good themes to hit on are:

  • A sentence that describes your coursework in corporate finance or banking and/or
  • A description of any experience you have using relevant financial software (Bloomberg Terminals, R, OneTick)

If you’re a liberal arts major, you might struggle to find the right experiences to share. Again, review the job description and connect the most relevant general traits.

For instance, an entry-level sales position requires strong communication and organizational skills. As a student, you must learn what your professor wants in essays or research. A person’s communication skills become more polished during college. These are facts to highlight in an interview.

What to Say If You’re Changing Industries

changing jobs

Not every new graduate is 22 years old. Some people want to change career paths after years in a particular industry and have no idea how to express themselves without giving a biography. If you’re in this situation, you want to incorporate why you decided to make a change.

Dabby suggests an answer like “I discovered I’m passionate about this field. I’m excited about it.”  This answer showcases your enthusiasm for the new field without delving into any negatives about the old one.

Meyer recommends that you “walk the interviewer through what inspired the change” and “why this new industry is a better fit for you.”  As with internships, employers look for clues that you want their job, not just any job.

Career changers sometimes unintentionally disqualify themselves. Even if you left an old field because you were burned out, never say that in an interview.

Also, make sure you have reasonable salary and title expectations. A career change may require a pay cut and a step down in title. Prepare a statement that makes it clear that you’re committed to making this change.

Remember: Concise is Key

Job candidates sometimes think that researching a company and the people there means producing a long speech. But an interview isn’t a senior thesis project. Companies don’t want you to tell them how to run their businesses; they want you to contribute to the firm’s mission.

Being concise is key. Make sure your answer to “Tell me about yourself” is no more than three or four sentences. If you’re an accounting major targeting an entry-level professional position, focus on the skills you gained from courses and how you can apply them to the opening.

Build on Your Cover Letter

Repetition helps a marketing message get through to people. But they already have your resume, so don’t just relist all the bullet points for them. Think of this as your opportunity to offer a verbal cover letter that highlights the best and most relevant parts.

Check out our separate cover letter article and you’ll see that a cover letter is most effective when it:

  • Is concise—no more than one page
  • Only focuses on relevant academic experience. No discussing your Latin American theater classes while applying for a customer service position
  • Showcases experience outside the classroom. Remember quantifiable achievements and awards separate you from others.
  • Highlights what you can do for them.
  • Is tailored to the industry, e.g. formal letters for banking, or creative cover letters for graphic arts.

All this repetition helps leave an impression that lasts after you walk back out the door.

"Tell Me About Yourself" Sample Answers

A top-notch answer combines all the elements that an interviewer wants to hear from a prospective employee:

  • It conveys skills and experience relevant to the position and company.
  • It demonstrates that you looked up the person on LinkedIn and researched something about that individual.
  • It shows the interviewee’s passion and interest in the specific position.

Meyer provides this example of a great answer from her experience:

I’m a Chicago native with five years of data analysis experience. I noticed on your LinkedIn profile that you’re also from Chicago. I moved to Denver for a marketing internship that fit well with my passion for analytics and conceptualizing creative campaigns. Having been so inspired by the active lifestyle here, I never left. Now I’m looking for my next professional challenge, and believe I can bring these same skills to bear in the digital strategy role at your company.

Practice That Great Answer

Once you have your answer ready, don’t let stage fright turn it into an incoherent ramble. Even outgoing people get tongue-tied during this process.

Interviewing is a skill. Write down your answer and practice it on a trusted friend or family member. Tell them you need to know if it sounds like you’re rambling or overly scripted.

Show them a copy of the job description and ask them to judge whether you come across as meeting that company’s need.

Tell Me about Yourself: Presentation

It’s been estimated that 93% of all communication is visual. That means the interviewer forms an impression of you as soon as you enter her office.

But your impression actually starts the moment you walk in the company’s front door. Decision-makers quite frequently ask receptionists for their opinion of the applicant.

Arriving more than 10 minutes before (or after) the interview time, wearing unprofessional clothes, or being rude to the receptionist can kill your chances before the interview even starts.

Poor body language undermines a well-rehearsed answer too. Don’t get “overly comfortable, slouching in the chair,” warns Rogowski. She further says it’s important to be mindful of social cues so your personal presentation does not undermine your answer. When you practice with someone, ask them for feedback on your body language.

Comb your hair. Sit up straight. I know, I know—I’m starting to sound like your mom. But she isn’t wrong. The way you present yourself at an interview says a lot about you.

If you’re applying for a position with a highly professional investment bank, you want to wear a suit to convey a polished, professional image. The khakis and polo shirt that are appropriate for a start-up interview just don’t work in a corporate environment.

Similar Questions, Similar Responses

One of the frustrating parts about job interviewing is that you prepare and prepare for certain questions and…they don’t ask you those questions.

You can pretty much count on getting a “Tell me about yourself” question, but it may not be asked in the way you were expecting. So be prepared to spot it in one of its many flavors.

Dabby says that many talent professionals such as herself often ask interviewees versions like:

  • Tell me what you’re most proud of on your resume and why, or
  • Walk me through your resume.

Different wording. Same answer.

But however it’s asked, use this four-step checklist to make sure your answer is on the mark:

  1. Be concise (three or four sentences)
  2. Reference a fact you gained from research on LinkedIn
  3. Highlight a relevant accomplishment or skill
  4. Demonstrate enthusiasm (i.e. talk about how your passion connects with this position)

The Goal: An Offer

All this preparation is to achieve one goal: getting an internship or job offer. Don’t look at an interview as a “getting to know you” session. It’s a marketing pitch to separate yourself from your three to five competitors. 

Decision makers want both to avoid bad hires and find real contributors. When you focus on applicable skills and give concise answers to questions such as “Tell me about yourself,” you convince interviewers that you fall into the contributor category.

But don’t lose sight of the fact that you are interviewing the company and people working there too. According to a Gallup poll, a mere 33% of Americans are engaged at work.

As someone looking for an internship or first full-time job, you don’t want to be a member of the disengaged majority. Find a company where you can put your talents to good use and actually enjoy working there.

Keep Telling People about Yourself 

Congratulations! You got the job. Your new employer determined that you’re the best person for them.

Just remember that your first professional position—whether an internship or a full-time job—is just the beginning step in your career. You need to continuously document your achievements.

If you complete an internship successfully, get your manager and colleagues to endorse you on LinkedIn. Include professional awards and accomplishments on your LinkedIn page and resume as soon as you earn them. If you wait, you might forget about them.

Whether you stay at your current company or eventually move on, a successful career is built on your ability to “Tell me about yourself” again and again.