How to Answer ‘Tell Me About Yourself…’

by Jon Jacobs

A new acquaintance recently asked for guidance handling the open-ended interview question I used in the headline of this post. “Although it sounds benign, it can be lethal,” he observed. “What do you feel is the answer a hiring manager/recruiter/other is looking for? Just as important: What do they not want to hear?”

Group InterviewHe’s smart to be looking for effective ways to field that deceptively simple question. It probably trips many people – and in fact probably tripped me up more than once.

While job-hunting in 2006 and early 2007, I faced the question numerous times. Later, when I had the opportunity to hear what career coaches and hiring managers had to say, I realized I’d been going about answering it all wrong.

More Than Where You’ve Been

The key is to not to make the question a jumping-off point for a career-path version of the “autobiography” your third-grade teacher asked you to write. Remember how everyone tackled those? “I was born in Metropolis, Ohio. My father is a car dealer. I have a sister, Patty, two brothers, Joe and Bill, and a dog, Spike. My hobbies are baseball, model trains and coin collecting…..”

In other words: Resist the natural tendency to tick off each of your career roles and transitions in a single narrative.

The interviewer isn’t looking for completeness. Instead, she is looking for a coherent “story” that provides indications you’re a good fit for the opening. That means your answer should briefly convey both:

  • A sense of who you are and where you’re going – why the opening you’re applying for represents a logical culmination of where you’ve been. You needn’t make that point explicit, but if you can suggest it in your answer, you’ll score points. And:
  • Something about your previous career that prepares you for the role you’re interviewing for. Just as with a resume, take pains to focus this part of your answer on accomplishments, not just responsibilities or functions. For each past or present job you discuss, mention an anecdote about a challenge you faced, a project you completed or a learning experience you had that’s directly relevant to the new role. If you can also relate that challenge or project to your motivation for wanting the role, so much the better.

Don’t Ramble

You needn’t go through each and every job you’ve had. Feel free to skip over any of them. Nor must you explain why you left jobs: The interviewer surely will question you about that later.

The best answer to “tell me about yourself” will have the Goldilocks quality: just enough detail, without getting tedious or long-winded. Concise but not too concise. I envision this answer taking up to two minutes, assuming the interviewer doesn’t break in with tributary questions while you’re speaking.

If you can, try to watch yourself from outside while answering. Imagine one fraction of your mind perched in a corner of the wall and keeping tabs on how you’re coming off. Be on guard against rambling. If you catch yourself starting to delve deeper and deeper into one situation or one past job, cut yourself off and move on.

When I had to job hunt a few years ago, I rehearsed answers to, “describe your three biggest strengths and your three biggest weaknesses.” Surprise – not a single interviewer asked me that question. All the rage in the 1980s and early ’90s, it seems to have all but vanished from modern practice. Instead, today’s obligatory question is “tell me about yourself.” Whether you meet by phone or face-to-face, it’s often the first substantive thing out of the interviewer’s mouth.

I hope this helps you develop a response that keeps you in the game. If any of what I’ve said doesn’t ring true, feel free to comment below.

27 Responses to “How to Answer ‘Tell Me About Yourself…’”

  1. Barbara Green

    I was hoping for more specifics–examples of what might be good answers for “tell me about your self.”
    I know you couldn’t get specific about your own answers, but you could maybe think of some generic samples. It woild help me to see what direction I might go.

  2. reggie snelly

    You might develop a story about how you came to be where you’re at in your career. Give a little summary of your education, personal interests and job experience – then weave a tail of how these led you to where you’re at now.
    If you haven’t been thoughtful in your career by taking actions to lead where your at, it might make the story less meaningful.
    Good luck.

  3. Author – thanks; great reminder about how each of us can transform or kill our potential with each interview and each conversation (networking). I¿ve torpedoed myself with just the facts and missed this ¿soft ball¿ at the get go more than once sadly.

    SAK and The Bitter Bunch – face it, soft skills matter – yes even getting along with HR. Unless you keep interviewing with the same employer and HR person – then the only consistent factor in the hiring conversation is you. Figure out how to deal with it and move the next interview forward with you as part of the solution in a nutshell so they’ll tell you about the real work or problem at hand – then you can apply yourself and close the deal (Hint for SAK). Get over it and on with it, else get a new Rx for paxil 1/day – so you can start to ¿give a darn¿. It saves marriages and jobs. Maybe even your next one.

  4. Yea, Author – I agree with your comment. However from out here it’s tough to take a recruiter serious when in the job posting they list ‘sequel’ and not sql as a requirement. Most are justing filing an order and have no idea what we do. The gatekeepers are going to drive all the experience out of IT and into cabs. That’s what happened to the era. All young, books and protocols but no practical application or problem solving skills … HERE WE GO AGAIN

  5. SAK, ah yes I remember working with guys like you when I worked IT. You can’t help yourself, you are used to a bottom line and all the rest just gets in your way. Wake up, there is more to working with people and not machines, and some other things really do matter.

  6. Gatekeepers are called Gatekeepers for a reason. You can love them, you can despise them, but you still have to give them what they want and need to open the gate to the next level. Denying that is, imho, living in a fantasy world.

  7. To effectively answer the * Tell Me About Yourself * question, your answer should hit on three parts.
    1) Start off by telling the interviewer about some of your soft skills. ie. Problem-solver that handles multiple tasks with ease. etc.
    2) Highlight your last 2 or 3 jobs and state the major things you accomplished while there. ie. While at ABC company I saved the organization X dollars.
    3) State what you bring to the table that directly relates to the job you are interviewing for. ie. I am confident that I can bring my problem-solving skills to XYZ Co and streamline processes…

    2 minutes is all you should use to answer this question.

  8. Paul McKelvey

    The other way to handle ¿tell me about yourself¿ question is to tell the best success stories of your career. These should be brief stories, not much more than 30 seconds long each. That’s about 60 words or so, but don’t be bound too tightly by that number. Write them out, trim them to the correct length, then practice telling the stories to a friend or spouse. They can check for timing and whether you hit the points you wanted to hit. The stories should give the interviewer a taste of the success. If they want details, they will ask. The career stories should illustrate that you have what they are looking for. If you are just starting your career, the success stories can center on school and extra-curricular activities that reveal qualities the interviewer is looking for. A caveat: don’t use the wrong success stories. If you were successful at being a business analyst, but don¿t want to do that, look for another story. In a career change, volunteer work success stories are relevant.

  9. Having worked in many of the world’s largest data centers as a high-level performance/capacity sales engineer, I personally I don’t give a crap what IT managers and HR folks think about hiring. What I’m saying is that I do not consider them the cream of the crop in any way. Usually they are as self-serving as politicians and often are the result of anemic academia and/or cronyism. Many cannot think well period. Many times they often foment and/or get in the way but are nearly impossible to dislodge as mid-level management at F100 companies. Most of you know what I’m talking about here. Occassionaly one does find a bright one but generally they are mediocre at best and dismal at the worst. So, who really cares about them? Hmmmm… I see now at the bottom of this ridiculous article is a ‘math’ question asking me what zero+77 is before they allow this post comment. …must be an HR quiz….golly gee whiz Mr. wizard. SAK

  10. I don’t see the point of generalizing and bashing HR or IT managers. Bottom line is there are managers, and some of them are good and some of them aren’t – just like engineers, techs, cooks, and writers. But you can’t get a job without clearing them, and you won’t keep you job if you don’t care what they think about their performance.
    Having been an engineer and a manager, I can tell you that most of the reason such questions are asked in an interview is to try to get at your personality and see what kind of fit you’d be. If you come across as arrogant and rude, you aren’t getting the job. If you can’t talk intelligently about a topic you should know well – such as your own background and abilities – then you also won’t get the job.
    These articles are to help people with that process, not to bash people to no purpose.

  11. Funny SAK, and right on the money. Most hiring managers represent the “Peter Principle” well. Still, one must get by them to get hired. After 30 years of working in corporate I.T. I now find that getting a job is more about the psychology of how to answer the profile questions than it is about having the right technical skills for the job. Add this to a high level of burnout from having to deal with these upper-management pleasers for so long and it’s probably time to drive a cab for a living.

  12. Katy Jo

    It is so true. I am taking a management class that is living in the same fantasy land that some hiring managers reside. The 30 minute hiring decision short-sells the company and the prospective employee.

    It is no longer the skills and technical ability, but will you be an employee will to “lock step with employer”.

  13. Sak is right, and thank you for saying it. Why are we even talking to hr at all? Especially first in the interviewing process. I am more concerned with speaking to the person who has the problem that needs solving, and what I can do for him/her. IT is about solutions to problems, not fluffy crap on where you see yourself 5 years from now. No one seriously plans that, and if you write in after me and say you do you are lying your a$$ off. I would rather see if I can solve the problem at hand and be of use to the company than waste my time on the “culture” and other crap like that. If I can solve the problem and be of use to them, we can talk about the soft stuff afterwards. Based on my experiences so far, good luck on finding any gig that is not a cluster mess that you are expected to make sense of. Really that cab driver thing sounds better and better all the time. I might go with hospital janitor, once you get past what you are doing there is a zen like quality to it no?

  14. Nice post by S on 7/15 at 11:51 EDT. I’ve been working in consulting for 12 years and when I go for permanent jobs that’s what they always ask. I always think it’s a trick question, so I’m going to try S’ answer next time. Consulting has taught me two things: It’s all about “What have you done for me lately?” and “Can you solve my problem now?” Corporate culture – why? Am I working there or living there? I had jobs where I didn’t fit in – the staff was all early 20-somethings into fantasy football and wrestling. I was 32 with a kid or two and didn’t give a crap about fantasy football or wrestling. I ate lunch alone and turned out some of my best code ever.

  15. My 5c 🙂 Nobody hiring IT engineers full time. It’s contract, contract to hire. There are some ridicules timing – like 2 months, 3 months. Yea, if I am already set in the company network – computer, admin rights, access to environments … If the manager knows what they actually need – this may be reasonable, but it is often not the case. Somebody in management/hr has “clever” idea use contractor for IT as firewood – anyway we will loose 50% of the new one really quick and then it’s cheap to get more 🙂 The bottom line – the hr specialist from third party has no clue about position, technology, hiring company. He just got specification (which is written in mandarin for him 🙂 and rush to check “how you feet to that spec” because he found your resume online 🙂

  16. Anonymus Real Techie

    Thanks Jon, I appreciate you¿re trying to help job aspirants, but I am not convince with this kind of explanation of question/answer session preparation is of any help winning the job interview. It’s all seems ARTIFICIAL and ‘bull-shitt’. Tell me about your self – is talk opener – no more than opening conversation with the candidate. No matter how well you communicate, you might win a little attention of the interviewer- that’s it. What interviewer/employer look into the candidate as we’re talking about technology people here is:
    – Tech Skills (Essential)
    – Presentational/communicational skills (optional flavor)

    In my humble opinion, at the end of the day, it is your tech skills that can win you tech-job. You’ll find plenty of ‘Conversationalist Junkies’ like sales people – the market is flooded with, but a tech manager may skip flavors but may not sacrifice essential skills.

  17. Question to Jon Jacobs:

    Do you think it’s appropriate to tackle this question by asking a question? In this case, I would ask the interviewer something like this: “To help me answer your question better, what would you like to know about me in particular?”

    This question in response to the interviewer’s open-ended question can help me come up with a response that is much more targeted to what the interviewer is looking for/wants to hear.

  18. Jodie and Mike seem to me to be some of few who are on target. And thanks, Mike, for some substance.

    If you don’t think that corporate culture and all the “fluffy stuff” are more than “fluffy stuff,” it’s little wonder you’re looking for a job. Yes, knowing the substance of how to solve problems is the meat of engineering and IT jobs. But fitting in with the culture shows the HR people that you’re not going to do more harm than good if they let you in and “give you the keys.”

    From a more practical perspective, checking on the “fluffy stuff” is HR’s way of covering their asses. And of course they’re going to want to cover their own asses before they cover ours (or the people for whom they are hiring). While the problems we must solve are more product-related, the problems that HR must solve are personality, or “fluffy stuff” -related.

    Remember that, in the job search, we’re still solving problems. The first problem we must solve is, how can we be the solution to HR’s problem? They’ve got to locate the right person for the job on a long-term basis, whether “long-term” is a few months, or the rest of your career. Once we solve their problem, we can move on to solving our problem.

    If it were easy, anyone could do it.

    SAK, if you can’t recognize a spam or bot filter, tell us again how long you’ve been in IT? (Though, the “Mr. Wizard” comment did make me laugh.)

  19. No offense, but this is a pretty lame article. Very wishy-washy; very non-specific.

    When interviewers ask this question, they want more personality type answers that can relate to the corporate culture “and” position. Examples include “I am very hard working; I am very focused and detailed oriented; I am serious person with regard to my job, but still like to tell or hear a joke, and laugh with others”.

    You can also briefly discuss out-of-work activities, such as sports, or travel.

    You can also briefly discuss the progression of your career from one role to the next.

    All comments should be concise. Your extire answer should probably not stretch more than five minutes.

  20. vyyper

    All of you pose good points, but to come down to it, the answer to the question is simple, they want to know how you relate to the position your going after. they could care less about sport and your off time, they want to know about you meaning the pretense of what can you do for us and this position.

  21. Sabindra Thapa

    Just want to mention regarding the time..Is two minutes enough to explain details in such a way at all the time?May be not. I think time should not be kept as a bracket as long as story goes in right track & in a thoughtful process. Let it go upto 4.5 to 5 minutes or more.

  22. Just want to mention regarding the time..Is two minutes enough to explain details in such a way at all the time?May be not. I think time should not be kept as a bracket as long as story goes in right track & in a thoughtful process. Let it go upto 4.5 to 5 minutes or more.

  23. I was hoping for more specifics–examples of what might be good answers for “tell me about your self.” I know you couldn’t get specific about your own answers, but you could maybe think of some generic samples. It woild help me to see what direction I might go.

  24. All of you pose good points, but to come down to it, the answer to the question is simple, they want to know how you relate to the position your going after. they could care less about sport and your off time, they want to know about you meaning the pretense of what can you do for us and this position.

  25. I may be in the minority here, but this description helped me out. I tend to fumble when they ask me that nebulous first question.
    Unlike many, I tend to win them over with the personality but they doubt my technical skills. I end up asking them: “What can I do to convince you that I have the technical skills to do the job?”
    Does it matter that my resume and my references agree that I have experience? Apparently not.