The Lamest Interview Question Ever

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You can practice your interview elevator speech until you’re blue in the face, but if you respond robotically when you’re finally asked some version of the dreaded “Tell me about yourself,” you risk alienating the interviewer and blowing a moment that likely has little to do with your skills and experience.

As Janine Davis, principal at Fetch Recruiting, puts it, asking candidates to talk about themselves is “one of the lamest interview questions out there.” Most interviewers use it as a crutch, she added, “so they don’t have to think of valuable questions.”

Engaged interviewers aren’t looking for a recitation of your recent work history and accomplishments; they’re looking for subtleties in your delivery and answers that may help ascertain cultural fit.

While it may represent a lazy approach to hiring, “Tell me about yourself” could just as easily serve as a stealth moment in the interview, a backdoor way to discuss whatever makes you valuable. Either way, you should be prepared to make your answer memorable.

James Kenigsberg, chief technology officer at 2U, an educational technology company that partners with leading universities, doesn’t want an automated response. If he asks, “So what do you do?” and you answer, “I’m a project manager with 18 years of experience, a team player and a hard worker,” he’s likely to cut you short.

“Everyone says that and it’s not what I want to hear,” he said. “I want to know if you’re a gamer, if you golf, or if you’re curious about technology full-time. What is it that you love to do? I’m trying to figure out if they have a passion for something because there are so many people out there who don’t.”

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Instead, a candidate could spend five minutes talking about his love of snowboarding. Per Kenigsberg, a candidate’s ability to converse easily about things he’s keenly committed to shows he can get into every nook and cranny of whatever grabs him. “If they have that character trait,” he remarked, “it gives me a fighting chance to get them heavily involved in education technology.”

Strictly corporate interviewers may view any parts of a conversation that don’t focus on occupational qualifications as out of bounds, but they still want to get a good sense of the candidate. “You can chit chat but you have to be careful,” said Susan Wise Miller, career counselor and vocational expert at California Career Services. “Your job is to charm the person and show them you’re going to fit in.”

Wise Miller believes that “Tell me about yourself” often becomes about your affective skills, e.g. how articulate you are about yourself. “In this environment, they want to hear skills and stories,” she stressed. “The best thing you can do is to prepare, practice and arrive with good, succinct tales to tell.”

Wise Miller suggests that a candidate craft a reply that tells a story and covers skills, feedback and results. If your delivery is authentic and enthusiastic, it can help even the most static interview take flight.

For example, you can start by mentioning the skill most applicable to the position, such as, “I’m good at debugging complex problems.” After that, you’d tell the story of your most recent experience of debugging genius, and follow up with the positive feedback you got from your boss (emphasize that pat on the back); finish with how your expertise benefited everyone (this is where you get to discreetly brag).

Injecting a little humor into your answer is another strategic way to respond. Davis said a light laugh could discourage “glazed eyeballs” on either side of the desk. If she were to answer the question, she’d bring up her earlier C-level technical career at Andersen Consulting, and note that, when she had two children, she decided she actually wanted to see them on occasion, which precipitated her leap to a more flexible career in recruitment.

Regardless of the interview situation and setting, always steer clear of the regurgitated resume and its attendant bullet points. Davis also encouraged candidates to give a strong summary regardless of the format. The more you’re able to feed the interviewer, she noted, the better your chance of their being captivated by something you said. Their ability to hone in on a mutual area of interest can generate their next, hopefully more interesting question, stimulate the conversation, and drive everyone forward and away from the lamest interview question ever.

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10 Responses to “The Lamest Interview Question Ever”

  1. I think that is a great opening question for an interviewer to ask. If the candidate had too much trouble with this question I might begin to wonder about their basic communication skills and perhaps other capabilities, such as thinking on their feet. I’ve never personally had a problem with it. It can also be a great launching pad to find out more about the company culture based upon the interviewer responses to that question.

  2. Agree to disagree?

    Quote: “18 years of experience…” he’s likely to cut you short.
    That explains the short-circuit on the job market that is still out there!
    I have 10 years less IT experience and I’m spending a fraction of my time to help in training a bit some folks…
    So, 18 years of experience being cut short at a job interview is the state of the job market, not a fault of the applicant.

    • Hugh Jaynus

      I think you’re missing the point. All the author was trying to point out was that, answers like that don’t really showcase a person’s personality, only their work experience. In all fairness though, it is a perfectly legitimate response to that question.

      If the interviewer wanted a more in depth answer that revealed the person’s personality, then they should’ve re-phrased the question. They could ask something like: What drives/motivates you, either in your work or outside of work?

      If you don’t want a lame answer, then don’t ask a lame question. It’s as simple as that.

  3. Easy, Peasy ….

    Being an old-fart in the tech game, i’ve learned that these types of situations demand you provide the answer they want to hear.

    “Me? Well, I’m a lot like you …” … And then go on to describe your interviewer

  4. The best answer is a 15 second sound bite followed by “Tell me about YOURSELF”. People seem to forget an interview is a two way process – my evaluation of the company is just as important as their evaluation of me.

    • Hugh Jaynus

      Ehhh your logic isn’t completely airtight my friend. You’re right when you say, it’s a 2 way process. But you’re forgetting the most important thing, they already HAVE THE JOB…..YOU DON’T!

      You’re the one who is being interviewed….not them!

      • Matt Redmond

        Nay nay. An interview is one of the best places to determine whether you really want to work there.

        The interviewer is employed, if that is what you were saying, but the company has an open position and you have something they don’t: a possible candidate to fill it.

        It IS a two-way process. It may appear that they hold all of the cards, that is true only at this middle step of the process. Before the interview the candidate *chose them* as a company (s)he might want to work for, and could easily have not even bothered to apply.

        Example: I was between jobs a few years ago and declined an invitation to interview for a software developer position with a large chain of department stores because after I submitted my resume I did some homework and wasn’t optimistic about their financial condition. They never got the chance to ask me to tell them about myself.

        • Hugh Jaynus

          I’m really sure that was a huge loss for them…rolls eyes. Get over yourself pal. You’re one of hundreds of candidates. So you not moving forward with them is no skin off their nose. Another person (probably even less narcissitic and self righteous than you) will gladly come and fill it. Plus who are you to judge a companie’s financial condition? If you were such a know it all then you wouldn’t even be in the spot you’re in.

  5. Not getting the answer you wanted from the applicant? LOOK AT YOUR QUESTION!

    “What do you do? Huh? Where? At work or play?…

    “What do you do outside of work” OK, THAT one I’m able to answer and get the interviewer what they were interested in.

    Lame incorrect off topic answers often = lame incomplete questions (laziness) from the interviewer.

    REVIEW YOUR QUESTIONS! Verify them with an un-involved party (Maybe ask your SO the question…). if THEY don’t get it, maybe it’s your presentation?