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.”
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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