‘Tell me about yourself’ – how to answer the most misunderstood interview prompt
Why is talking about yourself so hard? Shouldn’t it be one of the few subjects you can speak to without hesitation or thought? Yet this topic – whether raised in an interview setting, at a networking event, or at a cocktail party – is, and forever will be, a common and often stressful conversation piece throughout your life.
In recruiting, I deal with this prompt regularly. ‘Tell me about yourself’ or ‘walk me through your background’ are the requisite first liners at any decent interview. How you answer will set the tone for the following conversation – be that a strained Q&A or a naturally flowing discussion.
Here’s the key: the way in which you approach this topic at a cocktail party cannot be the same as the way you do in an interview. This prompt requires unique handling, and your answer should match the type of job you are applying for, the professional setting, and the identified goals of your interviewer.
Follow these 5 simple steps and never question yourself again. Let’s get started.
Step 1: Forget chronological; focus on recent and relevant.
In my time as a professional recruiter, I have met and coached upwards of 750 job-seekers. My main observation? About 75% of people will start their story at what they perceive to be ‘the beginning.’ That means, regardless of which experiences are most interesting to the interviewer, they’ll say something along the lines of:
Prompt: ‘So tell me about your background’
Incorrect response: ‘I went to X school, where I started out studying Y before realizing I wanted to be more analytical than routine with numbers. At that point I switched to Finance from accounting. I landed my first job at a company through my aunt who is also an accountant, then I got a job at Z company and left because of [insert random reason]. Finally I found my current job…’
Here’s the problem – maybe the hiring manager went to a rival school, or doesn’t care, or the story you think is endearing is boring to them.
When you start at ‘the beginning,’ you leave too much room for interpretation. Too many of your life decisions – decisions that may be totally irrelevant to this position and your ability to succeed in it – may be scrutinized and questioned. Instead, try building trust by convincing your interviewer that you are the right person for the job, and watch as the rest of your story suddenly becomes more endearing.
Step 2: Discover common ground.
At a cocktail party, you’re likely speaking with strangers. They don’t know anything about you except that you share an affinity for cocktails. In these situations, it makes sense to fill in the details of your background – describe your upbringing, education, career changes – whatever you think may strike a chord.
In an interview, though, you already know what will be the common interest. Use that knowledge to clue into your interviewer’s priorities and play to their needs.
Step 3: Confirm your qualifications.
You’ve identified a common ground – the company’s need for [insert role]. Now you want to quickly establish a strong rapport with the hiring manager, but how? Keep it simple: assure them that you ultimately have the qualifications they need for this important position on their team.
Specifically and without hesitation articulate how your recent and relevant experience will enable you to ease the company’s needs and improve their success. Say, for example, that you’re applying for an Accounting Manager role. You’ll want to say something like the following:
Prompt: ‘So tell me about your background.’
Correct response: ‘Of course. I have 8 years experience in accounting, working for companies exclusively in manufacturing ranging in size from $100M to $5B in revenue. Currently I am an Accounting Manager and oversee a team of 6 direct reports, including a Senior Accountant, 2 Staff Accountants, 2 AP Clerks and one AR Specialist. My major responsibilities are a, b and c and in my three years of tenure here my strongest achievements were 1) when I saved $X by revamping Y, and 2) reduced our close cycle by 4 days.’
Step 4: Tell a good story.
Think about this: when my daughter asks for a bedtime story, I can’t just give a high-level summary: “there was a princess, she was in a castle guarded by a dragon, and a prince came and saved her and they lived happily ever after…the end” No – she wants to know the princess’ name (preferably her own) and a description of her dress and the fact that she has long brown hair (surprise – just like my daughter!).
Adults are essentially the same. We want details, and we want them to resonate with us personally. Ideally, your story engages the imagination while helping people connect to who you are as an individual. With a little forethought, coming up with intriguing details and points of connection shouldn’t prove difficult.
Step 5: Bring it all together.
In general, you should spend the first 70% of your response time discussing your 2-3 most recent jobs that align with the position in question. For extra points, parallel your past experience with the conditions of this new position. Try this: make your response from Step 3 extra interesting by including an added layer of information. For example:
Prompt: ‘So tell me about your background.’
Elaborated response: [Step 3 response] + ‘I supervised a team of 6, and I understand this role (that I am interviewing for) supervises 5, which is totally within my comfort zone. As a matter of fact, I enjoy this size of team because it allows me to be both hands-on in coaching and training, but also zoom out to a high-level focus on the business.”
Your remaining 30% can be used to cover past experience, addressing everything from potential movement within a given company (especially if you have short tenures) to key or relevant professional achievements (i.e., ‘this company was not manufacturing but we utilized SAP which I know you are in the process of implementing’). To end, open up the discussion by finally – only at this point! – bringing up a few interesting pieces from your personal background.
‘Tell me about yourself’ doesn’t have to be a difficult prompt – if you know how to respond. So many people rely on a high-level response, which often ends up leaving absolutely no impression. If you want to land the job, you’ll need to be memorable and personable. Remember – the Dallas market is fierce! There’s no lack of strong candidates. Follow the above steps to separate yourself from the pack.
I’d love to discuss more; you can get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org for custom interview tips and market insights.
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