Tell Me About Yourself [Interview Prep]

"Tell me about yourself!" The question seems cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason, because it is still the question asked at every single interview. If you’re like most people, you’ve probably stumbled through this question a little differently each time, vaguely talking about your work history or your hobbies. Maybe rattling off a few bullets from your resume while trying to throw in a joke to lighten the mood.


We all get that this is one of the first impressions you’re going to make to the interviewer. Now I would argue that your real first impression is actually made when you walk in the door. It’s made by what you wear to the interview. If you’re on time or a minute late. Those few minutes of chit-chat before the “real interview” even gets started. So honestly? Don't ignore those details. Your answer to “tell me about yourself” is either going to give you a second shot or reaffirm their opinion of you from those first moments.

Nailing that first impression is definitely not something to ignore when heading to your next interview, but that’s not THIS video. In this video, I want to get into why you need to focus on this question, and how you can form the best answer for YOU when responding to “tell me about yourself”.


Why Does This Question Matter?

FIRST, we need to know why this question is important! What is the interviewer really gaining from this question, why do they ask it? Unlike most interview questions that I would consider “disqualification questions”, this one is often really about hearing what you have to say about yourself. Now sure some hiring managers will use this to throw you out if you say the wrong thing, but that’s really the minority of cases in my experience.

There are some other purposes of this question that I might consider incidental or side benefits. For example, it's the first question, so it's partially used simply to reorient the interviewer to you and this interview after coming from three other interviews or another work event. It also sets the tone for the rest of the interview and gives the interviewer a jumping-off point if their interview isn't as structured.

But even with all of these “added benefits” the main driver behind this question is still to hear what you have to say about yourself in your own words. Your journey of how you got here. But that makes this an extraordinarily open-ended question, and if I were to guess, I’d say the reason you’re watching this video is to narrow down your lanes of approach to be able to develop the BEST answer for YOU. With that let's hit on some of the basic guidelines we should be following when forming our response to this question.


The of the questions I always get asked is “James, should my answer be personal, or should I stick to my professional experiences?” well, let's explore that a little.

I’m going to hit on what I think are the two camps of approach when it comes to this question.

Response Strategy #1 - The Hard Sell

If you’ve watched any of the other 600 videos out there on this question they’ll all tell you the same thing, that only peasants answer this question by describing themselves personally, you need to wow them with your professional accomplishments, Stand out as a high achiever, and make sure they know that this role was designed for you and they’d be lucky to have you!


This needs to go beyond just breezing over your resume, its a tailored response for this specific role where you really sell them on not only you being qualified for the job, but that you’re the BEST applicant for the job and the most valuable candidate out there for this company.

Now, most “gurus” out there will say avoid the personal stories altogether. That the purpose of this question is solely to get to know you as a professional and why you are qualified for the job you’re applying to. They use this question as their 'hard sell' right out of the gate. They say “these are my professional experiences and achievements that show I’m qualified, and that I’ll bring value to this company when you give me the job.”


This is a fine answer, and can really set the mood and impress your interviewers right off the bat. And you should, in fact, have this type of answer in your back pocket for every interview you go to. My criticism with this type of answer for the “tell me about yourself” question is that there are multiple questions where this “hard sell” is a much better fit. “Why are you the best candidate for this job” or “why should we hire you?” These are softball questions that are designed with this type of response in mind.

With every interview question asked, we are given one more opportunity to win points in the eyes of the interviewer, but we also want to make sure we round out our answers and use each question to its maximum benefit, With that in mind, the next approach you might consider taking to the question “tell me about yourself”, and my personal favorite, is the personal journey.

Response Strategy #2 - The Personal Journey

If you want to take your response to the next level and stand out as a PERSON, not just a bag of qualifications, you need to give them something here that lets them know what kind of person you might be if you joined the team. They know that you’re qualified already, that’s what got you to the interview, but what they don't have yet, and what this question is specifically set up to find out, is what kind of person am I talking to? To do that, throwing in some personal details is key.


Now you don't have an hour to get into your life story or a hilarious adventure you took in college. While that story might be a hoot, it does nothing to make the interviewer think you’d be a good fit for the team. So with that kind of personal story, we should skip it altogether.

When I say personal, I’m not talking about your third-grade field trip to the zoo that started your lifelong love of penguins. I mean unless you’re applying for a zookeeper position, but if you’re applying to be a financial analyst, we can skip that type of personal story.


When we give our personal Journey as a response to “tell me about yourself”, we’re doing it within the context of this job position. “How did you end up at this point in your life where you’re applying for this job?” We’re going to attempt to answer four questions in our 1-2 minute response, that if we can do well, will make you the most memorable candidate

Part 1 - When did you get bit by the bug?

This is going to be the industry you're in; why are you passionate about it and when did that start? You might have accidentally stumbled into the financial industry after taking a position within a bank’s IT support desk. You might not care about their bank account, but they sure as hell do, and the fact that you’re helping somebody with something they find so important is something that’s become an obsession for you and is the reason you’ve continued in this industry.

Part 2 - How has your passion grown with your accomplishments?

This allows you to still tout your major accomplishments that are relevant to this job and make you look good, but with the added twist of amplifying your passion for this career and this job role, which is something you won't get from just regurgitating your resume bullets.

Part 3 - What is a major lesson you’ve learned along the way?

Stick to one, you’ve got limited time here and you can make this the one thing they really remember about you. This can be a simple and relatable lesson that you’ve learned that will define who you would be as a candidate. Maybe “I learned that communication is the key to success” or “A high performing team will outpace a high performing individual every time.” These types of lessons directly show what types of things you value and how you can be expected to behave and achieve if you were to get this job offer.

Part 4 - How can you bring your passion and expertise to this new role?

This is the most sales-pitchy part of the response, but nobody said you shouldn't be selling yourself. But you should be selling yourself based on your strengths and characteristics that nobody else can compete with. Something here like “I'm more excited than ever to continue my journey at this company. I’m looking to provide even more value and expertise to a company by taking on broader responsibilities, which is why I’m here today applying for this job position at this company.”


Now maybe you’re sitting here saying “but James, I’ve got my interview in an hour, I don't have time for this, I just wanted a simple answer that won't make me look like a moron”

And you know what, I hear you.

Bonus Strategy - The Safe Option

If you don’t have time or simply don't want to put together some elaborate response that’s sort of personal but not too personal, that still plays to your strengths but doesn't feel too sales-pitchy, then the easiest and safest way to answer this question to simply go over your resume and highlight your work accomplishments.

This is the safest answer because your resume is what got you here, so you’re not going to trigger any disqualification criteria by going over it again. You’ll also basically have a script to read from and have the opportunity to reiterate some of your biggest work accomplishments. You won't win any points with this answer, but you’ll have an answer that will get you safely to the next question, which is still better than shooting yourself in the foot with a bad answer.


Be Yourself With This Response

To be clear, “tell me about yourself” is probably the most open-ended question you’ll get in your interview, which is why there are any number of good ways to answer it. You need to be honest with yourself about the kind of impression your interviewers are likely to walk away with. If you can’t sell a personal story as authentic and genuine, you might come across as a bit stale or rehearsed (think Zuckerberg pretending to be human). If your hard skills aren't that strong, making the hard sell of “I’m a technical wizard you can't do without!” is probably going to backfire. There’s not one BEST response for this question, there is the BEST response for you, and hopefully, you’ve got a few ideas about how you can start creating your response to the question tell me about yourself.

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