5 Answers to "Tell Me About Yourself" and How to Answer (+ Tips) [2020]

The interview question, “Tell me about yourself,” is most commonly asked at the start of a job interview. This type of question is typically an “ice breaker” question that prompts the candidate to initiate a conversation and the interview. And this interview question most commonly the first question that’s asked on behalf of a recruiter, hiring manager, or interviewer. While this question is an “ice breaker,” it can play a pivotal role in guiding other interview questions that the hiring manager might ask.

Indeed defines an “ice breaker” as “thought-provoking questions you can use to encourage people to talk and get to know them better. These questions can be used in most situations where a fun, light-hearted conversation is needed to lighten the mood and encourage real bonding.”

Depending on the candidate’s answer, it can assist the hiring manager in asking more relevant questions for the remainder of the interview. And can help in leaving a lasting first impression upon the interviewer or hiring manager.

tell me about yourself

For example, suppose the candidate describes themselves as having qualities that consist of “patience” or general interest in technology. In that case, further qualifying questions are likely to occur on behalf of the interviewer. As a job seeker, it’s critical to consider how the interview’s introduction might guide the remainder of the interview questions and how that might impact any prepared interview answers.

Following a story about using technology to meet sales goals, a hiring manager might ask qualifying questions like the following:

  • "How do you use technology to improve your relationship management process?"
  • "How do you work with a software engineer to develop CRM features?"

A job seeker should be prepared to have follow-up responses to questions like the above.

Why “Tell Me About Yourself” is Asked

The common interview question “Tell me about yourself..” is asked to measure a candidate’s ability to “sell themselves” or “pitch” themselves as a candidate. The ability to recite a professional history in under 90-seconds presents an opportunity to flex verbal communication skills. Verbal communication skills are vital to business success and business etiquette.

Next, this interview question presents an opportunity to display core competencies to the employer. A core competency is a concept in management theory introduced by C. K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel. It is defined as “a harmonized combination of multiple resources and skills that distinguish a firm in the marketplace.” And therefore, it is the foundation of a companies’ competitiveness.

Charleen Maher, Ph.D., describes the importance of core competencies as “Competencies have long been used as a framework to help focus employees’ behavior on things that matter most to an organization and help drive success. They can provide a common way to harmonize, select, and develop talent. The benefits are clear for employees and managers, and ultimately, the organization.”

The job candidate’s answer gives insight to the hiring manager on what future job performance might look like and how the candidate might coordinate with the team. A candidate should expect to hear this interview question asked in every job interview during a job search.

How to Answer “Tell Me About Yourself”

To answer this interview question, follow these steps:

  • Start by researching the company and the job requirements. Use the company “About Us” page or LinkedIn profile to gather information about the company culture, objectives, and other vital insights. Review the job description or job advertisement (sometimes referred to as a “job ad”) to review the job requirements.
  • Write down three to four key career accomplishments that complement the company culture or job description.
  • Write down unique attributes that make the career path attractive. This could be working with an innovative CEO to being awarded honors.
  • Structure an “elevator pitch” answer that describes who the candidate is, the career trajectory, unique attributes that make the candidate appealing, and attributes or career accomplishments that the hiring manager will find relevant to the company culture or job description.

Tip: Experienced candidates can answer this interview question under 90-seconds and start a conversation with the hiring manager. Avoid questions that ask about the interview process, for example. The end of the “elevator pitch” should consist of a qualifying question for the interviewer, promoting the interviewer to share more information about the job's objectives within the business.

Gathering Career Accomplishments

Many seek the counseling of a career coach or interview coach to help structure an answer to “Tell me about yourself..”

As a job seeker, to avoid having to seek interview advice from an interview coach or career coach, consider the following:

  • Ask a former supervisor or manager what they felt the most considerable value was when working with you.
  • Ask a friend or family member to help you remember any significant events in your life that define you professionally.
  • Take time writing down all of your career accomplishments and prioritize which ones are most impactful.
  • If you’re stuck trying to write your answer, seek the advice of a mentor or supervisor. Ask how they answer this question for themselves. Ask the mentor how they might answer the question for themselves if they were in the job interview.

Career coaching is a service provided to job seekers that assists them with interview preparation, career counseling, career advancement guidance, and job placement assistance. If a job seeker is transitioning from one job title to another without any prior experience, seeking a career coach to assist them with future job interviews is advisable.

Tip: If a job candidate feels their answer is lacking clarity and impact, it's okay to tell the interviewer, "Let me start over; this sounds confusing.." And then restart answering the interview question but with clarity.

What should and should not go in an answer

Here’s what should not go inside of an answer:

  • A long list of unique skills.
  • A physical set of descriptors, like height, weight, or physical ability.
  • Any mention of a current job or work history.
  • General life story.
  • A reiteration of the overview statement, objective statement, or resume summary included in the resume assets.
  • A reiteration of what was authored in the cover letter.
  • Personal interests or personal life matters that define the candidate.

When thinking about constructing your pitch, here’s what should go in an answer:

  • What makes the work approach unique or work process unique to the candidate.
  • A fast overview of a career, not work history but a career path.
  • A significant accomplishment in the candidate’s career.
  • A reiteration of what company objectives or company values are attracting the candidate to the company.
  • A significant work experience that defines the candidate.
  • Metrics or quantitative figures that support career accomplishments.

Designing an elevator pitch

MindTools.com defines an elevator statement or elevator speech as “a brief, persuasive speech that you use to spark interest in what your organization does. You can also use them to create interest in a project, idea, or product – or in yourself. A good elevator pitch should last no longer than a short elevator ride of 20 to 30 seconds, hence the name.”

And goes to describe that the job seeker should design an elevator pitch by:

  • Identifying their goal with the elevator pitch.
  • Explaining what they do.
  • Communicating the “USP” or “unique selling proposition” (what makes you unique).
  • Engage with the question in the answer (using a question at the end of the pitch to promote conversation).

MindTools.com goes on to show a simple elevator pitch, “My company develops mobile applications that businesses use to train their staff remotely. This means that senior managers can spend time on other important tasks. Unlike other similar companies, we visit each organization to find out exactly what people need. This means that, on average, 95 percent of our clients are happy with the first version of their app. So, how does your organization handle the training of new people?”

In this example elevator pitch, it’s visible how the “pitch” describes a company or entity. When answering “Tell me about yourself..” the candidate should describe themselves as though they are pitching a company, product, or service.

Answer Mistakes to Avoid

Below are common answer mistakes from job applicants and job seekers. Avoid these common tactics when answering the interview question, "tell me about yourself."

  • Telling a life story. A good answer consists of work examples and a career overview rather than sharing information about a professional’s personal life.
  • Using cover letter and resume details. Using cover letter details or resume details to describe “who you are.”
  • Telling a long story. The structure of the interview answer should consist of an “elevator pitch.” Typically, humans are not in elevators for longer than 90-seconds. It should only take 90-seconds to describe “who you are” to the interviewer.
  • Being too modest. It’s essential to recognize what makes the candidate unique and what career accomplishments should be respected. Have confidence!
  • Being arrogant. Confidence and arrogance are similar. Use career accomplishments to display confidence.

Telling a life story

When describing a story to the interviewer, the interviewee should avoid personal stories. The purpose of the interview question is to qualify the candidate for the job title. They are presenting an opportunity for the candidate to show the interviewer that they are a “good fit” for the position and leave a positive impression.

Using personal stories, like sports accomplishments or educational accomplishments, are only suggested to be used for recent graduates or those in academia who use academic achievements to measure “fit” for the job title.

Using cover letter and resume details

It’s presumed that the interviewer has read through the applicant’s cover letter and resume. If the job candidate reiterates this information to the interviewer, it’s not going to be engaging. Avoid referencing information that was already included in the cover letter or resume.

Telling a long story

This interview question prompts an elevator pitch. The interview answer should be 90-seconds in length. A story that takes 5-minutes or longer story can leave the interviewer feeling unengaged in the interview and communicate poor verbal communication skills to the hiring manager.

Being too modest

It can be difficult for some introverted people to describe themselves. Additionally, it can be difficult for them to tell their career accomplishments as they might feel too humble about their past. Avoid this common mistake. Seek others’ advice and ask them which career accomplishments they feel the candidate should be most proud of. The candidate shouldn’t “brag” about their accomplishments; rather, they should have confidence in their abilities.

Being arrogant

Avoid arrogance. Speak less about "yourself" and speak about career accomplishments or what objectives were accomplished for a business. The act of showing accolades can display confidence without the need to speak about "ourselves."

Not anticipating the remainder of the interview and future interview questions

This interview question is asked as a "leading" interview question. When the interviewer provides insights into "who they are," it assists the hiring manager in determining the appropriate qualifying questions and behavioral questions to ask. A common mistake amongst job applicants is to describe themselves but not be prepared for the types of follow-up questions that might proceed. For example, a job applicant who describes themselves as having a "tech-savvy career" will get questioned about applying technical knowledge to the job. Anticipate future job interview questions that might come from the "tell me about yourself" answer.

Example Answers to “Tell Me About Yourself”

Below are five example answers to the interview question, “Tell me about yourself..”

Sample answer: I applied to XYZ Company because this is a great opportunity. The company seems to define itself by the advancement of biomedicine. And I was trying to reduce the impact of mental disorders. As a young child, I almost drowned in a pool. This gave me a unique perspective on life. It taught me to have a value for life. As I understand the needs of the job, I feel it’s relevant to share that I’ve been able to increase the testing of specimens and samples by more than 45% at my last employer. And improve the overall discovery of chemical responses by more than 78%. It seems that’s a relevant pillar for success in this position. Lastly, some parts of the role could help me with my overall career advancement opportunities.

Sample answer: I started my career on a unique path; it began in high school. I was interested in computers, and I got lucky that it became a career. In high school, I had the opportunity to design a website for a nearby company. It was my first job ever. I was paid to do something that I was passionate about. From there, this took me into college, where I was learning business, but decided to continue pursuing my passions on the side. Eventually, I was noticed by startups in my area. And we began working together. That took me into a new company, as a service provider. And then, I eventually left college to pursue a career in technology. I’ve had the opportunity of designing more than 100 websites in my career, all resulting in new business opportunities and ventures that I am proud of.

Sample answer: I’ve been working in marketing for most of my career. I started as a marketing coordinator and then moved onto startups, where I was able to play a multidisciplinary role with the executive team. It was a great experience to be able to assist global marketing teams and executives with growth. I supported all of the organic search, PPC, brand awareness goals, and more. I helped with the coordination of global events and other marketing efforts that were geographically dispersed. I loved working with new tools regularly and learning how communities altered the way our marketing efforts were responding.

Sample answer: I’m transitioning from prior experience in the medical field to an executive assistant role. For that fact, I don’t have administrative assistant experience directly. But I can say that my medical field experience helped me understand the predictive nature of work. And how to anticipate the needs of others. For me, this is about having empathy, keeping track of quantitative goals, and overseeing qualitative parts of the process that can lead to results. In the medical field, I accounted for more than 30 patients who had long-term care needs to be fully healed and went back home to their families. I assisted with patient care, coordination, scheduling, insurance claims, and other insurance credits that helped the hospital administrator and the hospital administrators’ goals.

Sample answer: I’m a recent graduate, meaning I lack work experience. But what I’d like to share with you are a few personal projects that I believe apply to measure my job abilities. I designed a web application that assisted web scraping. This provided data access to more than 10,000 developers and became a highlighted project on GitHub. I developed this software while I was in my senior year of education. I decided not to pursue an internship but rather invest my time building tools that you can access and use. During my tenure at Harvard University, I was able to obtain a 3.8 GPA as well as Magna Cum Laude honors for my work with our public library and our software engineering clubs. These experiences brought me to this opportunity because I wanted to be exposed to financial software and technology that aims to challenge a significant industry in America.

Example Poor Answer to “Tell Me About Yourself”

Below is a poor example of this tough interview question, using a past experience from personal life to structure the answer.

Sample answer: I was a rockstar college athlete and student. I didn’t even need to focus on school very much because it came so easy for me. I was confused about why other students had a difficult time in school. For me, things seemed to click pretty quickly. When I started my career, I began working at my dad’s power plant. He was the CEO of the business. And he taught me about operations and allowed me to be a Vice President within the company. Unfortunately, that fell apart, and now I’m seeking a new job where I can apply my skills and join a talented team. Do you have an expert team that I can work with?

Interview Answer Tips

Below are simple tips to help job seekers when answering this question:

  • Leave arrogance out of the answer. Humility and being humble will make the interviewer feel that the candidate can be a team player.
  • Provide insightful information. Use career accomplishments to stand out from other candidates.
  • Avoid personal stories. The purpose of the meeting is to perform a job interview; keep the focus of the conversation professional.
  • Ask friends for help. Practice with friends and ask for their feedback.
  • Ask a career expert. Whether it’s a career expert or performing an informational interview, seeking others' assistance can be helpful. Especially for job candidates who would define themselves as “introverts” and struggle with speaking about themselves.

It's not uncommon for the following interview questions to be, "Why should we hire you?" or "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" Job seekers should prepare to answer these interview questions following the prompt of this interview question.

Job seeker tip: Feeling confused on how to answer this interview question? One last way to build an answer to this question is to ask the advice of a mentor. This could be a close family friend who has years of professional experience. Or a previous manager who had a mutual connection with the candidate. Sit down with them and ask for career advice. Explain the issue and explain the lack of confidence in being able to describe who you are. From there, ask the mentor to provide an example answer of how they might describe themselves.

To learn more about common job interview questions, visit this resource.

author: patrick algrim
About the author

Patrick Algrim is an experienced executive who has spent a number of years in Silicon Valley hiring and coaching some of the world’s most valuable technology teams. Patrick has been a source for Human Resources and career related insights for Forbes, Glassdoor, Entrepreneur, Recruiter.com, SparkHire, and many more.

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