How to answer the question “Tell me about yourself” in a job interview

The Importance of First Impression
Getting into Interviewer’s Mindset
It’s All About What and Why
The Importance of Listening Skills
Summary

The Importance of First Impression

We have all probably heard that people tend to make judgments about their new acquaintances as quickly as in the very first seconds. For example, in an article about snap judgments by Chad Boutin from Princeton University he describes a research study that confirms that such judgments can be made just by a glance, without even hearing a word from the person!

By the same token, when you are invited to a job interview, the most impactful moment that contributes to at least 80% of the decision-making by the interviewer is this so common, so seemingly simple and at the same time one of the most challenging questions you will undoubtedly hear at the beginning:

So, tell me about yourself!

You may hear variations of this question. The interviewer may start with a bit of small talk, and then engage you in a real conversation with something like:

So, what do you do?

In both cases, and in any similar question where the interviewer invites you to introduce yourself, to present your so-called “elevator pitch”, this is your chance to make the first impression which will have tremendous impact on the further interview flow, and on this job opportunity.

To learn more on the subject of “elevator pitch”, especially if you are a startup founder or a small business owner, I recommend the book “One Perfect Pitch” by Marie Perruchet

But what about other commonly asked questions, you may wonder, such as “What are your weaknesses?” or “Tell me about some of your achievements” Aren’t they even more significant because they prompt for more detailed answers? And in general, what exactly does the interviewer have in mind while asking me all these questions?

Yes, those other questions have their place and value, and we will discuss them in our later conversations. For now, let me just mention briefly that all those “other” questions generally belong to either “tell us more” or “background checks” question types that either invite you to elaborate on some aspects of your “elevator pitch”, or to make sure there are no hidden catches that will disqualify you as a candidate.

As for the purpose of asking all these questions and how exactly your answers will help the interviewer to make the judgment, let’s start with understanding the context.

Getting into Interviewer’s Mindset

So, what does the interviewer expect to hear, and what exactly can you say and do to make an excellent first impression?

To create the right mental stage for comprehending the interviewer’s mindset, let’s try this exercise. Let’s imagine that it is YOU who is hiring someone to do some job for you. Perhaps you want to do a home kitchen renovation and you must choose between 3-4 contractors who offer you their services. You are a very busy person, so you have allocated 30 minutes for each contractor to hear what they have to say, and then you will have to move on to other tasks like other project deadlines, strategic meetings with your management (or with your girlfriend), etc. What do you want to hear from each contractor?

The most common questions would be:

  • What is it you can do for me?
  • What would it cost?
  • What would be your approach?
  • How quickly can I expect to see the first results, what would they be, and when can I expect the overall project to be completed?
  • How quickly can you start?
  • Can you give me some examples of your previous projects? Ideally, show me some photos or name some clients of yours.
  • Do you have any questions for me that would help you better understand my requirements?

Besides these explicitly asked questions, there will also be implicit things you will be looking for such as:

  • Do I feel comfortable interacting with this person?
  • Will I feel at ease while communicating with them if I commit to cooperating?
  • Do I have a feeling that we are compatible in our work styles, our values (for example, I wouldn’t want my kitchen renovator to smoke in my premises; I would like to be sure our understanding of quality standards is on par; I like when my requirements are understood quickly without the need to repeat them more than… hmm… ok, twice)?
  • Do I have a feeling they can have the job done, and done well?
  • Does this candidate fit better than others?
  • Can I afford this?

As you can see, implicit judgment has a lot to do with feelings and boils down to the main question:

  • Do we have a fit?

As we continue with our exercise and remember that it is YOU trying to choose among your kitchen renovation candidates, you will probably agree that you will actually make your decision based on IMPLICIT stuff rather than explicit, and the explicit questions you are asking will contribute to your ultimate feeling: “Do we have a fit?” Moreover, if you give this topic a little more thought you may discover that you have something like a vision of an ideal candidate in your mind…

Now let’s put ourselves in the shoes of our contractor candidate and imagine how they might answer your explicit questions in order to make you feel that they are a fit:

  • I can renovate your home kitchen in a way that will provide a feeling of luxury but will not be very expensive. This is, in my understanding, your main goal with this project, is this correct?
  • My approach to work, high-level, is this: once I know the requirements and the context, I will send you my suggested draft plan within a week; we then will work together on clarifying open items like Building Permits, other involved parties, etc. and then I will come up with the Final Plan within 2 weeks; after that... (more high-level steps follow). You can check my website for more on my methodology and approach to work, as well as past project examples.
  • I will start within 2 working days after our contract is signed.
  • After I familiarize myself with your requirements in more detail, I will then provide you with the cost estimate. Based on my current understanding, the range will be between X and Y.
  • I have a list of questions to help me better understand your requirements, can we go through my list quickly? First, can you describe a vision of what it will be like when it is done? Second, what is the allocated budget? Third... (more questions follow)

Does the above leave the impression that this contractor knows his stuff? For me, the answer is “absolutely yes.”

And what if their answer is like the one below?

— Hey, Natalie! By the way, I knew someone named Natalie, when I was back in college, we even dated for a while. It didn’t work out after all... OK, so my name is Nick, I am 42 years old, I have 2 kids, who, you may say, are not kids anymore – you know, one is a college student, another is graduating from high school this coming summer. They are good kids, you know, although a little lazy, I would say, they should study harder. My wife, however, likes reminding me of the years when we both were dating, you know, she keeps saying: “you were lazy just as they are, weren’t you?” Well, you know, she is right at that, which makes me laugh 😊 Anyways, what was the question, again?


So, what’s your impression? How interested are you, a potential client, in your contractor’s personal life? Not at all. You want the answers to be matter-of-fact and to the point and leave you with the feeling that you are not wasting your time. There is no better way to lose a potential employer or client than to show them disrespect, including disrespecting their time – the most valuable resource we can have.

Now let’s get back to our job interview situation and put ourselves into our interviewer’s shoes. Here I am as an interviewer, asking my candidate: “Tell me about yourself, Nick!” and here’s what I would like to hear:

  • This is what I can do for you based on my understanding of your needs.
  • These are the relevant things I’ve done in the past;
  • These are my ways of achieving the results / This is what makes me successful at what I do;
  • I want to be sure our work styles are compatible, so I have a few questions to know your situation better...

This person shows me that they respect my time, and not only mine – they respect their own time as well!

To summarize (and Mr. Simon is nodding in agreement), the answer to the “Tell Me About Yourself” is the foundation, the cornerstone for further conversation. And if you now wondering about what exactly the cornerstone is, go and read Dictionary.com which says the following:

Now that we understand the general concept of why this question is asked and what the answer is supposed to include, let’s get down to more specifics that will help you present your best self.


It’s All About What and Why

As we saw in the above example, you are not particularly interested in the “Who” of your contractor candidate: his personal life, his age, his family situation, his hobbies. Rather, you want to know the “What” and “Why”:

  • What can you do for me?
  • What makes you sure you can do that?
  • Why should I believe you?
  • What’s in it for you? In other words, why are you interested in this job?
  • Why should I choose you over others?

Not necessarily in the above order, of course.

To give you an example, I once interviewed a man named Alan for a position of Project Manager in data privacy industry, and here’s his answer that I liked:

  • From what I understand, you are looking for a new team member for your new digital product related to Data Privacy, for a Project Manager who can ensure clarity, accountability, team engagement and most importantly, progression towards goals in a highly agile environment. I am excited about this opportunity because Agile Project Management is exactly what I have been doing in my last few roles, I am known for my organization and engagement skills, I am a very goal-oriented person, and I am passionate about Data Privacy! My last project involved implementation of a digital product where I was responsible, among other things, for defining requirements for the “Privacy by Design” principle for a customer-facing system. It is now in beta-testing, and I have received more than 20 feedback statements specifically praising how easily and smartly this principle was implemented. I would be happy to join the Data Privacy project and learn from the experts in this field. Could you tell me more about the project team?

In addition to being very matter-of-fact, he was nice and friendly and capable of listening and adjusting his assumptions on the go. You could say from his demeanor that he was agile by nature!

We did hire Alan and never regretted our decision. I assure you it is always a pleasure for a business-oriented person to meet someone who appreciates the most valuable assets on Earth – time, and the modern workplace does demand being business-oriented.


The Importance of Listening Skills

To give you a sample of answers to avoid, I remember interviewing someone named Victoria for the role of an Executive Assistant. Victoria was quite a conversationalist which may have been fine in social context, However, the purpose of the interview was obviously related to the job she was interviewing for, and that was by no means a job of a radio host or a DJ where, I figure, the more you talk the better.

So, our 30 minutes of a face-to-face consisted of a dialog very much like this:

  • So, Victoria, tell me about yourself.
  • Well, you know, it’s really kind of difficult, actually (laughing). I have been in so many roles throughout my life. Like, you know, as my former colleague David Swenson used to tell me when we were working together on that Minnesota Bridge project, he said: you should never stop searching for yourself... He was quite an extraordinary person, David, I should tell you. I don’t think he should have messed up with that guy who is now in politics, Jim Langley. David actually introduced me to Langley a few years ago, and we had almost signed a contract with his company, he was in that Multinational Construction Agency at that time until they discovered all the hush-hush with that tax stuff, you have read about it, right?
  • Not really...
  • You didn’t? He was the first one to...

It is not necessary to continue; I am sure you are getting it. I assure you it was exactly like this for the whole 30 minutes I survived, being myself a polite person. I guess the extreme suffering may have been written in my face – unfortunately, Victoria did not see it, she was too preoccupied with the stories from her past, and I suspect she was not the kind to notice much around herself...

To nail it, there was an ending to that story which I think was the funniest: at the end of the 30 minutes, when I had a chance to ask Victoria why she thought she may be a good fit for us, she looked at me with astonishment:

  • Well, how can I tell? I know pretty much nothing about this job or the company!

Although she may have been a gifted person. Victoria had little chance of someone hiring her because she was too full of herself. They say that everyone is ultimately interested in themselves, and that includes a hiring manager who is interested in their own objectives, and not in the least in Victoria’s glorious past. She had her chance of learning and listening, but she instead spent it on talking about completely irrelevant things.


Summary

— Hey Natalie, enough beating around the bush! – you will say impatiently at this point. — Just give me the essence, what exactly should I do to create that awesome first impression? How do I give the best possible answer to the question “Tell me about yourself”?

We are only discussing soft skills in this article which are relevant for pretty much everyone, while hard skills are of course different depending on the job.

Agreed. Let’s summarize what factors will contribute to the decision of the hiring manager, whether the candidate qualifies as a “perfect fit”. Here is my list:

  • Show yourself as a matter-of-fact person, which includes staying on point and respecting time,
  • Demonstrate enthusiasm about the job you are applying for,
  • Show that you have the qualities it will take to get the job done, like being goal-oriented, adaptable, capable of teamwork, taking initiative or assuming a leadership role, communication, and listening skills,
  • Be memorable,
  • Sound and behave naturally.

In our future posts, we will take a closer look at each of the above factors and will review multiple samples, both positive and negative. In addition, we will discuss how the answer to the question “Tell me about yourself” may have different nuances depending on whether you are:

  • An introvert or an extravert,
  • In a phone interview vs face-to-face interview,
  • A recent graduate (“first-timer”) or a seasoned professional,
  • Pursuing a straightforward career path, or changing industries or job role,
  • Currently employed, or have a gap in employment.

Meanwhile, you can practice answering over 150 common job interview questions by engaging in a mock interview with Mr. Simon. As an artificial being, his undeniable benefits include:

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