How to answer the "Tell me about yourself" question

The most popular interview question is "Tell me about yourself" and you'll probably be asked it at the beginning of your interview, no matter what kind of job you're applying for.

The question might not be asked in exactly these words – "Walk me through your resume" and "Walk me through your background" are common variations. 

 

Use this Formula to Answer the Common Interview Question "Tell Me About Yourself"

Your answer should be a short summary to define you professionally, customized for the job. 

It should be:

  • Short (less than one minute)
  • Focused on the job you're applying for

You can't give all your experience in one minute, so you need to remove details until you only have the most relevant information about you. 

But what details should you choose?

Here's the Formula for Answering This Question

 
                               Overview + Experience + Why
 

1. Overview Statement – Tell Us Who You Are Professionally

Good: “I’m an innovative software engineer with 20 years of experience managing all aspects of the development process for small to medium-sized companies.”

This sentence gives a simple summary of a long series of jobs.

Think of the sentence like this: "I'm an X X with X years of experience doing X for X X."

Use the same sentence structure but replace the X's with your words.

The double X's are adjective + noun, like "innovative software engineer" or "medium-sized tech companies."

Adding the word "innovative" puts the focus on your innovation skills. You can change the word or words you use here to target the qualities needed for the job (look at the job description for ideas). 

Bad: “I'm a Support Specialist at Lucent Lighting now. I handle everything after the initial sale – the ordering, troubleshooting, invoicing, etc. Before that I was a voiceover artist and I had my own company.”

These jobs are so different that I'm confused as to your identity. What ties them all together?

When you have different kinds of experience on your resume you need to start with an overview statement that shows who you are. 

2. The Most Relevant Examples of Your Experience

This section can be one to five sentences long. I personally feel like more than three is too many.

Tip: If you have 20 years of experience you won't be able to talk about every job. Pick two to four of the most relevant examples. If you've only been working for one year, it should be easier to summarize your experience, but choose relevant projects and highlight relevant skills.

Good: “My last job was at Sephora, where I was in charge of the West Coast marketing team. We designed customer attraction and retention plans beginning from the market research stage. Our 2017 goal was a 2% revenue increase over 2016 and we got 3%.”

This answer emphasizes relevant experience and gives proof of performance using numbers (percentages). 

Bad: “My first job was as an administrative assistant for a realty company in Tampa. I learned a great deal in that role but wanted to move into a more customer oriented job, so I became a sales rep at Home Depot. I also volunteered at our community theatre as a mentor to the young actors.”

There is nothing in these answers that shows a clear career path.  What is the theme of these jobs? What groups them together? If your career path isn't clear you need to make it clear. Start with an overview statement and then relate the next sentences to the overview.

3. Why Are You Here Applying for Their Job?

  • Tell them you want this job
  • Tell them why you want it

Good: “I'd like to learn new project management skills by taking on more complicated assignments, which is why this position as Senior Project Manager really excites me.”

Short and positive.

Bad: “Because my relationship with my boss isn't very good, I want to find new opportunities.”

You don't want to say negative things about your current or past jobs, especially about your managers. Also, this answer doesn't talk about the job you are applying for specifically. 

 

Here's the formula again:

 

                            Overview + Experience + Why
 

This formula is easy to use if your career path is clear.

If you are a software developer and have had 20 jobs developing software for mobile banking apps, and you are applying to a job where you develop software for mobile banking apps –

in other words, you have 20 years of experience doing X, and you are applying for a job doing X –

you don't need to spend too much time coming up with a great overview statement – just say – 

"I have 20 years of experience doing X." 

If your experience clearly matches the job description, don't overthink the overview.

There is a lot of information out there talking about "branding yourself" and using "summary statements" and "elevator pitches" but if your career path is clear this is unnecessary.

I had a client last week who was confused about how to answer this question. He had read about "summary statements," so I explained to him that saying he was a "software developer with 20 years of experience developing mobile banking apps" WAS a great summary statement. Sure, he could add a few words to it, but he didn't need to think of something more complicated because this statement summarizes his professional experience AND says why he wants this job.

However, this formula can be harder to use if your experience isn't a straight line. You might have changed industries or changed job types or gone back to school in a different area, so your resume doesn't tell a simple story.

If this is your situation, your overview statement has to explain your professional identity clearly. It has to give a reason you've done different things that don't relate to each other. 

For example, the client I had recently who was a voiceover artist and ran his own company had trouble with his answer. He had had many jobs over the years to supplement his income from his company, but they weren't his primary focus and they weren't all the same type of job. For this reason it was harder for him to explain why he was at the interview. 

This was his first try at an overview statement: “I'm a Support Specialist at Lucent Lighting now. I handle everything after the initial sale –the ordering, troubleshooting, invoicing, etc. Before that I was a voiceover artist and had my own company.”

You can see how it doesn't have one clear theme. When he was applying for a job as a writer, he wasn't giving a reason that they would want to hire him. 

He added this as his overview statement and then got the job, "I've always loved working with words, both in talking to people as a salesman and reading other people's work as a voiceover artist." 

Good Example Answer for "Tell Me About Yourself"

"I've been working in product for about a decade now. Most of my experience has been in ecommerce and retail, but I also have some SaaS experience. I'm passionate about creating long-term value for the customer, especially in the EdTech space. Your company's mission matches up perfectly with where I'm looking to go next, so I'm glad to have this opportunity to speak to you about it.

The first sentence is an overview of her career.

The next two sentences talk about her experience, giving details about the industries and her focus. 

She ends by saying why she likes the company and wants the job. 

How Not to Answer "Tell Me About Yourself"

I've given you a framework that should help you create your answer. Here are some tips for what NOT to do:

1. Don't include too many details

"Walk me through your resume" (or other versions of this question) does not mean explain every task you did at every job you've had.

I had a client recently with 20 years of experience as a developer. He was applying to a more senior developer job, so his past experience was all relevant. 

When I asked him to tell me about himself, he told me about each job. He used five to ten sentences for each job. As you can imagine, the answer was over five minutes – four minutes too long. 

We worked on removing details. For some people (like many technically oriented people) details are very important. These people can have a hard time removing details or being general rather than specific.

Just remember, interviews are conversations, not speeches. Say a few sentences, and then wait for them to ask you a question. Don't try to give all the details in your first answer.

2. Don't give personal info

The answer to this question should include professional information only. Don't talk about your hobbies, don't talk about your family, don't talk about your personal life, and don't include your age. (I don't know why, but a lot of people start out by giving their name and age.)

You can talk about your nationality if it's relevant. For instance, if you're from China but you're interviewing in the US, you can say that you were born in Beijing, went to school in Canada, and have been living for New York for two years. Otherwise we don't need to know where you're from. 

If you're a young person and have had interviews for school before but never for a job, you may still be thinking of things like "extracurricular activities" as being important. They're not relevant in a job interview.

Of course, you may get to these topics during small talk, but don't mention them in answers to the interview questions. 

3. Don't ask "What do you mean?" or "What kind of information are you looking for?"

If you don't know how to answer this question, you're showing that you haven't prepared for your interview. 

Don't ask your interviewer what kind of information they want. A lot of people do this in interviews and it's a bad idea. 

Just answer the question like I've shown you. 

4. Don't memorize your answers and then recite them

I wrote another post about how some people (many of them Asian) write their answers and then memorize them. When they give their answers they sound like robots. This isn't good. 

The goal for interviews is to make your speech natural, like a conversation between two people, not like the answer to a test.

I know this is harder to do if English isn't your first language, but it's better to have imperfect English than to have a perfect answer that sounds mechanical.

Bad Example Answer for "Tell Me About Yourself"

This is an answer that one of my interview prep clients wrote in preparation for her upcoming interviews as a financial analyst at larger investment firms. I've changed the details. 

"My name is Sarah. I was born and raised in China, and I went to Canada when I was 16 years old. I earned my Bachelor’s degree of mathematics from the University of Toronto. My majors are Actuarial Science and Statistics, Minor in Economics. After that, I obtained my Master’s degree in Statistics from Stanford University.

I grew up in a family with both my parents working in finance industries. I was exposed to the finance world at a very young age.

Because I want to learn more about the industry, I actually started interning at various firms.

For example, from the beginning of 2016, I became a venture partner at Symos Capital. I worked closely with the CEO to expand the business and led a team of 6 members to source potential investments and it resulted in more than 30 startup funding applications. More importantly, I participated in investment processes. Through which, I helped the team to conduct financial modeling, extensive market research and due diligence.

Moreover, I also worked for various companies. Such as a macroeconomic data company and an education company. Through these experiences, my analytical skills improved and my business acumen became stronger. I really enjoyed doing analytical works and work in a fast paced environment and also multi-tasking.

As a whole, these experiences really strengthened my interest in investment banking because I know you work on a lot of projects and I am very passionate in doing due diligence, analysis, research and financial modeling. I also realized that I want to be part of a company that helps connect investors to promising firms.

The reason why I am here today is because Merrill Lynch advised many influential transactions. I want to be part of a team that works on those meaningful deals. Also, I had a chance to work with employees from your global investment research team through the analytics firm I worked for. I was impressed that your employees were extremely organized, efficient and thorough, requesting a broad range of data during our project. So, I believe Merrill Lynch can also provide me with a well-rounded skill set and help me advance my career in the finance and investment world."

This is a boring answer

This actually sounds like an essay, not an attention-grabbing personal statement. 

This answer is typical for a technical person (finance people included) and typical for an Asian (she is Chinese)

How to make this answer better

How can she give a serious answer to this question without being boring? After all, she's interviewing at a prestigious finance company in New York City. She needs to sound smart.

1. Keep it short

Her answer took about 2.5 minutes to say. This is too long. Answers should be under a minute. People stop listening after 30 seconds.

2. Remember the formula: overview, experience, why

Overviews are to grab attention and summarize. There is nothing attention grabbing about saying you have a Bachelor's in something.

This client used her education as her overview, but this isn't the most important thing about her. Everyone applying to financial jobs has roughly the same education, and if you're at the interview it means your education was acceptable to the company. Your experience is what matters here. She should have condensed her experience into a good overview statement and then given details. 

Her why came before her experience, which also is not a good idea. 

3. Show your social skills

When you go to an interview, they already have your resume and LinkedIn profile, so they know you have the right education and experience. Now they want to see your interpersonal skills, your facial expressions, and your fashion sense. 

Do you know how to have a conversation comfortably? Are you nice to people?

Do you smile when you shake someone's hand, make enough eye contact (but not too much), and nod your head when listening? Do you vary the tone of your voice so you aren't speaking in a monotone?  

Are your clothes similar to what other people at the company are wearing?  You should be wearing the same type of clothes as your interviewer, so they know you'll be a good fit for the company culture.

4. Give information, but not too much

This goes along with keep it short, but it's important so I'll say it again. If you try to talk for too long, your interviewer will stop listening. 

I know you want to give details to convince them that you are perfect for the job, but it's not the details that are going to convince them, it's the way you speak and the way you look. 

Remember, they already know you are smart enough to do the job. Show them that you are smart enough to have a normal conversation. Normal conversations are dialogues, not monologues.

I hope this post helped you understand how to answer the question "Tell me about yourself." If you need more help preparing for your interview, email me at jennifer@interviewgenie.com to schedule a consultation.

Interview Genie is an interview prep company. I specialize in coaching non-native English speakers for admissions interviews or job interviews.

We'll work together on answers to questions you'll be asked in your interview. From communicating with your interviewer before the interview to greeting your interviewer and using the right body language in your interview, I'm focused on your interview success every step of the way.