At the beginning of virtually any job interview you will undoubtedly be asked what are commonly referred to as “warm-up” questions. For example, you might be asked, “Tell me why you think you might be the person for this job?” Or perhaps one like this: “Describe for me what you do in your current job.” But you can almost be absolutely guaranteed to be asked this one: “Tell me about yourself.”
While most job candidates have little if any difficulty answering the first two example questions, a surprising number of candidates seem to entirely miss the point when answering the “tell me about yourself” question.
Actually, when most hiring managers or other hiring professionals ask you, “Tell me about yourself,” the very last thing they actually want you to do is, well, to tell them about yourself!
How do most candidates answer this question? Normally, the answer goes along these lines:
“Well, let me see . . . I grew up on a dairy farm just outside Green Bay, WI, and of course I am a BIG Green Bay Packers fan! You can’t live in Green Bay without being a Packer’s fan, you know, etc., etc., etc.”
Some candidates continue to detail their entire life history and don’t become aware that they have gone far, far afield until they see the hiring professional’s eye begin to glaze over!
Am I suggesting that a hiring professional doesn’t care to learn anything personal about you, the candidate, at this point? Yes, that’s precisely what I am suggesting! What the hiring professional is usually laser-focused on at this very early stage of the game is just one thing: Finding the very best candidate to fill an open position at his or her company. If you were to become the candidate of choice, the hiring professional may then want to learn more about your personal life and background, but until that time. . . .
OK, so how should you answer the “Tell me about yourself” question?
In our executive recruiting firm, The Hire to Win Group, we coach candidates we present to our hiring company clients to use a THREE-PART approach to answering the “Tell me about yourself” question. (Parts 1 and 2 can normally be used from interview to interview, while Part 3 needs to be customized for each unique career opportunity.)
Normally, the first part of the answer will consist of a one-sentence statement of your career history, i.e., essentially the condensed version of your entire career. But that’s not as challenging as perhaps it might first appear. Here is an example of how you might accomplish that goal:
“I am a five-year veteran of LAN/WAN administration and systems engineering, with substantial experience using a variety of contemporary business software systems.”
This part consists of a one- OR two-sentence summary of a single career accomplishment that you are especially proud of and one that you can reasonably expect to capture the hiring manager’s attention and interest. It must, however, be an accomplishment that can easily be explained and/or illustrated. Plus, it must also highlight a “bottom-line” impact for the potential employer. Here is an example:
“Recently, as a long-term contract employee at a local regional bank, I learned that the bank was about to install a particular software system and was planning to use an outside firm for the project. I let them know that I had done a similar installation at my last assignment, outlined how we could get the job done with in-house staff and successfully complete the installation for $55,000 to $65,000 less than it would have cost with outside consultants.”
This final part of the answer is the most dynamic, as well as the part that must be customized for each unique career opportunity. It should be a one- OR two-sentence summary of specifically what you seek in your next career move AND it must be relevant to the position being sought. Here is how you might construct this final part of your answer:
“For the next step in my career, I would like to move away from contract work and find myself as a direct employee of a large firm where I can join a substantial IT team and be involved with a group that focuses on email and network security applications, while having access to the knowledge base that would come with a large, diverse IT group.”
Obviously, you would tailor your answer to fit your unique skill set and professional discipline, but the principles and approach featured in this example would nonetheless apply. And, of course, you wouldn’t break up your answer into individual parts as I’ve illustrated here. Rather, all three parts would constitute your entire answer. This example answer, by the way, would take about one-minute to deliver.
By using this approach to answer the “Tell me about yourself” question, you will clearly and quickly brand yourself as a true professional, someone who knows the value of what you have to offer a potential employer. It will also set you widely and distinctly apart from the overwhelming majority of your “competition,” i.e., those other candidates interviewing for the same position(s) as you!
You will immediately have the hiring manager’s attention, and gain her respect, with an answer like this. On the other hand, most other candidates for the position you seek more than likely will see fit to drone on and on about their life histories. The hiring manager’s eyes will glaze over, she will begin to slump in her chair. And, she will soon be looking for a way to quickly end those interviews so she can get to the type of candidate she seeks to fill her open position—a candidate like YOU!
This post is a modified excerpt from Career Stalled?, Skip’s latest book in the“Headhunter” Hiring Secrets Series of Career Development & Management Publications.