The number one sure fire question that you will be asked in an interview is “Tell me about yourself” or some variation of it. Most people know this, and as simple as it sounds, it’s the one that many stumble over.

Why? Because it’s open-ended.

Mostly when we answer interview questions (or any question, for that matter), there’s a part of our brain analyzing the purpose for why the question was asked, and in turn, reshaping our answer in hopes to achieve that assumed purpose.

But what’s the purpose with the tell me about yourself question?

First of all, it’s an easy launch into the conversation, and truly a chance to start out the interview on a strong note. It’ll probably be the longest chunk of time that is solely focused on you talking (expected: 3-7 minutes). Because of this, it’s important to note that interviewers are analyzing your communication skills. How organized are your thoughts? How confident are you in sharing these facts? Are you making eye contact or drawing invisible lines on the table with your thumb?

You may already know to not share personal information that’s unrelated to the job, and that’s completely true. If you head into a direction that makes HR cringe, they’ll be more careful about the other questions they ask you and will work to keep the interview surface-level, which won’t benefit you.

On the flip side, you may have heard that the Tell Me About Yourself question is the time to recap your prior work experiences. The true answer to this is: yes and no.

Do not recap your work experiences as though you’re reading directly from your resume.

Interviewers have seen your resume. That’s why you’re sitting there with them. More than likely, they have it right in front of them while they’re speaking with you. You do not need to recap exactly what they’ve already seen (tell all your friends!). Frankly, it kicks the interview off on a boring note. This is your first impression face-to-face so you want to launch with a bang.

When you are presented with the “tell me about yourself” question, this is your time to summarize why you are the best person for this job. I know summarize is a word that many people use for the ending of an interview, but the introduction is just as important.

Here is the best tip I can give you: know yourself.

This sounds obvious, but I’m shocked by how many people cannot properly state (and with confidence) their unique traits. We all have a set of traits that defines who we are as people, but not enough people put the energy toward defining those qualities and seeing the correlation between those traits and their successes.

My favorite word for these traits are strengths. These are the things that you’re naturally great at and you’ve seen the proof appear time and again in your life. Embrace those strengths! Please don’t try to be a cookie cutter version of what you think recruiters are looking for. Your combination of strengths are unique to you and they could be exactly what the company needs– but they won’t know that if you don’t know what your strengths are.

Answer the “Tell Me About Yourself” Question with These Steps:

1) Pick 3-5 traits that define you and are applicable to the job you’re applying for.

2) Look at your resume and weave those 3-5 traits into the reasons for your work/education history.

3) Link the traits and your history into your interest in the job you’re applying for.

4) Bring every single point back to why you’re sitting in that room today to be their number one candidate for the job.

Let me provide an example. My top traits include my interpersonal, leadership and analytical skills and a lifelong learning desire. So I may say something like this…

“I have 15 years of human resources experience, a field I knew I was passionate about early in life due to my interpersonal and analytical strengths and natural abilities to align people with their passions. It’s why double-majoring in psychology and sociology was such an easy decision and later, my MBA with the Human Resources focus once I had five years of HR under my belt and knew it was a field I wanted to remain in. Since I desired a wide range of experience to position myself to be a great fit for a role exactly like the one I’m interviewing for today, I spent two years in payroll, two in benefits, four in systems, and seven in recruiting and consulting. My relentless desire to learn was also my motivation to study for and receive my SPHR certification. The Director position will be the perfect opportunity for me to expand on my leadership skills, a strength that my current supervisor regularly applauds me on, while bringing in the human resources perspective of launching new systems to help your company during the technological transitional period mentioned in the ad.”

Do you see how I (1) weaved my unique & applicable traits (2) into my prior history, (3) linked them into why they make me a fit for the job and (4) how it all led to why I’m sitting in the interview with them today.

It seems like a lot and it is. But I recommend writing it down in paragraph form like above and practice reciting it to make it sound natural. If you’re not great at memorizing things, don’t hesitate putting the bullet points in your notes and bringing those to the interview with you. No one will blink twice about that. Would you rather refer to your notes when you need to or miss out on your big chance to convey why you’re a stellar candidate?

If you are fresh out of college, the same tips apply. Weave your 3-5 strengths into why you chose the major you did and how they’ve helped you in any classroom, clubs, volunteer or work experiences that relate to the job and raises you as the best candidate for the position you’re applying for.

Example: “From an early age, I’ve been mechanically inclined, driven to take apart computers and phones to discover how they’re made, fix them, and put them back together. Naturally, my first job in high school was the Geek Squad where I discovered I have a knack for system and network exploitation and the abilities to communicate IT language to customers in a clear and concise way. That experience and my analytical strengths led me to my Intelligence and Cyber Operations Bachelor’s degree, which I will be graduating with in two months. My final research paper topic is what led to me applying for this job because I discovered….”

(Note: it’s easy to assume that there’s not much to talk about if you’re fresh out of college, but indeed, as the example above, there is much more you can relate to the position you’re applying for by pulling in related projects, experiences, etc that led you to be the best candidate for the position at hand.)

If you are struggling with how to define who you are, I would highly recommend taking a personality assessment. There are hundreds of assessments out there that you can use to give you a start on this, but the one I would recommend the most on a professional level is the Strengths Finder 2.0 by the Gallup organization. (Yes, you can google it to see a list of the 34 strengths and choose which ones fit you, but I recommend going through the book and formal assessment so you have a better idea of what those strengths actually mean in your life.) My top five strengths are: relator, connectedness, input, intellect, learner and you can see how they all would fit into the first example I gave above.

You don’t need a formal assessment to know your strengths, but this is just another tip to impress interviewers.

My advice for every single person applying for a job is this: get into the mind of the hiring manager. If they’re sitting in 10 interviews back-to-back, and you come along, are your answers aligning with the requests they put in the job ad?

How can you communicate to them that you are the best candidate for the job? Know yourself, explain how those traits shaped your history, and relate how together those traits and history have positioned you to come into this new job.

The best and most memorable interviews I’ve had are those that feel like a conversation and not like a game of tennis as one person serves and the other person hits. That’s truly what all of my interview tips lead to: getting you comfortable with conversing as you, not just robotically answering questions. Interviewers/recruiters are people too, not machines, and they truly want to get to know you to find the right fit.

Resume Revamp Guide

Don’t forget that even if you are stellar at interviewing, your resume is still your first impression, and the one that lasts the longest, far after the interview is over. For guidance on how to revamp yours so that it gets past the applicant tracking systems and impresses the recruiters, check out my Resume Revamp Guide.