“So, tell us about yourself.”
The very first time I encountered the “Tell us about yourself” statement, I thought it was a very considerate gesture to make me feel at ease and share a little about myself as a person and on how to prepare for interview questions. You see, I was raised in the South where a host is known to go above and beyond to make their guests feel at home.
The interview, ironically, is not one of those occasions. Even though I have interviewed with some very nice hiring managers, the hiring manager is not “hosting” the job candidate and the candidate’s comfort is not their first concern. To say I was naïve, unprepared, and mistaken in my interpretation of the purpose of the statement is an understatement. To admit that I offered everything they probably did not want to hear is humbling, especially as I look back on all I know now.
I want you to realize that this “Tell us about yourself” statement is an odd one. It’s normally offered with a slight inflection of tone that makes it feel like a question, but it is not an opportunity to tell whatever story you feel like telling.
So why does this statement exist?
Basically, it is a kind way of asking, “What experiences brought you here?”
It is often offered as an opener at the beginning of an interview and has several purposes. It is unstructured, designed to see if you can think on your feet from the first moment, as well as capture what you feel is important to share for the new position. This last point may be the most important as whatever you offer determines the rest of the interview. No pressure….
Even the most prepared candidate can be caught by surprise because this statement is very much like the starting gun at a race—it signals that the interview has begun. Take a deep breath… and… go!
So how do you prepare to “tell us about yourself”?
Let’s consider that this is the starting point of many interviews. It is polite and considered a positive social norm. The Interview Guys offer this insight: First, it is an unstructured question, which is designed to throw someone off balance and get them away from their memorized and practiced answers. Second, it lets the interviewer get a feel for the candidate’s responsiveness. Put another way, the interviewer gets to see how fast they can think on their feet. Here’s the rub: there’s no excuse to let yourself be caught off guard. Since this question is often—if not always—asked, there is no reason not to be prepared and practiced in what to say when it happens. The only candidates who can truly be caught off guard are those who are not prepared.
What NOT to do
In addition to understanding what the question is about, it’s also important to understand what the interviewer is NOT asking. Pamela Skillings of BigInterview.com agrees that you are NOT being asked to regurgitate your resume or cover letter, ramble on for 10 minutes about things outside your work knowledge, or offer details about your life that you would include on a first date. This sounds difficult until you realize what you have left to offer. You can explain what values or experiences align you with the position and share what interests you in the position and the organization.
Where to start
Kathryn Minshew of themuse.com may offer one of the freshest approaches I’ve come across for preparing for this opportunity. She’s devised a formula that helps you adapt your answers quickly to the company and their values. This helps when you have several interviews in a short amount of time and they are for similar positions or industries.
She suggests that once you have researched the organization and the job description to determine what the company values as far as the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) they are looking for in a future employee, collect an example of what you do presently that aligns with those and reinforce it with another example from your past. In the interview, talk about both of these examples and finish with why you are excited about this opportunity for your future. If you would like to do this in a linear fashion, then you can start with the past and then move to present and future. Either way, it is a 1-2-3 step approach to painting a picture of why you are applying for that job with that company.
Example: Why don’t you tell us about yourself?
Happy to! (present example) I’m currently a food technology facilitator responsible for developing, organizing, and procuring all resources, instructors, and registrants for professional development for our member companies so that they can stay on top of new food technology in the candy and snack industry. (past example) This role stemmed from my love of nutrition and fun food when I studied nutrition in college, and (future) I am looking to utilize the depth of my experience and my food technology connections to help develop new business opportunities for your new division.
Is that all I need to do?
Well, it could be, as you’ve taken the time to lay out present, past, and future information that showcases your KSAs in action and where you are excited to take your career. That said, you CAN take it to the next level by adding a “showcase story” of your skills in action. Here’s what I mean. Let’s say you were asked the token “tell us about yourself” and you talked about what you are currently doing now, how that built on something from your past, and what you are excited to do in the future by working in this position. Then you share a story that provides an example of what you do well.
(same as above) I’m currently a food technology facilitator responsible for developing, organizing, and procuring all resources, instructors, and registrants for professional development workshops. These workshops are for our member companies who aim to stay on top of innovative technology in the food and snack industry. This role stemmed from my love of nutrition and enjoying food when I studied nutrition in college, and I am looking to utilize the depth of my experience and my food technology connections to help develop new business opportunities for your new snack foods division.
(showcase story) Maybe it would be easier if I shared a story. I was at my desk when I received the news that a prestigious university was willing to sponsor—with equipment!—our largest workshop for our members. But the timeline to use their facility cut into my prep time by 60%! By being organized and using my network I was able to attract subject matter experts to step up and volunteer their time, get companies to donate ingredients, and attract a full class of paying registrants. Ultimately I coordinated what has become a long standing partnership between the university, expert instructors, and ingredient companies, and it’s still an ongoing yearly program that equates to 50% of the annual workshop budget. That experience taught me the value of professional relationships and how to honor what people value and identify when those values align with the goals of an organization. It allows me to have access now to experts that I hold in high regard, and they know I value what they do as well. I look forward to understanding how to maximize that network to support your success.
This type of approach and story allows the interviewers to see your skills “in action” and sets the tone for the rest of the interview in your favor—provided your examples support the expectations of the new role.
In my research, I have found that I am not alone in flubbing the “tell us about yourself” opportunity. I have also found that, like me, others are passionate to support those who need to shine in the interview and land the position. I hope you find this information helpful. If so, please share—I look forward to hearing your story as you utilize this information. To add to this, here is a link for a free eBook on InterviewingUP.
Download our eBook: Interviewing UP
Interviews fall short if you don’t learn how to be relevant, both in understanding your own success and how it aligns with the job you want (and what the company wants from you). Interviewing UP shows you how to stop reaching for canned answers and start rising to the occasion with relevant information.