It’s a question you’ll hear in virtually every interview, phone screening or informational session:
So…tell me about yourself.
Maybe the interviewer isn’t so blunt—maybe they’ll couch the question as, where do you see yourself in five years? Or, what’s your big picture goal? But, at the end day, this incredibly common icebreaker question is the same. And, despite being so broad and open-ended it’s tough to answer—and even harder to answer in a smart, strategic and forward-moving way.
So what’s a hiring manager or HR lead looking for when they ask this question? In short, A LOT. While the question itself seems pretty free-form, the interviewer is looking for a taste of what makes you the right candidate for this role. The fact that you’re married, have kids, love traveling or are training for a triathlon aren’t. Neither is the job you had at age 12 or the things you don’t like about your current position. Why? Because, not only is personal information not relevant to the position, offering up too much could plant doubt in an interviewer’s mind—in other words, show them the reasons your personal life could compete with your work life or red flags you’ve bubbled to the surface that make you seem less than ideal for the position.
The secret to maximizing the tell me about yourself Q&A? Position yourself as the ideal candidate by bringing your strengths and attributes front-and-center. Organize your thoughts, then script your response and practice. This isn’t a question you should be tackling off the cuff, no matter how experienced you are interviewing.
Here’s how to prep like a pro:
1. Play to your strengths by, first, understanding your strengths
When a hiring manager asks this question, they’re looking for skills, strengths and prior work experience you already have that relate directly to the position. For this exercise, list out four to six strengths—good communication, research work, classroom experience, publishing experience—that, typically, sync with positions in your field. From there, narrow down the list to three to five traits you’d want an interviewer to remember about you. Those should be foundation of your response.
2. Touch on the personal—maybe
While you don’t want to get TOO personal in your initial Q&A, if you have personal interests or attributes you feel paint a positive, relevant picture, be sure to weave them in. For example, volunteer work in your field is generally seen as an overwhelming positive, and another testament to your experience and commitment. Likewise, being an avid writer or reader, or spending time on a hobby like astronomy, music or art shows off your intellectual curiosity which, for many hiring managers, is a huge plus.
If you’re going to focus on some of these outside interests, be sure you layer them in towards the end of your response. Limit yourself to one to two short statements, and make sure there’s a clear segue from your professional achievements and experiences into this corner of your day-to-day.
3. Do a little research
As you’re preparing for your interview, be sure to research a bit on the institution’s culture, reputation and general philosophies. It’s not necessary—or advised—to drill down on each them in your interview but, if there are connections you can make between your experiences, work history and other strengths and capabilities, it definitely doesn’t hurt. If the hiring manager see you as a natural fit for their institution, your interview—and your candidate path—will likely be much smoother, much faster and much more seamless.
4. Organize your talking points
With the pieces outlined, the final step is to organize it all into a cohesive, succinct script. A good response starts with past experiences and concrete successes, then moves into strengths and capabilities relevant to the position. After that, plan to close with a short statement about where you are now and where you want to be. Here’s an example:
I’ve been working as an associate professor of structural engineering at University of Battle Creek for the last six years. Working with the School of Civil Engineering team, I was able to help build out the university’s profile as an engineering leader. My work involved significant teaching responsibilities as well as mentoring, coaching student researchers and developing and executing meaningful research initiatives.
STRENGTHS & CAPABILITIES
Through this role I’ve had the opportunity to hone my skills in the classroom and out, while becoming a leader in the department, the school and the campus community. I’ve also developed a strong publishing portfolio and gained meaningful connections in the academic and engineering industries that have helped me identify new opportunities for my students and the school.
During my “off-campus” time, I mentor through Engineers Without Borders, and serve on several of their committees. It’s a great way to connect with engineering students and new engineers, and really help some amazing communities.
Looking ahead, I would love to find a university with a developing civil engineering program, where I can apply my work, insights and expertise to help their team and their students grow and thrive.
And when you’re done jotting down your script? Practice—then practice again. The more confident you feel in your response, the better and more naturally you’ll deliver it. That said, don’t try to memorize it—you don’t want to sound like a robot. But you do want to have a clear understanding of your talking points and the concepts you want to hit in your interview so you can sound self-assured and well-aligned with the interviewer and the position. Get this early question “right,” and you’ll be coming at the rest of the interview from a place of strength, with the momentum and one-on-one connection that, more often than not, defines a successful job interview.
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