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Tell Me About Yourself

It's the dreaded interview question. Here's how to nail it.

By Robert Shannon

Grammatically, "Tell me about yourself," is not even a question. It's an open invitation to offer up anything you want to impress the interviewer and land the job. But all too often, interviewees find themselves frozen in the moment, unable to articulate more than a couple of irrelevant points.

There are numerous ways to approach this "question," however. You might have heard the popular method of preparing your own 30-second commercial. Or you can practice separate answers for the different individuals you might interview with, e.g., the person you'll be working for and the human resources manager.

The key is preparation. And that was what I was sorely lacking during my doomed interview.

No matter who you talk to about this sticky interview issue—no matter how many articles you read, or how many Web sites you research—one word continues to stand out: Prepare.

The question could come in many forms, either very broad like my "Tell me about yourself," or something more focused like "Why should we hire you for this job?" Either way, the interviewer's goal is to hear how your skills and experience are applicable to the job you want.

Since you're new to the work world, your experience is limited. But think about what skills and experiences in your background separate you from your peers. Those unique qualities are what you should focus on when preparing for these types of interview situations.

"So, Tell Me About Yourself."

"I want very much to make my first professional step a successful one. I've been interested in chemical engineering since high school. I have a great desire to learn, and during my internship with XYZ Corporation, I was able to successfully take what I learned in the classroom and apply it to my work assignments. I enjoy team projects and have successfully led some of these projects. I'm very proud of the honors our team earned during Engineering Week on campus. Everything I've read about your company and what I've learned about this position during my interview has only reinforced my desire to work here. I'm very focused and I believe I have what it takes to be successful in this position."

There. You've shown drive and shown past success in the classroom and in a professional setting. You've revealed that you've done your homework by researching the company. And you've made it know that you work well with others and that you're comfortable in a leadership role. You want the job and offered evidence that you're qualified.

Not only that, but you've also led the interviewer to follow-up questions that will be in your favor, e.g., "What honors did you earn?" "Tell me more about your internship."

That's another important element to your answer: Always stay positive. Don't open the door to any shortcomings. Avoid statements like, "I've learned from my mistakes...," or "After I struggled with my previous major..." That only leads to follow-up questions that will put you on the defensive.

Practice Makes Perfect, But...

Although preparation is extremely important, you should avoid sounding like you have a rehearsed statement. Instead, get comfortable with certain talking points, like:

  • What you know about the industry, the company, and how it relates to your education and experience.
  • The aspects of the new job that you're excited about.
  • How your skills will fit the position.
  • Your ambitions and accomplishments in a relevant manner.
  • And anything about your personality that is applicable to the job (leader, team player, enjoy research, etc.)

Don't be afraid to practice these interview question and answers with a friend. Have them ask you different variation of the question, and even propose different interview situations. You want to be able to speak naturally to your talking points, and make them fit each specific interview situation.

The interview is a dialogue, so make sure you listen carefully to the interviewer. Don't just come with a prepared statement that doesn't quite fit with the question or with the flow of the conversation. If you just repeat the same "commercial" over and over at each interview, you will probably be met with a blank stare and seriously damage your chances of landing the job.

Keep in mind that what you say is only part of what is being evaluated. The other part is how you say it. Throughout the interview you're displaying your interpersonal skills.

Sell Yourself

Most interviewees report being intimidated by these types of broad questions when they arise in an interview. Don't be. Think of it as a golden opportunity to sell yourself to the person with the power to hire you. The interviewer is giving you an open forum to sell yourself. Take it!

And all your preparation and hard work will pay off. Remember, if you can effectively and confidently explain how your past fits with your future, you've successfully cleared one hurdle on your way to a job offer.

Robert Shannon is a freelance writer from Chicago.


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