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How To Avoid The Tell Me About Yourself Trap

One of the first questions that is asked during a job interview or informational meeting is “Can you please tell me about yourself”. You would think that a question like this would be easy to answer yet I have seen countless outplacement candidates struggle with giving a strong answer.

First, why is the “Tell Me About Yourself” questions asked so frequently? Two of the most common reasons why are:

  • The interviewer is looking to buy some time during your answer so that they can review your resume.
  • Or the interviewer is interested in hearing how you frame your answer. A well-structured answer can reflect well on your communication and organization skills.

Here are some insights that I can share from the hundreds of practice interviews that I have done for our outplacement candidates:

  • Even though it is an open ended question doesn’t mean that they are not any wrong answers. What you do not need to include is personal history, personal interests, or too many work details.
  • A well-crafted answer should be clear, succinct and relevant to the opportunity that you are interviewing for. Your reply should be easy to understand and should not generate more questions than answers. Your answer should be no longer than three minutes.

 A few years ago Howard Cattie, an excellent career coach who was part of my The Frontier Group team, wrote an insightful article that provided some great insights on how to seize the opportunity when you are asked the “tell me about yourself” question and how to use your answer to help strengthen your candidacy in the job interview. Howard now runs the career coaching firm Career Oyster.

Here are some excerpts from Howard’s article:

So the key to handling this question in the interview is to prepare the answer before the interview. The manager really doesn't want to hear about your life history, what you're interested in, a long boring sequence of your jobs, or any ego trips.  An absolute disaster occurs if instead of answering the question, you respond with hesitancy or confusion and ask “what would you like to hear?”
What they really want to hear is a focused summary of relevant bullets that can benefit him and may help him solve a problem.   I say “may “because we don’t know enough detail at this stage of the interview to use the word “can”. 
So how do we structure this answer? 
Lets say we want to use 5 sentences max and a steering question. 
Here’s how we might structure it.
If you prepare properly for the job interview, you’ve identified keywords for products, industries, technologies, tasks, and titles can easily be used to create bullets in this summary. The first 3 sentences can list some of these keywords and expand them with the length of experience (years) or with the breadth of experience (for tasks or titles).   
Then add some results and these keywords have now become “bulletized” accomplishments.  Do not try to cover the entire job description. Focus on the 3 major strengths you feel you bring to the table based on the keywords. 
Sentences 4 and 5 should be oriented toward benefits to the manager and areas of possible mutual interest (complementing agendas) which are to be explored in today's meeting. 
For example, some of the biggest benefits we can bring to a company and to a manager are:  fast start in terms of proven expertise, someone who can take on more responsibilities over time, someone who can solve the immediate problem, someone who is low risk or high results.  
Then we end with the appropriate steering question to move the job interview towards our preferred direction.

Howard then went on to provide a useful example of how a well-crafted "tell me about yourself" answer would look:

Mr. Manager,  I've had 20 years of technical background in information technology, a BS in computer science with increasing responsibilities from developer, project leader and also a presales consultant.  
My strongest expertise is in the Microsoft technologies including .net development, SQL server data base and Business Intelligence where I have performed all tasks associated with defining, developing and implementing custom Business applications for the Financial Services industry.  
I have received increasing compensation and responsibilities in the 4 companies I have been with because I completed my projects in a timely and reliable manner. My performance ratings were always strong.  
 My personal goals at this point are to find a company where I can build upon this technical background and bring this expertise to help solve additional problems as well as add some new experiences.  

The "tell me about yourself" question can help you set the stage for a great interview. The key to being successful with your answer is to prepare in advance. Get comfortable with the answer structure and rehearse it often enough so that it sound conversational and natural.

I would be interested in anyone sharing some of the best or worst "tell me about yourself" experiences that they have had during interviews (no judging will be done here if the culprit was you).

Patrick Lynch is the President of CMP - Southeast, a talent and transition firm in the business of developing people and organizations across the full talent lifecycle – from executive search and leadership development to organization development and outplacement/career transition support.