‘Tell me about yourself’: How not to screw it up in interviews

The most basic open-ended inquiry posed to a job candidate can be a sinkhole if you’re not careful. Here’s what to avoid.

When an interviewer says, “So tell me a little about yourself,” your natural impulses are probably all wrong.

You’ve got a big interview coming up. How do you prepare? You research the company, polish answers to common questions, and home in on the ways your skills and experience will help you achieve results in that particular job.

You can do all that and still flounder in the interview. Many candidates stumble at the first hurdle, because it doesn’t seem like it requires a lot of effort to clear. What is it? The typical opener that invites you to help the interviewer get to know you.

This hardly seems like the toughest inquiry you’re likely to encounter. You know your own biography, after all. But according to career coaches, this prompt is a common stumbling block for inexperienced candidates who go wrong by taking the question at face value.

Many candidates, unprepared for the question, skewer themselves by rambling, recapping their life story, delving into ancient work history or personal matters.

Nancy Fox, Fox Coaching Associates

Fellow career coach Jane Cranston agrees:

The biggest mistake people being interviewed make is thinking the interviewer really wants to know about them as a person.

I was born in Tallahassee…

If your answer starts anything like that, you’re probably spoiling your chances of getting the job. No matter how natural it may seem, fight the impulse to start at the beginning and go in chronological order.

Instead, take the advice of Melanie Szlucha. Think of your response as a movie preview, she advises:

The movie preview always relates to the movie you’re about to see. You never see a movie preview for an animated flick when you’re there to see a slasher movie. So the “tell me about yourself” answer needs to directly fit the concerns of your prospective employer.

It should also be as short and engaging as a great trailer.

If you’re looking for the exact words to accomplish this, consider these examples of pithy self-descriptions for interviews, or this article detailing 20 ways to complete the sentence “I am someone who….”

The time-travel approach

Short summations may work in some interviews, but what if you get the impression the person sitting across from you wants to go into more depth, or they push you to include biographical information or meaty details about your professional background?

Venture capitalist Brad Feld may have the solution for you. It’s one he developed over a long career of both interviewing others and telling his own story. His suggestion is to do the opposite of what comes naturally by going backward in time:

I don’t care where you went to school (I never have). I don’t care what your first job was. I don’t care what happened 15 years ago. I care what you did yesterday, and last month, and last quarter, and last year. That’s probably as deep as I want to go in the first five minutes of our interview. I’m no longer interested in telling my own story. Each time I do it, I realize I am wasting another 15 minutes of my life.

Feld adds that hearing a chronological retelling of your story is boring for the listener and pointless for the speaker. Instead, Feld recommends a different approach in job interviews:

By starting with the now, and not worrying about going backward, I can get to the meat of whatever I’m communicating, or want to communicate. I’ll more quickly engage whomever I’m talking to—making the conversation immediately active instead of passive. When I need to reach into the past for a story to support an example, I will. I’ve decided that going forward, I’m telling my history in reverse chronological order whenever asked.

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London. A version of this article first appeared on BrazenCareerist.

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