OK, so you’ve got an interview coming up and you know it’s probably going to start with some form of “Tell me about yourself.” Here’s what else you need to do to nail your answer.
1. Remember this is often your first impression, and it matters.
“We really only have one chance to make a first impression,” says Muse career coach and recruiter Steven Davis. “My opinion is that most hiring decisions are made in the first minute,” which includes your greeting, handshake, eye contact, and the first thing you say, which may very well be your response to “Tell me about yourself.”
Even if the powers that be aren’t making an irreversible determination shortly after the conversation begins, a first impression can color the rest of the interview. If you have to spend the rest of the time making up for a bad opening, you’re in a very different position than if you gave a succinct, confident, and relevant answer right off the bat.
“Be prepared for this question and show interviewers you prepared for it,” Campos says. “The confidence that comes across in this is a really good place to start from.”
2. Tailor your answer to the role and company.
“When an interviewer asks that, they really mean tell me about yourself as it’s relevant to the position you’re applying for and this company. I think they’re giving you an opportunity to articulate succinctly why you have the right qualifications,” says Muse career coach Tina Wascovich.
Take advantage of the opportunity! In order to do that, you’ll want to spend some time combing through the job description, researching the company, and figuring out how you can tell your story in a way that makes it crystal clear why you’re interested and what you bring to the table that aligns with the role and company.
“This is the best chance to be very direct and share your objective. But your objective needs to fulfill their goals,” Davis says. For example, a client he worked with was leaving a job where her team had developed a new antibacterial cream and got it ready for clinical trials. The new job she wanted entailed working on an entirely unrelated product, so the important thing for her to mention in this case was that prior to her current role, she’d never had experience working on antibacterial creams and was able to come in and figure out how to move the process forward, just as she could do in this new role.
So when you’re in the midst of a job search looking for a particular type of role, you might have a basic template you use for every interview, but make sure to tweak it to fit the company. “It’s an opportunity to show them right away that you get it,” Campos says. “If they talk a lot about culture, weave that into your answer,” she adds, and if the company or even the particular team emphasizes something else, see if you can incorporate that. In some cases individual keywords could help give the cue that you’ve done your research and are a good fit, according to Campos. For example, does the company refer to itself as a tech company or a startup, a consumer brand or an online retailer, a publication or blog?
“Generally the [answers] that always resonate with me show that they really get the role,” she says, as well as make it clearwhy they applied. “I get more engaged because I can see that it’s going to go somewhere.”
3. Know your audience.
As with any interview question—or conversation for that matter—you’ll want to make sure you understand who you’re talking to. You might get some form of “Tell me about yourself” at every single stage of the interview process for a job, from the phone screen through the final round, but that doesn’t mean you have to give the same exact answer every time.
If you’re speaking to a recruiter who’s not immersed in the hard skills of the team you’d be joining, you might keep your answer more focused on the bigger picture, whereas when you speak to your prospective boss, you might get a little bit more technical. If you’re talking to a C-level executive as part of your final round, it’s probably smart to touch on how you can help achieve the overall mission of the company they run.
You can also enhance your answer and make it more specific to the role and company based on what you learn as you progress through the interview process, Campos says, such as, “When I talked to so-and-so it really resonated with me that your mission or value is…”
4. Keep it professional.
As you know by now, this question carries an invisible addendum: “as it’s relevant to this role and company.” So you’re best off keeping your answer professional. The norm in some countries might be to share personal details at this point, Wascovich says, but in the U.S. you should avoid talking about your family and hobbies, for instance, unless you know something very specific about the company that would lead you to believe otherwise.
5. But speak with passion.
Keeping your answer professional, however, shouldn’t stop you from shedding light on why you’re passionate about your work or about this company, even if that broaches slightly more personal territory.
For example, Wascovich once worked with a special education administrator who’d actually been a special education student in elementary school. Her teachers inspired her to pursue the career she did. “So in telling your story about how you got your start, that could be a unique hook.”
You don’t have to go into a huge amount of detail, but if your goal in an interview is to stand out among the applicant pool and be memorable, then infusing this answer with some passion can help you do that. “People don’t want to talk to robots—they want to talk to humans,” Dea says. “I love it when someone tells me, ‘I knew I wanted to work in marketing when I was a kid. I’ve always really loved writing.’”
Campos agrees. “If a person really is connected to their mission and what they want to go after in their next role and this company really aligns, this is a great place to bring that in,” she says. You might incorporate a sentence like, “I’m really passionate about x and y and so I was really attracted to your company…”
6. Don’t ramble.
Whatever you do, don’t waste this time regurgitating every single detail of your career. “Most people answer it like they’re giving a dissertation on their resume,” says Davis, but that’s only going to bore the interviewer to tears.
It’s not just about entertaining or engaging your interviewer, Campos explains. You’re also giving a hint as to how you’ll speak in meetings with coworkers, bosses, and clients. Are you going to ramble for 10 minutes every time someone asks you a somewhat open-ended question?
There’s no scientifically proven optimal length for answering this or any interview question. Some coaches and recruiters will tell you to keep it to 30 seconds or less, while others will say you should aim for a minute, or talk for no more than two minutes. “Everyone has a different approach,” says Dea, who’s had candidates speak for one minute or go on for five. But in his experience, people tend to start losing steam after 1.5 to 2.5 minutes of uninterrupted talking.
You’ll have to decide what feels right for you in any given context, so make sure to read the room as you’re talking. If the other person looks bored or distracted, it might be time to wrap it up. If they perk up at one part of your answer, it might be worth expanding on that topic a bit more.
In general, however, remember that you don’t have to relay your entire life story here, Dea says. Think of it as a teaser that should pique the interviewer’s interest and give them a chance to ask follow-up questions about whatever intrigues them most.
7. Practice, practice, practice—but stop short of memorizing.
You don’t want to wait until you get this question in a live interview to try out your answer for the first time. Think through what you want to convey about yourself ahead of each interview and practice saying it out loud.
Davis recommends leaving yourself a voicemail or recording your answer and then waiting an hour or more before you listen to it to give yourself some distance and perspective. When you finally play it back, see if the answer sounds solid and credible to you.
If you can, go beyond practicing solo. “It always helps to practice with other people to hear yourself say it and hear feedback from how other people are interpreting what you’re saying,” Dea says. Asking a trusted colleague, friend, or family member to listen and react to your answer will help you hone it.
Practice will surely make your answer stronger and help you become more confident giving it. Dea warns, however, against memorizing and reciting your spiel word-for-word. “There’s a fine balance between practicing and memorizing. It needs to come off as very authentic,” he says.
Wascovich explains that recruiters might be more understanding of new grads in their first couple of years in the workforce who sound like they’ve memorized their answer, but that it’s likely to be a red flag for anyone with a little bit more experience. “You don’t want to sound overly rehearsed,” she says.
8. Keep it positive.
If you were fired or laid off from your last job, this probably isn’t the best moment to mention it. “There’s a time and place for everything—you don’t have to cram it all into this answer,” Campos says. “If you view this as your first impression professionally, give them a window into that but don’t give them everything. The conversation’s not ready for that.”
As you move further into an interview, things get more comfortable. So wait until you get a specific question about why you’re looking to change jobs or why you have a gap on your resume to address those topics.
And that advice you’ve probably heard a million times about not badmouthing your previous employer? That applies here, too. Especially here. If the first thing you tell an interviewer is how awful your boss is and how you’re trying to escape the misery of their micromanaging clutches, that’s a big turnoff.
That’s all great in theory, but what would a solid answer actually sound like? Check out these examples we pulled together with help from Zhang, Dea, and Campos.
Example answer #1 to “Tell me about yourself” for someone looking for a similar role at a new company
Sure! So I've always enjoyed writing and public speaking, even as far back as high school. This led me to pursue writing-related passions—for example in college, where I was an editor for our school newspaper. In addition to writing, I got to learn how to manage a team and how to approach the writing process. After college, I took a job at Acme as a social media manager, writing copy and social content for the company blog, but I raised my hand to work on the communications plan for a product launch, which is where I discovered my interest in product marketing. After switching to a product marketing role and managing the two most successful new product launches last year, I realized I'm excited to take on a new opportunity. I've learned I work best on products that I love and use, and given that I'm a big user of your company’s products, I jumped at the chance to apply when I saw the open posting.
Example answer #2 to “Tell me about yourself” for someone transitioning from an agency to an in-house role
Well, I’m currently an account executive at Smith, where I handle our top performing client. Before that, I worked at an agency where I was on three different major national healthcare brands. And while I really enjoyed the work that I did, I’d love the chance to dig in much deeper with one specific healthcare company, which is why I’m so excited about this opportunity with Metro Health Center.
Example answer #3 to “Tell me about yourself” for someone pivoting into a similar role in a new industry
I've been in the marketing industry for over five years, primarily working in account and project management roles. I most recently worked as a senior PM for a large tech company managing large marketing campaigns and overseeing other project managers. And now I'm looking to expand my experience across different industries, particularly fintech, which is why I'm so interested in joining an agency like yours.
Example answer #4 to “Tell me about yourself” for a recent graduate
Absolutely! I graduated from Howard in May with a major in computer science and a minor in theater arts and have been spending this summer interning at a theater nonprofit. I’ve had a chance to put my coding skills to good use by helping revamp the organization’s ticket sales page. Since it launched two weeks ago, the time it takes patrons to get through the purchasing process has decreased by 43% and scores on a popup satisfaction survey have gone up by nearly 20%. It’s been particularly exciting to be immersed in this environment because I’ve been in love with theater since I did my first school play in 7th grade—it was 13: The Musical and I landed the role of Patrice—and even led The Howard Players my senior year. This internship experience has only reinforced my desire to merge my CS skills with my passion for theater, which is why I knew I had to apply as soon as I saw the junior web developer role here.
Example answer #5 to “Tell me about yourself” for a career changer
I’ve spent the first decade of my career working in account management for SaaS startups selling B2B software, including my current company, which develops remote collaboration tools. And for the last couple of years I’ve been managing three to five direct reports. I’ve found people management incredibly fulfilling, and have been especially drawn to training and professional development. One of the accomplishments I’m proudest of in my job now was creating a series of upskilling workshops not just for my own team but for the entire revenue org. Account managers and sales reps who participated showed an average increase of 22% in sales or renewal revenue per quarter. Looking back, it makes so much sense that I’ve gravitated in this direction, considering I tutored and led workshops for the comms department in college. As I’ve thought about my next steps, I realized I wanted to transition into an HR role so that I can focus all of my energy on creating and implementing training programs. I can’t think of a better place to start than at a company that makes software I’ve relied on in multiple previous jobs.