So...Tell Me About Yourself

By Frank Traditi

You knew it was coming, right? The big question asked in just about every interview. You've got the chance to tell all there is to know about you and your successful career. Often, it's the only opportunity to create a lasting positive impression. You don't want to blow it right at the beginning. Your answer can set the tone for the remainder of the interview and, quite possibly, be the deciding factor in whether you come back or not.

Interestingly enough, this question has eluded even the most successful job seeker. All their credentials are in place and their experience level matches the position. They made the cut to land an interview. The hiring manager and our job seeker meet, pleasantries are exchanged, then comes the big question, "So, tell me about yourself." Our friend decides to launch into a blow-by-blow chronological review of their career path. The hiring manager nearly fell asleep while listening to this long-winded recap of his career.

Does this sound at all familiar to you? Have you caught yourself spending way too much time answering this question? Could you see the interviewer's eyes glaze over about halfway through your answer?

It's so easy to answer the big question by describing each job you've held from the beginning of your career through present day. You know exactly what you did at each company and it's simple to regurgitate all of your job experiences. You figure the more you tell them, the more you increase your odds getting to the next stage. Simply not true.

What are interviewers looking for when they ask this question?

First, they are not looking for your ability to memorize your entire career path from cutting grass all the way to CEO. They just don't care about every single job you've held. They want to get to know you as a person. They want to know if you have the personality it takes to handle the job. Your experience, education, and other qualifications play a significant role in the hiring decision, but it is still very much based on the personal opinion of the interviewer. This question is aimed at drawing out your personality so they can tell if you are a match for the environment and culture of their company. Often their instinct decides who will proceed further in the interview stage or eventually get the job offer.

Put yourself in the interviewer's shoes.

Imagine sitting across the table from someone who spouts off their entire professional career journey when you ask them this question. How would you feel? Would you lose interest after about the first minute or so? Might this affect your decision about hiring this person or recommending them for a second interview? Now, imagine interviewing 10 or 15 people and everyone answers this question the same way - telling you their life story. Doesn't sound like much fun, does it?

So, how do you answer the big question? Here are two methods that take a different approach.

Answer with your 30-60 second commercial.
This is also known as your "elevator speech" modified for an interview. Begin with a short introduction describing a title or specialty. Continue with short statements about your unique abilities and talents. Then finish with comment about your interest in working for the company in this role. An example of this might be:

"I'm a senior project manager specializing in complex technology installations. I have extensive experience in working with multiple departments, including international offices, and getting them to communicate with one common language. My experiences working with Fortune 1000 companies taught me to deal with highly stressful situations and deliver a quality project at the same time. I see a great opportunity to share my expertise within your company, particularly since you have ventured out beyond the borders of the United States."

Talk about your unique skills.
Unique skills are exceptional abilities that others in your field may not have or haven't perfected as well as you. These skills separate you from all the other interviewees. Express your unique skills with descriptive words or short phrases that tell a story. For instance, one of your unique skills might be "expert in dealing with difficult employees." Think about two or three unique skills applicable for most any interview when asked this question. Your dialogue here might go like this:

"Throughout my career as a human resources professional, I've perfected two highly unique skills. I'm an expert at dealing with difficult employees and know how to build highly effective teams. I've been challenged several times throughout my career dealing with employee performance issues. In every case, I'm able to quickly stabilize the employee's emotions, understand the problem, and coach them through a solution. I've also had the opportunity to teach several managers how to build and manage high performance teams. I'm skilled at teaching managers at any level how to identify top talent in the interview stage. What I gathered from my research on your company, I think I can offer a unique approach to your human resources organization."

When you're asked the big question, resist the temptation to launch into a complete diary of your career experiences. Hiring managers don't have the time or patience to hear your life story. Instead, boil down your answer to a powerful expression of who you are, what you can do, and how you are the best fit for the job.

Now go ahead -- tell them about yourself.

Copyright © 2005, Frank Traditi

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