A porcelain marionette on the shelf of your childhood bedroom. A crow cocking its head at you from the branch of a tree. A job interviewer smiling at you from across the table and saying, “So tell me about yourself.” All of these things have one thing in common: They might be entirely innocuous, but they have the power to really freak people out.
This might come as a surprise to hiring managers, who tend to use the command-cum-question as a low-key conversation opener. But when you’re on the receiving end of the inquiry, it can spark confusion, panic, or even a minor existential crisis.
Why “tell me about yourself” is a hard question to answer
For some job candidates, says executive coach Melody Wilding, the breadth of the question is plain overwhelming. “I think people get very anxious and in their heads about, How do I answer this specifically? How do I summarize and characterize a 10- or 20-year-long career in a bite-size statement?”
Uncertain about exactly what the hiring manager is looking for, people might wind up rehashing their resume point-by-point (which is boring) or rambling on about their collection of Viking memorabilia (which is not very helpful for the person trying to decide whether they’re qualified for the job, unless the job is at a Viking museum).
Another reason the question flusters some job candidates comes down to imposter syndrome. A lot of people, she says, “lack confidence and don’t really see the value in what they’ve done in their career. So the question ‘tell me about yourself’ is intimidating because they feel like they actually don’t have anything that impressive to offer.”
What hiring managers really want
Some candidates may go so far as to wonder if the question is a trap. At a recent workshop geared toward job hunters, career coach (and my former Quartz colleague) Phoebe Gavin recalls, one woman “was concerned that [hiring managers] were looking for inconsistencies” between her verbal answers and her resume.
The good news is that “tell me about yourself” is rarely if ever a trap. A lot of the time, the person asking may have only spent a few moments glancing over your resume, and they may have already forgotten the information that was on it after back-to-back interviews with other candidates.
“They’re not testing you to see if you’re a liar,” Gavin says. “More than anything, they’re trying to understand what your professional narrative is. How did you get to this point, and why does it make sense for you to be here talking to me about this job?”
How to answer when people say “tell me about yourself”
Both Gavin and Wilding say it’s helpful to structure your response to the question in a way that highlights why you’re the right person for the job. In a post on her website, Gavin recommends coming up with a “theme that can serve as a through-line for your work history,” whether “a passion, a skill, a mission, a question, a problem, or an impact.” Perhaps your theme is creating a sense of community (which you did as both a third-grade teacher and as an event organizer) or helping people live more environmentally friendly lives (by pushing for compostable takeout containers at your college cafeteria, working at a bike shop, and installing solar energy panels).
If you’re stumped, Gavin suggests, “think about a time when you were in conflict at work.” Whatever you felt strongly enough about to advocate for, that issue should point you toward a theme you can focus on. If you switched career paths at some point, she says, you also also want to come up with two themes and create a “narrative bridge,” i.e. “This was really important to me, then something happened that changed my priorities.”
Once you have your theme or themes, Gavin says, use it to frame your work experience—why you took a particular position, what you achieved, and what you were looking for when you left. When you get to the present day, Gavin advises, “explain how your theme makes you excited about the role and a good fit for it.”
A formula for talking about your work experience
Wilding says she often suggests that clients going into job interviews follow a formula when they’re hit with “tell me about yourself” prompt:
Introduction: Two to three sentences summarizing your career, such as, I’ve spent the last 10 years in product management, the last three of which I focused on enterprise products.
Resume highlights: Pick a few experiences that directly connect to the role you’re interviewing for, and explain how they’ve prepared you to succeed in that position.
Conclusion: Two to three sentences summarizing why this particular job, company, and team was attractive to you, based on your previous experiences.
However you answer the question, it’s a good idea to keep your answer short and sweet, while still helping to drive the conversation about your candidacy forward.
Should you get personal?
The open-endedness of “tell me about yourself” can leave some job candidates wondering if they’re meant to talk about their childhoods or their college a capella group. While your focus should primarily be on your professional experience, Gavin says that it can be useful to weave in some personal information.
“I always start with the fact that I came from an impoverished background, because that explains basically the first half of my career,” she says. “I joined the Army to pay for college, then I went to college, and then my career actually started when I was 25.” Explaining her background helps give context to her resume.
Bringing up personal experiences can also be a way to gauge reactions from a potential employer that will shed light on their values and culture. When Gavin tells interviewers about growing up in poverty, she says, “if that turns them off for some reason, that is definitely not someone I want to be working with.”
If you have a particular hobby or passion outside of work, Gavin notes, discussing that can also make you more memorable—particularly if you’re able to draw a connection between that pastime and the role you’re interviewing for. Perhaps the graphic novel you’re working on is a testament to the creativity you’d bring to a consulting role, or training for a marathon has taught you about the importance of breaking down big goals into smaller, achievable steps.
How hiring managers can ask better questions
Some hiring managers treat “tell me about yourself” as an icebreaker, but Gavin says it’s more likely to be useful to them—and less terrifying for interviewees—if they phrase it in a way that clarifies the kind of information they’re looking for.
She suggests wording such as “What would be useful for me to know about why you’re in this conversation today?” It’s open-ended enough that people can tailor their answer according to the experiences they want to highlight, while giving some helpful parameters.