How to answer the dreaded “tell me about yourself” question in a job interview

Interviewing for a job is very exciting; after all, it means you got through the faceless application process. But it can also be oh-so-terrifying. You need to essentially sell yourself, which for women—who are often taught from day one to be modest—is often difficult. And maybe the hardest part of it all is knowing just how to navigate past the first (and potentially the hardest) question: “So, tell me about yourself?”

The conversation starter is often used to break the ice in formal interviews, and according to California-based career counselor Julie LaCroix, it’s asked because recruiters want to “see” you and how you describe yourself. “How you do so tells them a lot about your confidence, your friendliness, and your ability to articulate your value,” she explains.

Liz Wessel, CEO and co-founder of job site WayUp adds, “Recruiters are looking to get a sense of how you communicate, what you care about, whether you can be succinct and interesting, and how you got to where you are now—which includes why you’re interviewing for this position in the first place.”

Okay, but how do you answer an open-ended question like “Tell me about yourself?”

One simple trick to nailing a job interview is to approach it as if it were a meeting. It’s not just a time for you to shine, it’s also an opportunity for you to ask your potential employers questions about the job to make sure it’s a good fit for you. However, since you’re the hopeful applicant and they’re the ones making a potentially life-altering decision about your future (no big deal), you’re going to want to prepare.

How to answer “tell me about yourself” in an job interview:

DO: Practice your answer.

The best thing you can do for yourself ahead of any interview is to come prepared. Do your research about the company, the position, and the person you are interviewing with to put your nerves at ease and give you a better framework for crafting a response.

One easy way to feel confident going in is to grab a friend to practice your answer with beforehand. Or, you can record yourself to hear how you sound and how long your response will take. “It’s ok to have scripted and practiced a strong response,” says LaCroix.

Just make sure not to get too caught up on the exact wording of your answer. Hit the highlights and be natural!

DON’T: Ramble.

According to our experts, one of the most common mistakes people make when answering this question is rambling. Occasionally, we let our nerves get the best of us and that means talking too fast and taking too long (you know, like two full minutes or longer).

La Croix says the goal is to convey to the interviewer: (a) who you are as a person; and (b) who you are as a worker.

Ideally, this shouldn’t take more than 60 seconds, so think of it like your elevator pitch.

As Wessel says, “You can give the recruiter insight into how you got to where you are—without giving your full life story.”

We all know it’s easy to get carried away when talking about yourself, but preparing a list of attributes to focus on that relate to the job can be helpful.

Natasha Djukanovic, the CMO of startup company domain.ME advises,

"Be as specific as possible and communicate the value that you can provide with an example people can connect to in seconds. Keep your pitch on point. Remember, you don't need to say everything, you need to get someone interested."

DO: Keep it short yet authentic.

In the effort of saving time and reducing the tendency to ramble, your response should ideally be 60 seconds or less. Instead of reading off your resume (which is both boring and redundant), focus on a few key points that are both unique to you and relevant to the job.

LaCroix’s guideline is to hit these details:

  1. Where you were born and raised;
  2. One WOW detail about you as a person (hobby or personal accomplishment);
  3. A brief overview of your career trajectory;
  4. And a statement indicating your enthusiasm and excitement for being interviewed.

DON’T: Feel like you need to check every box.

While it’s definitely a good idea to go into an interview with the desired skills and qualities for the position top-of-mind, the “tell me about yourself” question isn’t the time to mentally feel like you need to prove yourself for all of them.

“Remember, you don’t need to check every single box when answering interview questions, says Wessel. “At WayUp, when we’re interviewing candidates who only have four of the five skills that we need, we tend to focus more on whether this is a candidate who can figure that fifth skill out and forge ahead until they get there. When companies are hiring for fast-growth, they need smart, humble, and scrappy candidates—ones who are willing to roll up their sleeves and learn new tools and skills.

DO: Deliver facts, not feelings.

It’s hard to pull confidence out of thin air, especially when you’re not used to feeling that way (something to work on for another time). The funny thing about job interviews is that they’re often coming in the midst of career rejection, so interviewees might be wondering, “Why do I deserve this job?”

Instead of focusing on your feelings (or nerves, or imposter syndrome), shift the focus to your accomplishments—and be proud of them. Show how you took action and created opportunities. Talk for a moment about a project you contributed to or a team you helped lead. This will make you more memorable when it comes to decision-making time.

Also, remember that highlighting soft skills is just as important as noting the harder stuff. In fact, one study found that 60% of candidates fail to move past the first round because of soft skills. These include teamwork, communication, and problem solving, so brush up on how you can highlight these in your response.

DON’T: Forget to smile!

Finally, don’t forget to make eye contact, speak slowly and clearly, and show enthusiasm and passion. Remember, your interviewer is human too, so there’s no need to be nervous.

“Half of your pitch should combine your skills and your potential and the other half should be focused on making that interpersonal connection,” says LaCroix.