how do you answer “tell me about yourself” in a job interview?

by Alison Green on August 21, 2010

A reader writes:

The interview question that stresses me out the most (besides the what are your weaknesses question) is the tell me about yourself question…or statement…or request, whichever it is. What do employers really want to hear? I’m assuming that this isn’t the time to regale colorful stories of my childhood in the deep south, but what should I be talking about?

“Tell me about yourself” in a job interview really means “give me an overview of who you are, professionally speaking.” There’s a reason this is asked at the very beginning of an interview — it says “give me the broad background before we dive in to specifics.”

You want to be ready with about a one-minute answer that summarizes where you’re at in your career (generally with an emphasis on your most recent job), what you do, and what the strengths of your approach are.

For instance: “I got into technical writing because I found that I have an unusual mixture of technical aptitude with writing skills. I’d worked as a software engineer for the first few years of my career, but when I saw how rare it was to find people with that kind of technical background who could also write, I started moving into technical writing. I’ve found that I love translating complicated technical information into words that a non-technical person can easily understand, and the fact that I come from a software background means that I can communicate well both with the tech team and my intended audience. My last boss told me that I was the only employee she’d ever had who mixed those two skills to the extent that I do! Being able to bridge those two worlds so comfortably is the reason I was especially interested in the position here.”

For someone who’s more entry-level and doesn’t really have a career to describe yet, the answer would be more forward-looking. For instance: “I’ve always been a news junkie and I spent my last two years in school preparing myself to work in communications when I graduated. I sought out internships and extracurricular opportunities that would expose me to media relations work, and I’m excited to continue on that path. I’ve been told that I’m particularly good at coming up with creative story pitches, and I love pitching, but I really want to learn every aspect of this business from the ground up. I’d like to work in-house rather than in an agency, and I’m especially interested in advocacy work, so I’m particularly excited about this opportunity.”

As you see in these two examples, you want to keep this focused on your professional persona. Don’t bring kids into it, or your spouse, or where you grew up. That’s not to say you can’t say anything personal, but make sure there’s a relevant reason for raising it. For instance, you could add something like, “And I grew up in this area and still have family here, so I’m really excited about the prospect of moving back.” (Hence signaling to the interviewer that you’re not going to be flighty about relocation.)

Whatever your answer is, practice it out loud over and over so it flows right out of your mouth in the interview. Don’t try to wing it!

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{ 60 comments }

Anonymous August 21, 2010 at 9:58 pm

Definitely keeping this entry as a major reference.

Monica August 22, 2010 at 3:03 am

I am SO thankful for this post. I never would have known how to correctly answer this question. I just graduated college and haven't had any interviews yet (sadly) but everything in this blog has given me invaluable information for my job search. Thanks AAM – I love you!

Anonymous February 1, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Good luck, Monica. Just a quick note — be careful how you say what you say. Grammar counts every time! (Example — you have just graduated FROM college, not “graduated college.”) People who misuse English, either written or oral, are less likely to make the cut.

jinx April 17, 2013 at 12:28 am

Mr. anonymous, you are right.. i strongly uphold your notion with that..

rachel ann fang July 23, 2013 at 4:22 am

hey,i dont how to start answering questions to a job interview…can u help me.

John Phillips August 22, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Here's a humorous answer to a version of the same question:

http://www.wordonemploymentlaw.com/2010/08/tell-me-about-your-last-job/

No one special August 23, 2010 at 11:51 am

Many people are scared of this question but, in reality, it is the best question you can get. You have two minutes to tell the prospective employer everything they need to know in order to get you hired. Think of it like your own personal "elevator speech".

Christine August 24, 2010 at 12:05 am

I am so glad to see a sample answer for those of us who are applying for entry level jobs. I never really know what to say beyond what's on my resume to showcase my interest in the position, and although I have prepared in varying ways to answer this question, it never quite comes out right when I am at the interview. Thanks so much for your advice.

Anonymous August 25, 2010 at 6:07 pm

I'm embarrassed to say that at a very recent interview, when asked to tell about myself, I DID talk about my personal side. However, I don't think it's entirely true that you don't bring it into perspective. For instance, I talked about how I like jazz, making art and exercising. My interview was for an interior design job, so art is a plus. Additionally, showing that I have a need to take care of myself shows balance. I had already written a cover letter that told why I went into this career so it would have been redundant to talk about it again.

Anonymous August 25, 2010 at 9:09 pm

In our last round of phone interviews, this was our first question. One particular candidate started answering the question and my colleague and I put the phone on mute and he said to me, is this guy reading a script? Sure enough, he had to be reading a script about his life story. It was as if he was auditioning for a play and he carried on in such an animated manner we ended the interview early. It was painful.

Sincerely yours, January 25, 2011 at 4:11 pm

I have 2 questions. Did the applicant meet your expectations? Did she/he pass?

Anonymous August 23, 2012 at 5:49 pm

Erik Deutsch August 27, 2010 at 12:41 am

Great post! It's an issue that stumped even the ultra-smooth Don Draper character on TV's "Mad Men" in last month's season opener (the episode was aptly titled "Public Relations"). A technique called story navigation offers a novel approach to getting beyond the elevator pitch to answer the "tell me about yourself" question. Hope you don't mind a shameless plug, but I wrote a complementary post about this topic on the PRmashup blog – http://excelpr.com/prmashup/2010/07/three-lessons-from-don-drapers-who-are-you-moment/

Anonymous August 29, 2010 at 8:14 am

"Where do you see yourself in 5 years?" concerns me more than this. But then again, I have been coached on the 30 second elevator speech and this just expands on it.

Anonymous January 26, 2011 at 9:07 am

Good question!
Should where I see myself in five years relate to the job, as well?
Should this response change according to the job?
I stink at interviews. I freeze and forget everything I have studied, show little association of current experiences to position which I am applying, and have low tolerance for pompous and arrogant interviewers. How can I calmly respond to the questions and not the person?

Ask a Manager January 26, 2011 at 11:23 am

Anonymous, you might find my free guide on how to prepare for an interview useful. You can get it here:
http://www.askamanager.org/how-to-guide

Anonymous August 30, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Some more tips:

Keep your comments positive.
Do not slouch.
Do not roll your eyes while listening to the job description.
Do not sigh or appear as if you are bored out of your wits.
Look engaged and interested.

Suresh January 25, 2011 at 11:15 pm

Thanks for this superb information about an interviews.

Mdou February 1, 2011 at 9:02 am

Well I just want to highlight one thing companies are taking advantage of man power….They are telling us how to behave, how to talk, where to put your hands in an interview and to walk faster or slower on your way to the HR…Please give me a break is it about a position that must be filled and of course meet expectations but not to the point what to do what do not…I believe it is the era of Interviewdictatorship or so…Believe me you our there the HR personel too many people can have a sheet and ask others why you tend to give hard time to others…

I agree! June 26, 2013 at 12:15 am

I absolutely agree with you, Mdou.
The “interviewdictatorship” – as you rightly name it – came to the point of total ridiculousness at all levels. It especially amazes me when while hiring a person for position that requires rare skills and highest levels of education (e.g. PhD and postdoctoral experience) employers spend much time asking “tell me about your leadership skills” or “give an example of how you solved a conflict with a difficult person”, instead of paying attention to scientific and technical background of an applicant. Why would one pay more attention to such garbage, when one really has to go through applicant’s publications, skills, achievements and etc. People in technical sciences spend years and years of their lives mastering their skills to the point of perfection, yet after that their “hireability” depends on their self-advertising skill. At the end we will have more and more positions being filled with people who get their knowledge from “how to get through interview” blogs, not with candidates who master their skills in school, college, academy…

Brenda February 8, 2011 at 5:55 pm

I find that the interview process can be very degrading at times. What anonymous had to say about pompous and arrogant interviewers is very true. When you are dressed professionally for an interview and the interviewer is in jeans and the HR person is there constantly checking his blackberry. Your qualifications and your ability to do the job does not show in that interview.

Anastasia June 6, 2011 at 3:58 pm

i found this website to be very beneficial in helping me in my quest to find a job. it is very effective and quite efficient thanks again

Tana July 21, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Thank you, this question is one that always gets me, not knowing what an interviewer really wants to hear when they ask this question. I think that I’ll know what to talk about now, without feeling like I’m stumbleing all over the place.
thanks

Laurie October 28, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Oh, good thing I read this. I had always been answering this as a verbal chronological telling of my resume.

Henry February 21, 2012 at 2:26 am

I always say that the reason why I want to apply is because of the compensation which is very wrong. Nice blogpost, thanks for sharing!

Mark February 28, 2012 at 2:58 pm

I have asked this question often for the express purpose of getting the person to talk about them self. There are many questions that cannot be asked, so asking a vague question and letting the person talk gets around the legal issues. If asked to clarify I always say that it is about their professional life.

You should never volunteer personal info that could be viewed negatively. But lets also be honest, the last thing I want, as a manager, is to hire someone with serious day care issues, or someone that will not show up on time.

Ricki from Winnipeg May 4, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Well, I must say, I’ve seen every kind of person get hired at jobs such as factory work, telemarketing or telephone research jobs who acted just like they’re not supposed to, then they end up getting let go at some point. Maybe some of these managers/interviewers need to read this article.

baskar May 14, 2012 at 8:00 am

hi friends. I am studying mY BE computer science and engineering final year. I prepared a lot for the interview.but am not satisfied with that. And i am little lacking with communication skill. Can you suggest some ideas for that.

Joy May 22, 2012 at 6:04 pm

I just had an interview like this and I told her I was a stay at home mom with two boys under two and she goes to ask where I’m from… To me this tells the prospective employee that you didn’t look at my resume or application before conducting the interview… considering my resume contained all my relevant experience to the job.

Technically speaking your resume should “tell the employer about yourself” :) I’d be more concerned with how the employee would handle job situations and ask questions like name a time when… or what would you do… This gives the chance for the prospective employee to tell you how their past experience makes them qualified for the job. I mean if you’re going to say “tell me about yourself” you really should be asking “what makes you qualified” or “why should we hire you” to be more specific. Although I still feel questions like that are too broad and going through the application process alone should be more than enough to tell the employer why they should hire you. Perhaps “what inspired you to apply here?” would be a better question.

Personally I do best in interview where you tell me more about the job, why you need someone and ask how my skills would fit best.

Tweet May 23, 2012 at 12:28 am

I’ve always hated the following questions and this is how I would honestly like to answer them!
1). Why do you want to work for this company? Well its pretty obvious. My experience and skills match the job description so I know that I qualify and I need a decent job that pays decent wages. (Whatever happened to hiring someone just-because-they-qualify-for-the-stinking-job?!!!?? Someone that has a good job history, good work ethics and actually takes a little bit of pride in what they do? Why do we have to put on this big show at an interview and act like we are just so excited to “be a team player”. I absolutely abhor that saying).
2). Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? Well, hopefully still gainfully employed and not living under a bridge somewhere.
3). What do you think you can bring to this company? Myself, on time, everyday, my exemplary work habits, my honesty, my integrity, and my lunch.
4). Do you have any questions for us? Yes, when do I start and what is the salary and benefit package?

GRR May 28, 2012 at 9:39 pm

Bravo, I would say this and more lol

Mike December 25, 2012 at 8:03 pm

You absolutely hit it on the head!
The dog & pony show, well……
Should be left to……. The freaking
Dogs & ponys. Least favorite question:
Where do you see yourself
In 5 year’s? Well if I’m not crippled from the
Last 25 year’s of busting my butt, hopefully
Employed here with your company, earning
A paycheck & taking advantage of all the
Wonderful benefits you listed in your job posting.

I agree! June 26, 2013 at 12:26 am

This is SO true, Tweet! I can’t agree more!
Why companies stopped hiring people who fit their positions, and turned to those who learn right answers to behavioral questions from WW-web???

Beniyke July 12, 2012 at 11:58 pm

Hi. I am a Nigerian.I am so excited for this post,honestly, your post has impacted positively towards my career……..Thanks alot

Anonymous July 24, 2012 at 11:46 pm

Thanks for this, extremely useful !!

Angie July 26, 2012 at 1:06 pm

I have a questions is it just me, but what is up with the “Phone Interviews”? All of my previous jobs, were simple when it came to interviewing, they call you schedule & go in to interview. I thought I was a “Shoe In” for job recently had an internet interview which ended up being a personalty test, then a one hour phone which I passed with flying colors. The lady calls me back to scheduled a face to face and I quote “Meet & Greet to get to know the other ladies in the office”. So I am thinking cool, the owner & I in the phone interview hit it off like she & I had been good friends. I show up for the Quote Unquote interview, and to my surprise it was with the CEO which also was the owner’s husband. Nice guy but very impatient, he hands me an application & I start to fill it out….well as I am trying to complete this APP he is asking questions “Tell me one thing you can improve professionally” that is not an easy question to ask, and I froze! So needless to say that one question he asked failed the entire interview plus he had a gal come to speak with me, that I would be working with one on one & I am still trying to complete this APP. Once she leaves he comes back in asking if I am done, very 10 seconds until he says “Sorry Angie you are out of time”. Are you F’ing kidding me, I thanked for his time & asked when I might hear back….he basically said we will call you in a week or so, when he telling me this he is also trying to get me out of the way seriously by going around me then speed walking to the front door, and guess what there in the waiting area was the other gal interviewing. So my question is how you answer a “One thing you need to improve professionally while preforming your job”??????? Help I am freaked now thinking the next interview I am going to bomb due to that question or something like, it’s almost like a trick question! Okay done, if anyone has any advice please hit me back, Thanks Guys & Gals,
Angie

Joy December 4, 2012 at 11:13 am

This one is actually an easy question :) Any task that you would professionally perform at a job. i.e. customer service, multi-tasking, coaching employees, cash handling, computer skills… these are all professional things you would perform at a job that have large areas of improvement for everyone. When I interview employees we take this same question and ask “tell us some areas of opportunity, or things you can improve on?” Really the employer wants to know what your weaknesses are and how you plan to improve on them without using the word weakness :)

Lu March 11, 2013 at 9:03 am

How many good people are not hired because they don’t know the the rituals and double speak of recruitment processes? I doubt these questions are at all effective at differentiating between qualified and unqualified applicants. Wouldn’t it be better to say something like ‘Tell me about something you struggle with at work, and what strategies you use to improve on it.’?

employers May 7, 2013 at 2:12 pm

You will find a lot of information out there about how to act and what to say to an employer during the interview process. 75% of the people conducting interviews really do not know how to conduct them. If they do ask a question it is vague and needs detail not everyone knows how to communicate the proper questions. Employers rarely tell you what they are looking for. What they are probably looking for is someone who doesn’t mind all the negative stuff that goes on withing their company culture like maybe managers sleeping with staff or Friday night drunk outings to list a few. If they think you will have a problem with that then you may not get the job regardless of your qualifications or how you sit at the interview. :)

Joy October 2, 2013 at 11:54 am

Yeah how you will fit in with the staff is a HUGE part of getting hired regardless of your qualifications.

Anonymous September 23, 2012 at 12:01 pm

thank you so much for this very useful tips interview..now.,i got pattern to correct everything that i can answer on my next step job search interview…
thank you.. I really do appreciate it. Godbless.

J.J(Naija) October 18, 2012 at 2:38 pm

This is a very useful tips. I do appreciate your effort in helping the job seekers out. God bless you.

Anonymous November 10, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Please keep the answers to the question short. Some of us don’t have the time to read the pages to one question. Thanks.

Sara November 23, 2012 at 1:50 am

Thank you sooo much. This is the first article I found about this question & I am so greatful/in your debt for it. It totally hits the spot. Thanks again!

Maria December 7, 2012 at 7:41 am

Stupid question, but how is this different from “What interests you about this job?” I keep trying to figure out how this answer would be different from “Tell me about yourself” and I am getting nowhere fast.

Ask a Manager December 7, 2012 at 10:53 am

“Tell me about yourself” is all the stuff in the post above — a brief overview of who you are professionally. “What interests you about this job” is specifically why THIS job.

Maria December 10, 2012 at 1:34 pm

I understand this, but as a recent graduate, those two things are almost one and the same. Or should I focus on my achievements and related courses in the “Tell me about yourself,” and how that aligns with “What interests me about this job.” Being forward-looking should hopefully align with the job I’m applying for, right?

Ask a Manager December 10, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Nope, they’re different. See the examples in the post.

Anon J May 16, 2013 at 10:07 am

Do correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the cover letter partially similar to this “tell me about yourself” question?

Sara March 27, 2013 at 4:26 pm

I am so grateful that I found your article. I have read so many different answers to the question, “Tell me about yourself?”, and this is the first time I found an answer that makes sense. Thanks so much.

Josephrajkumar R April 11, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Yeah!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! yes guys what you have shared its all about your thoughts but in face to face interviews you have to be very clear and do not bluff. Just have the eye to eye contact with interviewer just like other told keep your hand with you and be straight, whatever you do dosen’t matter just keep faith in you don’t panic just have believe in you no interview scripts and story tell you nothing, unless and until you don’t believe yourself you never win.,,,,,, be confident that you win always you always be perfect,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,have a happy life winner….your friend Joe

Anonymous May 16, 2013 at 4:18 pm

this is awesome

jacquelyn July 2, 2013 at 9:58 pm

tell me about yourself?

Belle August 12, 2013 at 9:02 am

I just had an interview & i failed.. ” tell me about yourself” i told the interviewer about my personal life.. Thank you so much for this tips

sushanthi September 8, 2013 at 2:17 am

i want to known the correct process of interview process and questions

Deb September 22, 2013 at 10:12 pm

I had an interview where the interviewer asked me to summarize my career in 2 sentences. I have worked for 25 years. He also took 2 phone calls during this interview and an HR. rep. was also present. I didn’t get that job.

Joy October 2, 2013 at 11:50 am

I’ve come to the conclusion there are some bad interviewers as well. 2 sentences even for someone who’s had only one job is not what an interview is about… I had an interview where she said tell me about yourself and she didn’t even have my resume in front of her that I had already provided to one of her assistant managers… A resume should be used as a guideline for a interview I think and pretty much is self explanatory for the “tell me about yourself” question. Personally tell me about yourself should be something more human so that i can get an insight into how well you will fit in with the team, as well as what kind of character you have.

hakkim November 12, 2013 at 8:10 am

hi friends
i am just finished my graduation. I have trouble to answer tell me yourself. Pls anyone help me.

Likith November 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Really a very good & it will be helpful for facing interview.
thank you……….

Nathan December 3, 2013 at 9:12 am

Thank you so much for this! It really helped me get ready for my first job interview.

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