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!