how to answer “tell me about yourself” in a job interview

“Tell me about yourself” is one of the most common openers to a job interview, yet job-seekers are often unsure what employers really want to hear in response. Should your answer include personal information? Should it focus on selling yourself, or just give the facts? What is the employer really asking?

Let’s translate it: “Tell me about yourself” in a job interview 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’s a way of saying, “Give me some broad background before we dive into specifics.”

You should be ready with a one-minute answer that summarizes where you are in your career, generally with an emphasis on your most recent job and the strengths of your approach.

For instance, here’s an example of a good response:

“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 programmer for the first few years of my career, but when I saw how rare it was to find people with that kind of background who could also write, I started moving into technical writing. I’ve found that I love translating complicated technical information into language that non-technical people can easily understand, and the fact that I come from a programming background means that I can communicate well both with the tech folks and non-tech people. My last boss told me that I was the only employee she’d ever had who was so comfortable with both audiences. Being able to bridge those two worlds is the reason I was especially interested in the position here.”

If you’re more entry-level and don’t really have a career to describe yet, a good 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 looked for internships and extracurricular opportunities that would expose me to media relations, and I’m excited to continue on that path. I’ve been told that I’m particularly good at coming up with creative story angles, and I love pitching those stories, 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 political work, so I’m particularly excited about this opportunity.”

As these two examples show, you want to keep the focus on your professional persona. Don’t bring your kids into it, or your spouse, or where you grew up. That isn’t to say that you can’t say anything personal, but make sure there’s a relevant reason for raising it. For instance, you could add something like, “I grew up in this area and still have family here, so I’m really excited about the prospect of moving back.” (This is relevant because it signals 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, since that’s how people end up stumbling and making mistakes. Figure out your answer ahead of time and practice it, and you’ll have no problem fielding this question.

I originally published this article at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 26 comments… read them below }

  1. ChristineH

    Thank you for posting this Alison – Even as an experienced job seeker, I still get flummoxed with that question! Would you say it is similar to the so-called “elevator speech”?

    Also, how should those who’ve been out of work answer this question? I’ve been out for quite a while, but have been volunteering to try to gain experience and make connections.

    1. K.

      I’d go through your career up to your unemployment, say why you’re unemployed, and then talk about your volunteering. I say: “My background is in blah blah blah, I’ve done xyz. I was laid off due to a reduction in force in February [which I know is not that long, although it feels like forever] and increased my volunteer efforts with [local chapter of relevant professional organization].” Then talk about the kinds of things you do in your volunteer work and how they’re relevant to the job you’re applying for.

      AAM, would you agree?

  2. Catherine

    Your first example describes me almost exactly – I come from a tech support background and I’m trying to get into technical writing. Thanks for the good ideas!

    I conducted a phone interview the other day where the candidate took about 10 minutes to answer this question. I almost fell asleep. People, please don’t take 10 minutes!!!

  3. Henning Makholm

    One of my greatest problems when I’m giving an open-ended presentation like this — not necessarily for interviews — is that I tend to skip too fast ahead out of fear that I’ll bore the audience by explaining something to them that they already know. I’ve found that this instinct requires an active effort to counter.

    So: It’s explicitly allowed here to spend time on things that the interviewer could have read in the written application already, right?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yes! Just make sure that you’re framing it in a more engaging way than a resume usually does — in other words, if you JUST recite what’s on the resume, that’s not a great answer. But if you bring some framing to it (like in my two sample answers in the article), then it’s fine to include some stuff they’ll already know from your resume.

  4. Ariancita

    This is probably the single best piece of interview advice I’ve read. I’ve recently had several interviews where I was asked this, and I was so glad that I knew how to answer beforehand because I can get pretty wordy.

  5. Joey

    Most interviewers that open with that are really saying “please remind me of your qualifications.”

    Ive long abandoned that interview opening it for a couple of reasons, although I use a more pointed version in a phone screen. First it’s too vague. You generally hear irrellevant info or get the same info that’s on the resume. And, by the time people get a face to face interview it should no longer be about whether or not they can do the job ( that should already have been established). It’s more about soft skills and fit with the manager, team, culture, etc.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’ve never used “tell me about yourself,” for similar reasons to what you wrote. But so many interviewers do that it’s good to be prepared for it.

      I like to open with “what led you to apply for this position,” which sometimes gets you all kinds of interesting info.

  6. Sandrine

    Just on time as I have an interview on Wednesday :P …

    It’s to do the same thing I’m doing now, but e-mailing instead of being on the phone. I sortof love the job I’m doing now, but I have grown so mentally tired of it that I know I can’t go on anymore, except this time I’m not getting out until I find something else!

    Thanks for the post, I’ll need to practise some of that and make it sound nice enough :)

  7. Anonymous

    The “career coach” my ex-employer provided us with sort of gave similar advice, but they encouraged a much smarmier, used car-salesman kind of tone. I never could bring myself to use their recommended wording because it just felt wrong to me, but your suggestions sound much more natural and organic!

  8. Sean

    Just wanted to say thanks Alison because both your examples could fit me. I’m about to start a diploma in journalism so the fact both of the examples in a way have to do with writing/publication/journalism, it gives me a good idea of what I should perhaps compose or at least along those lines :)

  9. Jaime

    On a related note, I have an interview tomorrow for an internal position and this made me realize I need to prep for “you’ve been with us a long time, why are you interested in a management position now?” Thanks!

  10. LP

    Small typo in the first sentence – you’ve included an extra word (want). It should read “what interviewers rally to hear”.

  11. Pamela G

    Urg. I went to an interview and they opened with “Tell me about yourself.” I figured it was a general opening question to make me comfortable and that they just wanted to hear things they couldn’t get from my resume (like marital status, hobbies, kids etc)…

    Anyway I was all prepared for the difficult questions, but this one really stumped me. I said, “Ummm… errr…. well, I’m (My brain: DON’T SAY YOUR AGE! You’re not in high school anymore!)… a music teacher (duh!)…. and… uhh… I’m married….”
    The interviewer was lovely and said encouragingly, “And is that a recent thing or have you been married for a while?”
    And I said “Oh no, for five years now.”

    *awkward pause*

    And then she took pity on me and went into the proper questions and I did fine and I got the job :)

    If I go back to work post-kids I will definitely be SO much better prepared for interviews etc now that I’m an avid reader of AAM!

  12. Stephanie

    I generally get nervous when asked this question for some strange reason, every other questions goes smoothly but when it comes to actually getting to this question, I just am clueless of what to say!

  13. Ayah

    Every time i get asked that question, I freeze and never know what to say.
    At that exact moment when they ask that question, I am the what you would call a dear stuck in headlights.
    So sad :(

  14. Sarah

    Hi I have an interview next week as a teacher. I am really worried about the “tell me about yourself” question. Can you offer advice?

  15. charm

    well, i thought i was the only one who freezes when i’m asked this question. No matter how many times I practice on my own, with others it just sounds fake. I really liked “K’s” response.
    thanks

  16. Ariel Byrd

    Hi, I am very nervous when answer this particular question. I don’t know why because i have a lot of creative traits, yet i have not been able to persue that many in my past work experience.I am 24 and I will be attending school hopefully this fall. My past work experience has been mainly with customer service and or cash handling. I love interacting with people because i used to be very shy.

    I just dont know how to word this… :(

  17. kayla

    my name is kayla im 18 in high school i want to be a detective when i get out of school, im well orginized hard worker ive never worked ive done lots of community service to helps other, i love to communcate with others be active stay busy and when the job needs done ill be sure to get the job done, could you help me figure out a way to answer this when they ask me in my interview tell me about you

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