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

One of the interview questions that most intimidates job seekers is one that most interviewers assume will be easy: “Tell me about yourself.” It sounds straightforward — but as every job seeker knows, it’s not that simple. What do they want to know? Are they looking for a complete history of you? Do they want to know about your personality and personal life, or should you focus strictly on work? Is this supposed to be a 30-second overview or a more involved rundown? Luckily for you, there’s a pretty simple way to approach this question. Here’s how to answer “tell me about yourself” in a job interview.

First, understand what your interviewer is looking for.

“Tell me about yourself” doesn’t mean “give me your complete history from birth until today.” It doesn’t even mean “walk me through your work history.” It means “give me a brief overview of who you are as a professional.”

You might wonder why interviewers even ask this question; after all, they have your résumé! If they’ve read it, they already know your professional background. (And personally, I don’t use this question, largely for that reason; I just don’t find it very useful.) But interviewers who ask this question are generally looking to get a broad overview of how you see yourself as a professional as a sort of introduction before starting to dive more deeply into the specifics. Some interviewers, ironically, even see this question as a icebreaker question that will help candidates relax. Little do they know!

So, what exactly should your answer include?

The specifics of your answer will differ from person to person, but generally a good answer will summarize where you are in your career, note anything distinctive about how you approach your work, and end with a bit about what you’re looking for next.

For example, one version of a good answer might sound like this: “I originally got into fundraising because I really wanted to work with mission-driven organizations and I know how crucial it is to raise money to support work like yours. Pretty early on, I found that my science background was especially helpful in being able to talk with prospective donors about the work we were doing at organizations like A and B. I love being able to show donors how their gifts translate directly into outcomes like C and D, and I think my ability to do that while translating the science into layman’s terms is responsible for some of the largest donations I’ve raised. For example, last year I raised our single largest donation in our history by doing ___. I’m excited about the role you have open here because it would let me continue to use my science background while raising money for an issue I feel strongly about.”

That answer is short, but it hits on why you’re in the field, a special skill or talent you bring to it, what resonates with you about the work, an impressive accomplishment you’ve had, and why you’re interested in the role you’re interviewing for.

But don’t get too tied into this format! This is one example, but there are lots of ways to do a brief professional overview. As long as you’re giving a basic sense of what differentiates you professionally — and you’re not just regurgitating your résumé — you should be fine.

Your answer only needs to be about one minute long.

“Tell me about yourself” isn’t usually going to be a major part of the interview — it’s the easing-in that happens before you get into more nitty-gritty topics, so it doesn’t need to be an extensive treatise. Roughly one minute is a good general guideline.

And one minute might sound very short, but it’s actually pretty long when you’re talking out loud; time yourself and you’ll see. (The sample answer above took me only 45 seconds to say out loud.)

That’s not to say you can’t go longer if your interviewer looks interested and engaged. As with any interview response, watch the cues you’re getting from your interviewer and adjust accordingly.

Don’t drag yourself.

This isn’t the time to explain you were fired from your last job or to confess your difficulties finding the right career path or to acknowledge you might be underqualified. Your answer shouldn’t be an aggressive sales pitch (that’s annoying), but you want to stay upbeat and enthusiastic-sounding about both your career and this particular job opening.

Keep your focus professional, not personal.

Some people answer “Tell me about yourself” with things like, “I’m originally from Idaho but came to Boston 15 years ago,” or, “I’ve been happily married for a decade now and have two beautiful kids.” Don’t do that; keep it professional. If you have an interesting hobby or outside interest, it’s fine to throw that in toward the end (“And I do a lot of baking and last month won a state prize for a cake decorated to look like Queen Elizabeth!”), but it shouldn’t be the focus of your answer.

That said, some interviewers may want to get to know you more personally and not just hear about work. If so, let them ask! It’s better for an interviewer to have to say, “Tell me more about you as a person,” than for you to volunteer a bunch of personal details to an interviewer who wasn’t looking for that.

Practice your answer ahead of time.

Whatever you do, don’t try to wing your answer to this question in the moment! If you do, you’re likely to ramble and not hit the key points you want to make. Instead, as part of your interview preparations, work out your answer ahead of time and practice saying it out loud. There’s something about saying the actual words out loud to yourself a few times in the privacy of your own living room that makes the language easier to retrieve when you’re sitting in the interview chair.

Good luck!

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 83 comments… read them below }

  1. Fortitude Jones*

    I just give a brief summary of my educational background, how I fell into my numerous different roles, and why I’m attracted to the position I’m interviewing for. Basically, it’s a soft pitch about how I’m a writer first and foremost and while my experience looks like it’s divergent thanks to the many industries I’ve been in, it really isn’t when you think about my baseline competencies as an employee. Hiring managers seem to like my answer when they hear it, so I guess that’s usually what they’re going for.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      Speaking as a hiring manager who uses a variant of this question a lot, this is exactly what I’m looking for. It’s basically an elevator-pitch of your cover letter.

      I find that “Tell me about yourself.” tends to be tricky, especially for entry-level hires, though, I so try to go with something like, “Tell me a little bit about your experience and why you’re interested in this role.” or “Tell me about yourself and what led you to apply for the position.” I find by tying in the job, it’s clearer that I’m looking for what you’re doing rather than about where they’re from and what their hobbies are.

  2. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

    Yeah, totally took me a second to realize that wasn’t an illustration accompanying the article and I was thinking: “Tell me about yourself.” — “Well, I’m a easily spooked, and shy. I enjoy spelunking.”

    1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

      This comment was in reference to the 404 page not found graphic — which was fantastic.

  3. Working Mom Having It All*

    Bad link, but surely the answer to this is “a quick rundown of your career background as it relates to this position”?

    For example as someone with a background in film and TV production who has pivoted to business affairs, and who used to live in NYC so a lot of my resume consists of east coast based positions, that’s about what I say when I get the “tell me about yourself” question. I will also somewhat contextualize that for folks who might not know what “background in production” means. (Medium-term freelance work on the ground supporting the shooting crew during pre-production and principal photography… blah blah blah…)

  4. dealing with dragons*

    Re: the last line

    you should practice every interview question! It’s one thing to have bullet points in your head; quite another to form them into solid sentences and thoughts.

    and more on the content of the article, I usually start with where I graduated from, my internship, brief rundown at current company, then a small blurb of my personal time like hobbies. Usually that I own a husky, keep aquariums, and garden. I find that it can engage the interviewer as they’re kinda broad topics so I can be more friendly and leave that impression.

  5. Lily Rowan*

    I’m going to pat myself on the back now, because the opening question I ask is “What led you to be interested in this position?” and I’m basically looking for an answer like Alison suggested for “Tell me about yourself,” and I usually get it. I just think it’s a better framing for drawing out what I want to hear.

    Which is not to say no one ever whiffs it — I had someone give me a 20-minute run-through of her resume in response!

    1. (Former) HR Expat*

      I ask the same question, but I get vastly different responses. My company is well-known in our industry, so I get a lot of the “because I love your company and just want to get a foot in the door” responses that can drag on for 5 minutes.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        Oh yeah, I get those too, and do follow up with, “But what about this position in particular?”

        1. (Former) HR Expat*

          Yep, that’s how I redirect people as well. And if I don’t, then I’ll ask them to give me a brief overview of their professional background. That way I don’t get as much information that isn’t relevant to the job.

    2. Working Mom Having It All*

      What happens when what led someone to be interested in the position is “I’m unemployed and would like to continue to have a roof over my head”, “I have reason to believe this job pays better/offers better benefits than my current job”, or “my current company is a garbage fire and I have to get out of there immediately”?

      I feel like it’s fairly rare that I get an interview for a job wherein I have carefully researched the specific position and company for a long time (not that this never happens, just that it isn’t usually the case) and have an answer for why I’m interested in this particular position at this particular company which is going to impress the interviewer. Obviously the done thing is to bullshit your way through it, but that usually happens in the cover letter and also in various other interview questions that are designed such that “I like eating and having somewhere to go every day” is definitely the wrong answer.

      I’m currently going through the interview process for a position I want, at a company I would love to work for, and for once I’m not desperately unemployed or trying to get out of an awful situation. But still, the answer to your “what led you to be interested in this position” is “I got recruited and am curious whether it’s true that your company pays significantly better than others in this field/city.” Yes, I like what this company does, and the new position would enable me to work on projects that I’d find more fulfilling than what we’re doing at my current job. But, really, my interest lives and dies on whether it pays more. And that’s probably not what you want to hear. (For the record I got the standard “tell me about yourself” version of this question and had a much easier time telling the interviewer about my professional background and how it informs my interest and potential contributions to the team than I would have with your phrasing. Where I’d be really tempted to say “word around town is that y’all pay people well” and then expend energy dissembling into something more palatable.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I don’t know, I think this is almost deliberately obtuse about what they’re looking for. They want to know why you’re intrigued by this job and what would keep you engaged and the work feeling meaningful. If the answer is “nothing,” then the interviewer probably should go with other candidates if they have other good ones.

        1. Lily Rowan*

          And honestly, if you’ve been recruited and this is your first conversation, I wouldn’t ask it.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Right, definitely not! That would be tone-deaf if you’re recruiting the person since in that context it’s completely legitimate for the answer to be “well, I don’t know if I am, but I’m interested in hearing more.”

      2. Czhorat*

        I’d think you can have enough to give an answer to “why here” with fifteen or so minutes on Google and LinkedIn. You could mention:

        1) That they’re a large and stable firm and you are looking for a long-term career home.
        2) That they are a small and new firm, and you’re looking to work someplace more flexible and less corporate
        3) That they’ve been involved in whatever the latest project is they posted on their company blog and you found them intriguing

        OR something of the like. It needn’t be deeply personal, but it shouldnt’ be TOO heavy a lift to pretend that it’s THEM you like and not just “PLEASE GODS, GIVE ME A JOB, ANY JOB, I’m SO DESPERATE!”

      3. uranus wars*

        This caught my attention right away: I feel like it’s fairly rare that I get an interview for a job wherein I have carefully researched the specific position and company for a long time (not that this never happens, just that it isn’t usually the case) and have an answer for why I’m interested in this particular position at this particular company

        I understand an interview is where you, as a candidate, can learn a lot about culture/fit/actual job duties and determine interest in accepting an offer. While I don’t expect anyone to do hours of research, many things can be found out in a google search and I do expect a reasonable answer for what drove you to apply for the position/company – even if that reason is “I am ready to use my experience to work more in teapot design, and the description for this position seems to include the opportunity for me to use those skills more than my current position does.”

        I don’t need to hear anything overly specific, but I do lean toward Alison in that if I get a vibe someone is uninterested or doesn’t know why they want the position I would go with someone who showed me they cared enough to do a little research.

        1. 1234*

          Same with someone giving an “incorrect reason” as to why they want to work somewhere. i.e. “I want to be a llama groomer and advance my llama grooming skills.” while interviewing at a company that only does llama herding.

          1. paperpusher*

            I was on a hiring panel once and a candidate did something like this. She said she wanted to be in a busier customer service setting and not only were we hiring for the quiet season, the role was 100% behind the scenes work. We really didn’t feel that we were being punitive to dismiss her candidacy based on this answer, we thought that we would be almost selling someone false goods to go ahead and offer her a job she had stated outright didn’t fit with her career goals.

      4. Akcipitrokulo*

        There’s hours of careful research, and then there’s 5-30 min on their website finding out about them and picking out a few bits that you can use. You noticed that they are investing in X which is an area you’re interested in. Their latest blog mentioned Y which caught your eye because abc. You got impression from website you would be a good fit because…

      5. (Former) HR Expat*

        I mean, at the end of the day, we all want to work for money so we all have that in common. And if a company is looking for someone to be so excited and rah rah about them when they’re hiring and you’re not that, then chances are it’s not going to be a good fit even if you fake it through the interview process. But I’ve been where you’ve been and what worked for me was just showing that I’d done 10 minutes of research on their website and found a news article about them that was published recently.

        1. 1234*

          The problem with the news article that I’ve run into is that if I mention the news article, the person interviewing me goes “I was not involved in the project that made the news so I can’t speak to that” or they had no idea their company was even in the news.

      6. Parcae*

        Maybe think about the jobs you’re *not* applying for and compare it to the one you’re interviewing for? I bet there are positive non-monetary things about the jobs you’re considering; they’re just not coming to mind because you’ve already mentally excluded the bad-for-you jobs. You’re not applying for every.single.job. that pays more than your current one, after all.

        Many jobs in my particular line of work/with my job title require the approach of a salesperson. Some even involve cold-calling. Others are more purely technical– the work comes to you, essentially. When I interviewed for my current job, the fact that the particular position didn’t have a “sales” component was a huge plus to me. So even though the #1 reason I was applying was to make more money, I had a great answer to the “why us” question: the role was structured in a way that let me focus on what I was good at– the technical work– and not sales.

        Added bonus: if the job description they posted had just left out the sales component (possible), this would have revealed the mismatch at the first interview and saved all of us a lot of time.

      7. EinJungerLudendorff*

        Perhaps you can actually answer that somewhat truthfully, as long as you focus on the improvements over your current job/the parts they share with gour current or previous job that they like?

        You want the job because it’s stable, values your skills more (by giving you more money), the company has a (reasonably) good reputation, and you can use your skills to do the parts of your job that you actually like.

    3. BRR*

      I had an interview today start with tell me about yourself and why are you interested in this position and i think a combination of the two is an alright start. It sets the story as well as eases the person into the interview (well, it should anyways).

  6. Elbereth Gilthoniel*

    I’ll admit, I use this as an opener. I’ll admit, I did this was an easy question to give someone as an opener – just tell me a little bit about your work and how this role fits into your career trajectory (super briefly). Then I could respond with asking further questions about previous work history. I never realized it would cause people to be anxious. Question for the group – what is your opening interview question? Maybe I need a new one.

    1. Not All*

      If the answer you want is to the question “tell me a little bit about your work and how this role fits into your career trajectory (super briefly)”, just SAY that instead of making an interviewee guess whether you mean that, what makes them interesting personally, or any of the other 1000 (sometimes bizarre) things interviewers are looking for when they say “tell me about yourself”. Easy! :)

      1. uranus wars*

        I get what you are saying here, but when I changed my opening question from “Tell me more about yourself” to “Tell me a little bit about what brought you to apply for our position” and then “Tell me briefly about your professional career and what lead you to apply to this position” I still got the same “Well, after college I married my high school sweetheart and we had 3 kids. We were originally from 200 miles away but made our home here 11 years ago when I started at XYZ……”

        2/4 of my last interviews answered the “tell me your career and what lead you here” question with answers about their personal transition into the career. Our next round won’t have the question at all I think is where we are landing.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yeah, I don’t use any variations of it — I just don’t find it especially useful. There are faster ways to get into the conversation.

          1. Elbereth Gilthoniel*

            Alison, if I can ask – how do you start your interview conversations/questions? (Maybe this is a question that I should email in. But I’ll ask it here and you can tell me if I should email instead.)

            And thanks to Not All for responding. Agreed that it’s easier for all when questions are stated a bit more explicitly. It mostly just never crossed my mind that this would be an anxiety inducing question. It felt like a softball starter question. And I’m realizing that I’m in the minority/wrong in thinking that!

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              It varies! Sometimes I’ll start with “what interested you about this job?” but honestly I don’t feel like that gets me a lot of differentiating information and I’m really asking that only so that I’m not bluntly jumping straight into the meat of the interview. But right now I’m doing a lot of interviews that center around management and sometimes I do just jump straight into substance — like, “Well, I’m going to just jump right in and talk about management since that’s why we’re here! Tell me a bit about how you’d describe yourself as a manager, and how you think others would describe you.” (Or whatever.)

              1. 1234*

                But I thought you’ve mentioned that oftentimes, people have no idea what their management style really is? How does that question help you?

                Not trying to be argumentative at all, I really feel like I remember reading that on this site!

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  This is a job where you have to be an incredibly thoughtful and excellent manager (it’s teaching other managers to manage). So I want to hear what they say and if they can speak in specifics. What they choose to mention is really useful. If it’s a bunch of platitudes about an open door policy and little else, that tells me something. If they focus all on supporting employees and nothing about high bar/rigor/meeting goals, that tells me something. And so forth. It’s also just the entry point into the conversation – it gets *way* more nitty-gritty and specific from there.

                  But yeah, I wouldn’t use the question as a job seeker because you can’t do the kind of demanding follow-ups needed to make it useful in that context.

              2. Elbereth Gilthoniel*

                Thanks for answering my question! I always feel so awkward just jumping straight into the interview. I’m now picturing an interview like a pool. Some people want to dive right in. While some people want to ease into the water (like I do). I’ll have to give the diving right in a try. Luckily I am not interviewing for staff right now, but will keep it in mind for the future. Thanks again!

    2. JM in England*

      I have sometimes asked the interviewer for clarification about what information they’re after, usually with “What would you like to know?”. This is doubly important for me because I’m on the autism spectrum and don’t interview that well to begin with…

      1. EinJungerLudendorff*

        That would be my first response too.
        “Would you like to hear about my career, my personal life, my style of working, or something else?”

    3. Meißner Porcelain Teapot*

      A question that I’ve heard twice as an applicant and really liked was “So, Ms Meißen, happy to have you here. How did you find out about this job and what was it that caught your eye?”

      The first part gives the person you interview a clear, factual thing to latch onto and will also give you your first clue about this person’s general problem-tackling style. If they tell you “oh, I heard about it from a friend of mine who works in department X and encouraged me to apply because [whatever]”, then you know they have basic networking skills at least. If they tell you “I was browsing Industry-Specific Job Database™ or attending Big Industry Event™ when your company/this job posting caught my eye”, then you know they are interested and diligent enough to find specific information from your specific industry. If they say “Recruiter X got in touch with me and though I admit my background is not in Teapot Painting, but in Coffee Pot Design, this position just sounded too exciting to pass by”, then you know they are confident enough to take a risk here and there.

      The second part leads gives you a good first impression of where this person’s focus lies (your company’s mission, better careeer opportunities, interesting projects, awesome comp package, you name it). It also shows you very clearly who looked at the job posting and went “well, sounds ok, I guess I can send a CV?”

      1. Elbereth Gilthoniel*

        Ooh, I like that opener. I’ll have to add that to my toolkit of opening questions. Thanks Meißner Porcelain Teapot!

  7. Mimmy*

    I’ve always had trouble coming up with an answer to this question, even in networking situations (as opposed to a job interview).

    confess your difficulties finding the right career path

    This has been my scenario and, I’ll admit, I do mention this. What could be an example of a good alternative answer?

    1. uranus wars*

      I was in my early 20s and more interested in going out than being a professional.

      Seriously, though – I am not sure I have an answer for this or even understand this question. I have had 2 career paths and both were pretty clear and easy for me to get into. I guess I could say when I moved the geographic location didn’t fit path #1 anymore so I pursued path #2. But it still wasn’t all that difficult to find path #2.

    2. wandering_beagle*

      There is no “right” career path, just the one that you’re on. And it’s not a failure to have a varied career. I think it shows that you are adaptable and capable of learning new things, both of which are good qualities to have.

    3. BethDH*

      I think it’s okay to skip some of the earlier parts (they can ask about that if they want), so if they’re irrelevant, leave them out entirely. Just like Allison has said about resumes, you don’t have to include everything.
      If I were hiring, I wouldn’t be put off if someone said “I got a chance to try x role and found out that I was good at a and b that were a big part of the role, so then I did c to improve my skills and now I’m looking to do ___.” I would care 1) that you know why you’re applying for this particular position now and 2) that you got something valuable and relevant out of the previous role(s) that is applicable. We all know that circumstances affect what we end up doing, and I think as long as you can articulate why you want to keep doing it (or grow from it), you’re okay.
      If it’s a really varied path, maybe you could frame it more around what you want: “my key skills are x, y, and z, which I love to use in situations like a and b that are a part of this role. I’ve had experience doing x in position __ when I did ____, and I built y while I was _____ in role ____.” Sort of the verbal equivalent of a functional resume, I guess (but I think it works better for this kind of question than as a resume).

    4. Overeducated*

      Could this just be a question of framing positively rather than negatively? Like instead of “I tried X, but it didn’t work, so then I tried Y,” more of a “my experience from X made me interested in this element of your position, and then I went into Y and next hope to apply my Y skills in such and such job duties”?

  8. TheTallestOneEver*

    A long time ago I was taught that you’re supposed to answer with your elevator speech – 60 seconds or less of how your background and experience led you to be interested in the position and/or the employer.

    I have been on one interview panel where the candidate started his answer with his birth in Rochester.

  9. Karen from Finance*

    I usually tell them where I’m from, why I moved here (uni), and give a brief rundown of my career with a focus on why I took each of those jobs and what I enjoyed most about each of them. What is not always clear from a cv is what the story is behind it, and this question lets you tell it.

  10. Honoria Glossop*

    I admit, I’ve used this question before. Mostly as an opener, because it seems to be a good way to ease into questions from the chitchat at the beginning, and because I find it useful to hear what people think about themselves. To be honest though, the time I found it most useful was when I asked it and the interviewee hemmed and hawed for a bit, said “that’s such a strange question”, and then declined to actually answer or elaborate, even when prompted.

    1. starsaphire*

      Love your username! (How is dear cousin Tuppy? Still wasting time at the Drones Club?) :)

  11. ThatGirl*

    Yeah, I’ve gotten this in tons of interviews, and I usually just do a quick overview of my professional experience with a few highlights and how I got to where I am – and why I’m interested in the job at hand.

  12. Construction Safety*

    Very well, where do I begin? My father was a relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner from Belgium with low grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery. My mother was a fifteen year old French prostitute named Chloe with webbed feet. My father would womanize, he would drink, he would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark. Some times he would accuse chestnuts of being lazy, the sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament. My childhood was typical, summers in Rangoon, luge lessons. In the spring we’d make meat helmets. When I was insolent I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds, pretty standard really. At the age of 12 I received my first scribe. At the age of fourteen, a Zoroastrian named Vilma ritualistically . . .

      1. Lily Rowan*

        Now I want to hear Cordelia’s answer! “Well, after my time as a jump-ship captain, I took some time away to raise my child and handle some …family issues….”

  13. ZSD*

    I was recently on an interview panel in which one of our candidates spent *15 minutes* answering this question! It was all work-related, not personal, but…we did not hire her.

  14. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    This has actually been a great one for me because my resume says “Hey, I’m awesome and have done a lot of stuff” but my backstory really seals the deal. However I have seen so many people struggle with it and feel for the awkwardness it creates. This is a good example of just a quick run down is great and that’s really what is being looked for.

  15. Meg*

    I sat on a panel (peer) interview once where the late 20’s woman answered this question by telling us how old she was and where she grew up. It was…not great, especially from someone who was like 28. Her whole interview came across as really immature/inexperienced/young. Which would be fine if she were straight out of college….not almost 30.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Yeah but I’ve also had interviewers stop me when I’m talking about my professional background and say “no no, tell me about yourself outside of work.” Which of course has been awful and not jobs I’ve ever accepted thankfully. So I have to wonder if the woman had just came from that kind of interview :(

      1. 1234*

        I can see someone asking “What are some of your hobbies outside of work?” at the end of the interview! Is that an automatic “no” for you if they ask this type of question?

        1. Overeducated*

          It wouldn’t be an automatic no, but it would be a yellow flag for me because I can think of plenty of ways it could hurt someone’s candidacy without actually providing useful information from a hiring standpoint. For instance, what if someone has trouble answering because they have young children (or other caretaking responsibilities, a very long commute or second job, a hard to manage health issue, etc.) that mean they have limited free time and energy, but that aren’t appropriate to reveal in an interview? Should they worry about being judged for having less exciting sounding hobbies like reading or cooking, or hobbies that are too “weird”? Etc.

        2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          If it’s clearly defined as “what are your hobbies outside of work?” then not automatically. However as someone with very few hobbies, I don’t appreciate the question. Everyone gets all shifty when I’m like “I haven’t had a lot of time over the years to have hobbies, so I’ve never developed them.” Not all of us love big river rafting, crafting or being on a recreational league, which is always what they’re aiming for when talking about hobbies I’ve learned.

      2. Errol*

        I’ve had a lot of folks stop me and ask for outside of work about me.

        To avoid this, I’ve narrowed it down to a few sentence elevator pitch that covers both now that I just give every single time someone asks me this question.

        “My name is Errol, my hobbies are flying and enjoying a spot of garden gnome hunting. Professionally I’ve delivered letters and parcels for the last 10 years with the same family (the Weasleys), while very nice people it’s just time for me to spread my wings”

  16. Data Nerd*

    I work now (and have for 12 years) for the County where I grew up, so last time around I started with “I grew up in Town where my parents still live and have XYZ ties to Region, so I’m excited at the opportunity to help make County a better place to be (ties in with my job).” and then gave a rundown of my education and experience and what expertise I in particular brought to the table. Next time around, it’ll probably be somewhere else in State, so while I might bring up that I’m a lifelong State resident, I’ll probably just stick to “amazing utility player, everything I touch turns to gold, and here’s awesome way I can help with concerns ABC that you mentioned in the job posting”.

  17. Overeducated*

    I loved this question when I was trying to make a career transition a few years ago. It was a chance to put my work history in a clear and relevant narrative right at the start of the interview. Didn’t always work, but felt like it got me off to a good start. (On the other hand, “what are three words your friends would use to describe you? Three different words your family would use?” got me off on the wrong foot and that interview was unrecoverable.)

    1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      Oh, that last example is totally on the interviewer. What bizarre questions. Unless you have telepathy, you have no way of knowing what other people are going to say about you. And those people aren’t there for the interview anyway, so why are they even relevant? You probably dodged a bullet there.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        Also, my family and friends would use pretty much the same words! That might have been less true in my 20s, maybe? But even still, a terrible question.

  18. Allison*

    Oh man, when I was younger I forked this up all. The. TIME. And I’d get into my hobbies and personal interests instead of focusing on my major, academic interests, career aspirations, what got me interested in my major and what I’d excelled at and enjoyed in past internships, etc. Now, I say what I do, how long I’ve been doing it, my areas of focus, why I’m focused where I am and where I’m looking to go from here. I may also include why I fell into my line of work, and why some of the shorter positions ended when they did, although I was fired from my first job six years ago so I don’t really see a reason to bring that up at this point, although I’ll explain if they ask.

  19. The Tin Man*

    Oh man, whenever this comes up I think of 16-20 year old me who took that question to talk about being the youngest of five children, etc and feel mortified!

    1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      Don’t worry, you’re definitely not alone in this. I’ve said similar things in response. We both did our best with the knowledge we had. So many of these standard interview questions are confusing if you don’t know the reason behind them. ‘Tell me about yourself’ always sounds like wanting to know your personal history. Once I found out they meant ‘tell me about your professional history’, my answers changed completely. Same with ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ Thank God for Alison and this site, I’d still be floundering with that one!

    2. Snarktini*

      The first time I got this question I was 21 and in college, interviewing for an on-campus internship in my major (graphic design). I started to talk about where I was from and he gently chuckled and steered me to talk about what led me to design and what I wanted to do etc. I was SO embarrassed! I can still feel that feeling of hot shame today, more than 20 years later. But, in hindsight, how could I possibly have known? I was 21, it was my first professional interview. It’s a standard question and it’s not weird that he asked, but he shouldn’t have seemed so surprised that I got it wrong either.

  20. Unknown*

    Ugg. When I’m asked this, I always ask for clarification on if they want me to talk about professional or personal things. I’ve started talking about professional things before and been interrupted and told they meant hobbies, so I feel like there’s no way to know what people mean when they’re being vague.

    At the last interview I went to where I asked for clarification on what they wanted to know about me, they said “anything! your past jobs or your hobbies! whatever you want to talk about! help me get to know you!” I feel overwhelmed by vague questions because then I feel like any answer I give is not going to be what they’re looking for, so saying to talk about anything was unhelpful.

  21. LSP*

    When I first started at my current job, the director of one of the other practices (not the one I worked in) asked me into her office to talk. When she asked me to tell her about myself, I did was Alison says here, and I gave her a brief overview of my professional background. Then she asked if I was married and if I had any kids. This wasn’t an interview, as I had already started the job, but it was jarring to have someone use that typical interview question as a foothold into more personal things, rather than just having a casual chat about topics like that in the breakroom, for instance.

    1. 1234*

      That person sounds nosy and abrasive! What if those were very sensitive subject matters for you?! Such as “Well now that you mention it, my husband and I have been trying to have a child for years but I am unable to conceive due to_____ and we are about to try ______ medical procedure…” *starts crying*

  22. Mindy St Claire*

    I once had a candidate answer this question by explaining that he really wanted to be an actor, including details about all of the starring roles he’d had in college. The job was doing scientific field work. Thanks to his honesty, he was not hired.

  23. Parcae*

    I sometimes pretend the question is, “How should I summarize your background for my boss, who wants final say on this hire but never reads the resumes I give her?”

    The last interview I had (a second interview), I was asked that question, and it actually felt pretty useful because the senior member of the panel was rushing in from another meeting and clearly had no idea who I was. My answer quickly oriented her to my resume and background, and she contributed positively to the interview after that.

  24. Suzy Q*

    I’ve found that this really differs depending on where you live. I used to live in a big, metropolitan area where the more professional response would be good. Where I currently live, interviewers are looking to chat a bit more personally, I have found.

  25. G*

    I’ve found reframing this question in my head really helps. “What do you most want me to know about you?”

    Chances are I’ve prepped and I’ve got a couple of examples of things I’ve done that I really want to share, this question gives me an opportunity to get them in early. I can then focus on answering their questions more fully because I’m not looking for opportinities to share those particular examples, although I may still refer to them.

  26. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

    We had a group “interview” with a prospective department admin assistant and she brought her scrapbook in. Not kidding. No one in the group actually had hiring power, this was more a meet the people you might be working with. We looked at photos of her on the high school dance team, her family, her vacations…I honestly can’t remember anything else about that interview. It was strange, but very informative about her personality. She was hired by the big boss, who did not get treated to the scrapbook, and she turned out fine as a coworker and admin for a few years before she left for a better position. Please don’t do this.

  27. Luna*

    I dislike the quesiton because it generally comes up after we have discussed the educational/career paths, meaning I have already explained why I am not working in the job I have gone to school to train for. (Medical reasons) It doesn’t matter what I’m like in my personal life, after all, because I act differently while working. It isn’t, and shouldn’t, be important that I enjoy drawing. What should be important is questions like, “How would you react in a stressful situation like X?” which the manager during my hotel interview did. That is more helpful because it does involve work, and could show how the candidate deals with things. (For example, I try to look up various solutions for things, not just one; and my own estimate on how I’d react to stress situation X was right, while my eventual reaction to stress situation Y ended up differently than I expected.)

  28. Doctor Schmoctor*

    If an interviewer wants to know something, they should ask. It shouldn’t be necessary for me to guess what they actually want. DO you want to know where I was born, and how many siblings I have? Because apparently, that is exactly what some people mean when they ask that question. It’s almost as bad as those “read between the lines” questions, like “If you were cheese, what kind would you be.”

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