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Break the ice and nail the “Tell us about yourself” interview question

August 28, 2022 - 14 min read

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The (not so) secret meaning behind “tell us about yourself”

How to answer “tell me about yourself”

5 best practices for answering “tell us about yourself”

“Tell us about yourself” example answers

Be ready to move forward in the hiring process

The “tell us about yourself” job interview prompt may seem like a safe question to wing, but trust us: don’t skip your prep.

You’ve probably cracked under the pressure of a straightforward question before. Maybe you’ve been asked about your favorite books and felt like you’ve forgotten every title you’ve read. If you’re not prepared, it’s easy to fumble simple answers or come up blank.

The “tell us about yourself” question will likely be one of the first things a recruiter asks in an interview. Your response is your chance to make a great first impression — so be prepared with a strong and thoughtful answer.

Many interviewers can tell within the first 15 minutes of an interview whether or not they want to hire a candidate. And you’ll likely be using at least two of those minutes responding to the “tell me about yourself” prompt. 

You need to make those two minutes count.

So, how do you craft the perfect answer? Let’s get into it.

 

The (not so) secret meaning behind “tell us about yourself”

When a hiring manager hits you with the “tell us about yourself” interview question, they want to:

  • Determine how well-rounded you are as a candidate. This is an opportunity to show off your diverse work experience and articulate why you’re the best fit for the role. Interviewers also evaluate your personality to determine whether you’re a good cultural fit for their company.
  • Get the story behind the CV and cover letter. Interviewers want you to walk them through your work history. They want to know what you learned from each job, why you moved on, and where your new role fits into this trajectory. 
  • Ease into the conversation. The interview process is stressful enough. Interviewers don’t want you feeling like it’s an interrogation. “Tell us about yourself” acts as an icebreaker, opening the door to natural back-and-forth rather than launching into an abrasive Q&A about qualifications, experience, and hypothetical scenarios. 
  • Orient themselves for the interview. The hiring team should have a plan for your interview, but your response to “tell us about yourself” will remind them of the items on your CV and why they’re interested in you. It also opens the door to creative follow-up questions.

You might also run into different variations of the “tell us about yourself” question:

  • “I read your resume, but I would love to hear more about you.”
  • “Walk me through your CV.”
  • “Tell us more about your journey.”
  • “I’d love to hear more about your background.”

Your answer will set the foundation for the rest of the interview. It should tie nicely into your responses to other common interview questions, such as “Why should we hire you?” and “Why do you want this job?”  

The goal is to tell a story that highlights your skills, demonstrates your personal interest in the job, and paints a clear picture of your career path and past experiences.

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How to answer “tell me about yourself”

Your response to “tell us about yourself” should be more than a list of qualifications and previous jobs. Ideally, the interviewer read your CV beforehand —they already know the basics.

Instead, take this opportunity to tell your professional life story. Contextualize the items on your resume. Help the interviewers understand your values, what motivates you, and why you made certain career decisions.

Use the present-past-future template to structure your interview answer. This is a simple formula made of three parts:

  • Present: describe where you are now. Discuss your current role and what you enjoy about it. Add some personal details, like your hobbies or passions. Show the recruiter you’re a Whole Person™ — a little personality goes a long way.
  • Past: talk about how you arrived here. Mention your education and previous experiences (such as a past job or internship). Talk about how they helped you be successful in your current role.
  • Future: touch on a career goal you hope to reach. Describe what you aim to accomplish on a professional level and how this new job will help you do that.

Preparing for your next interview? BetterUp can help. Our coaches offer career advice to help you knock every answer out of the park. Together, we can review your work history, identify your skills, and help you rehearse your interview responses.

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5 best practices for answering “tell us about yourself”

Here are some tips as you consider what to say about yourself in an interview:

1. Align your answer with the job and organization

Think about what you want the interviewers to see in you. How do you show them you’re not only a great candidate, but the best candidate for the job?

Spend some time researching the company and its mission. Memorize the job description. Then craft your answer to demonstrate why you’re interested in the role and what you bring to the table.

2. Know your audience

You’ll likely go through multiple interviews for a job, each requiring a different approach. 

Your first meeting might be with a recruiter who’s filtering out candidates. They won’t know the details of the job, so you’ll want to focus on the big picture. 

In your next round, when you meet your prospective supervisor, you can be more technical with your answer.

3. Stay professional

Your personality should come through in your response, but that doesn’t mean you should talk like you would to a friend. First and foremost, it’s a professional conversation. 

You can be friendly and light, but make sure your answer shows you’re serious. 

4. Keep it concise

You have long and rich work history — it’s tempting to get into the weeds and talk about all of it. But open-ended questions like “tell us about yourself” can easily devolve into long-winded rambles. A good rule is to keep your response between one and a half and two minutes.

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5. Practice, but don’t script yourself

Write down the most important points about yourself and memorize their order of appearance. Then practice your answer out loud, trying different ways of transitioning from one idea to the next. 

You want to appear natural and confident. This is easier to do if you’re not reciting a script word-for-word. Plus, if you’re interrupted during your answer, it’s simpler to recover if you’re not worried about missing specific beats. Bullet points will do.

6. Focus on the positives

Your career probably isn’t all roses and butterflies. Almost everyone has a story about a difficult boss or uncooperative coworker. But a job interview isn’t the place to air out your grievances.

As you recount your work history, highlight the things that made you happy and proud. You can also pick anecdotes that show your greatest strengths. Otherwise, you risk coming off as negative and disgruntled — not a great look for the interviewers.

“Tell us about yourself” example answers

Here are some sample answers to inspire your own. 

Pay attention to how each response follows the present-past-future formula and how they’re more than a bullet point list of accomplishments. 

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Example 1: for someone looking for a similar role at a new company

“I joined my current company as a content writer because I love the craft. 

Throughout college, as I completed my degree in English Literature, writing was always top-of-mind when looking for opportunities. For example, I accepted an internship at my small-town newspaper because it allowed me to tell interesting stories. 

When I moved back to the city, new jobs were scarce, so I worked at a local content agency because it allowed me to keep writing. My current work is primarily focused on social media. 

I’m grateful for all I’ve learned, but my goal is to expand into long-form writing. When I saw this job posting on LinkedIn, I was very interested.”

Example 2: for a recent graduate searching for an entry-level job

“I have two months left to complete my graduate school program in marine biology. I chose this field because I grew up by the sea. I love the ocean and everything in it, and I care very deeply about how climate change affects it. 

Last summer, through a seasonal internship, I worked on a ship with oceanographers in the Arctic. We made many fascinating discoveries, and I was grateful to contribute in a small way. Now, I hope I can continue doing fieldwork and one day lead a study of my own.”

Example 3: for a career transition

“I’m currently a product manager at a tech startup. I love helping talented people build amazing things, which is why I enjoy the role so much. 

But I also have a history of working in the public sector. I’ve organized community events and previously worked with not-for-profits in my city. I was also elected to student government during my graduate degree. 

I miss public service work. I hope I can use my management skills in this new role at your organization to return to my passion.”

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Be ready to move forward in the hiring process

As a job seeker, nailing the “tell us about yourself” question is your first step toward a perfect interview. It’s a chance to introduce the interviewers to a glimpse of your personality, values, and aspirations.

Be positive, personable, and connect the dots on your CV. Tell a story about your career. Walk interviewers through your career milestones and highlight what you’re good at

Self-promotion often feels uncomfortable, but you’ve worked hard to get here. Do this correctly, and they’ll see you for the rockstar candidate you are.

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Published August 28, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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