Answering the "Tell me about yourself" question
by Jeff Skrentny, CPC/CTS, ATMS/Copyright © 2000-2003, Jeff Skrentny & Jefferson Group Consulting Let's face it, interviewing is stressful enough without having to answer stupid interview questions. But unfortunately, many interviewers, because of habit, lack of preparation time, poor training, or yes, even laziness, often ask stupid questions. Of those, one of the most challenging is the oft used "Tell me about yourself" interview opener.
What most candidates ask me about this insipid interview question is: "What do they want to know?" They want to know about you the candidate as a potential employee. They don't want to know about your family, your last vacation, your hobbies, your religious beliefs, that you like the Cubs, or that you are a proud member of AA. Yes, I have had candidates give each of those responses to the infamous "Tell me about yourself" question. I don't recall any of them ever getting hired by the employers who interviewed them. Interviewers also think it is improper, a sign of your lack of preparedness, or even rude, for you to answer their "Tell me about yourself" question with a question of your own like, "What would you like to know?" If you are prepared, and seriously thinking about making a career change, you will have a prepared and thoughtful answer to this question BEFORE you begin interviewing. Why? I am glad you asked, and I think one example should convince you I am right.
Let me share just one story about this opening interview question that cost a candidate a job she REALLY wanted. It is a perfect illustration to make you understand why you must plan a response for this question whether you are asked it or not. The scenario was this: The candidate was a financial services professional, her recruiter had a financial services client that was looking to fill a VP position for a 125k base + 25k bonus. The candidate had an ideal background and skill set, and the client thought she was a perfect fit. The candidate knew the client and was thrilled to interview with her. The client joked that when the candidate came to the interview the recruiter should send the candidate with an invoice for the fee, because they thought they might make her an offer on the spot. You can more or less guess how the story ended. The candidate didn't get the job, but please pay attention as to why, because that is the part of the story that matters most. To start the interview the candidate was asked the dreaded "Tell me about yourself" question. Thinking that it was an inconsequential icebreaker question, she retorted, simply intending to cause an opening chuckle, "Well, as you can obviously see, I am 15-20 pounds overweight." She was only joking! Yet, due to the impact this answer had on the client, for all practical purposes the interview was over as soon as she said this. That "amusing" answer to what the candidate viewed as a seemingly innocuous question convinced the employer that this $150k VP had an image or low self-esteem problem. Despite the recruiter's insistence that it was just a joke, the employer declined to make the candidate an offer. The retort was just a joke! But not really. It was no joke to the candidate who lost the $150k dream job. It was no joke to the recruiter who had invested so much time in finding the employer this ideal candidate. This candidate attempted to humorously break the ice, but the interviewer misinterpreted the response to a stupid question, and became convinced the candidate was not VP material. This whole fiasco could have been avoided if the candidate had just been taught a very simple formula for answering this question. Sure, we know this question is a stupid and unnecessary one with which to begin an interview. But because interviewers open interviews with this question, candidates need to know how to respond to it intelligently. The formula I've learned has worked wonders for hundreds of my candidates,...
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