By Kathleen Sullivan
When you are asked to “Tell me about yourself” during an interview, your response can make or break the interview. You are being requested to introduce yourself, provide your relevant skills and experience, and validate your candidacy. Your response to “Tell me about yourself” is your first, and sometimes, your only opportunity to sell yourself. If you do not gain the hiring manager’s interest and respect with your response, the rest of the interview may become irrelevant. Unfortunately, many job seekers are unconfident, unprepared, and unfocused and miss this opportunity. For job seekers over 40, there is even more pressure to make a strong introduction and impression because you may have additional concerns about competition from younger candidates, age discrimination, and higher salary expectations.
Common mistakes to avoid when answering, “Tell me about yourself:”
Giving general rather than specific information: Because you have a broad background and wealth of experience, particularly if you are over 40, you assume that you will impress the hiring manager with a long list of your skills and accomplishments. Instead, your response will seem vague and irrelevant and the hiring manager may assume that you do not understand the position or that you are unqualified.
Citing employers, industry knowledge, and experience that are out of date: You will create the impression that you are out of date and will not be able to learn new skills or adapt to new environments.
Saying that you have little knowledge of or little use for new technologies: Again, you will be perceived as someone who is out of date and unwilling to learn and adapt to change.
Bragging about your former status or accomplishments: There is a fine line between confidently providing evidence and examples of your qualifications and boasting. If you go too far, the hiring manager may perceive it as egotism or one-upmanship and that you will not be content with the position for which you are interviewing.
Best practices for answering, “Tell Me about Yourself:”
Understand and respond to the hiring manager’s needs (not yours): A hiring manager’s main concern is to hire the person who can solve his /her current business needs: the need for additional staff, specific industry or functional knowledge, defined skill set, and / or appropriate attitude. In answering the question, “Tell me about yourself,” you must position yourself immediately as the person who can meet the hiring manager’s business needs. You are selling yourself as the solution to his/her problem. Prior to the interview, use both formal research and any anecdotal information you can gather to gain an understanding of the business needs the hiring manager is seeking to fill. Evaluate your knowledge, experience, and skills and extract those that are most relevant. Emphasize the qualifications you offer that best translate as solutions to the hiring manager needs when answering “Tell me about yourself” and as themes throughout the interview.
Dissect the position description: The position description for which you are being interviewed contains critical information about the specific knowledge, skills, and credentials the hiring manager is seeking. Carefully analyze each one of these and list the specific experience, accomplishments, and training you offer that meet the requirements of the position. Develop examples of your accomplishments that illustrate how you can fulfill the key qualifications described in the position. Again, the hiring manager has a need and you are the solution to that need.
Use the same language: Be sure to use the same language used in the position description. For example, if you have expertise in corporate training, and the position description asks for someone who can conduct organizational learning, use the words organizational learning rather than corporate training during the interview. If you speak the same language, it will be easier for the hiring manager to see you as part of that culture and as one of his staff.
Craft your answer ahead of time: Develop your script prior to the interview. Open with a broad statement of your experience, skills, and credentials, emphasizing those that support how you can provide solutions to the hiring manager’s needs. Include an overview of your work history, focusing on your most relevant experience and usually not going back more than 15 years, unless your earlier experience is key to the hiring manager’s needs. Briefly describe your roles, responsibilities, key accomplishments, and why you made job transitions. Focus on your strengths that are the most critical to the position and the business needs. Finally, describe how you would use your experience and strengths in that position, which will enable the hiring manager to envision you in that role.
Practice your delivery: Once you have written your script, practice delivering it. Ideally, use a career coach or colleague who understands your background and the requirements of the position. Ask for feedback as to how clear and persuasive you are. If you do not have a coach or colleague to assist you, practice in a small, quiet space where you can really hear your response. Revise your script, as needed. Practice again.
If you demonstrate that you understand the hiring manager’s needs, provide the solutions to those needs, and speak his /her language, and you deliver your sales pitch convincingly, you will set yourself up for interview success when answering, “Tell me about yourself.”