How to be ready for the “Tell me about yourself” opener

We have spoken – and written – at length in the past about how crucial a part thorough research and preparation play in optimising candidate performance in job interviews.  Doing one’s homework usually involves detailed scrutiny of the job brief, the company’s website and social channels, industry research, digging into the hiring manager’s background and personality, SWOT analyses, overview of financials, investigating the company culture and more.  Diligent applicants will trial-run competency-based interview frameworks, taking care to include situational examples of where and when showcased strengths were exhibited and to what spectacular outcome.

Can a candidate ever be OVER-prepared? Not really, but it is worth bearing in mind that the greater the pursuit of detail, the further one drifts from that crucial vantage point where ‘the big picture’ is firmly in focus.  A good example of this is an interviewee being meticulously prepared yet nevertheless instantly floored by the classic opener “So, tell me a bit about yourself.”

 It’s a simple enough question, isn’t it?  Perhaps the interviewer merely wants to break the ice and helpfully calm any nerves the candidate may have.  It’s often actually regarded as a lazy or corner-cutting mechanism on behalf of the interviewer.  This could be the case if he or she was late, rushed or simply under-prepared, but more often than not it’s usage is strategically planned, and for good reason:  Talking about ourselves is not actually as easy as we’d like to think!

“Tell me about yourself” therefore, while ostensibly casual and unstructured, is actually a land-mine of a question whose simplicity is deceptive and whose purpose is to willfully throw you off your game so that you don’t give a memorised or prepared answer.  All the more reason, then, to not only anticipate it but to have exactly what the question is designed to leave you bereft of:  A meticulously planned response.  A compelling and concise short-story.

Before I get into what that should consist of, you might wonder why a hiring manager would want to trip you up in the first place?  Not very sporting is it?  It’s because they’re more interested in how you respond than your actual response.  If the job you’re interviewing for particularly involves thinking on your feet a lot then this question serves as a perfect role-play to assess how you adapt on the fly.  So don’t panic, but equally don’t wing it.  Knowing that it’s coming will enable you to actually see this question as a fantastic opportunity to take control of the interview and really differentiate yourself.

I’ve already referred to “Tell me about yourself” as deceptively simple and that deception comes in the assumption that the interviewer is asking for a potted version of your life story.  They’re not!  They just want bits of it. OK, so which bits?  You could ask of course, but that just sounds guarded and defensive: “Well, want do you want to know?!”  They want to know the bits of your life story that are RELEVANT TO THE JOB.  Furthermore, just to make it even trickier, they want to know the bits of your life story that are relevant to the job but are NOT ON YOUR CV.  The interviewer already has your CV on the table, so merely regurgitating it is pointless.  Let’s instead go a bit further.

First of all, keep it short and sweet.  Start strongly with something memorable like “Ever since I was seven years old, I’ve always wanted to…”  Actively make it clear you wish to use this opportunity to go beyond the confines of the CV with something like “What my resume doesn’t really allude to is my values…”  Values, indeed, are exactly the sort of thing you should be getting at here.  Avoid skills and strengths.  They’re on the CV and they’re infinitely quantifiable.  Go deeper.  Get into what motivates you, what makes you tick and what you deem important.  The goal here is not to become friends but nevertheless you should maybe stop short of going as far as into personal beliefs!  But do be genuine.  Honesty, frankness and candour all go a long way.

Again, keep it relevant to them.  To the job.  When you’re outlining your willingness to try new things, your commitment, your critical thinking skills or your sound judgement, for example, always underpin these with real-life examples, dates, places, outcomes, lessons learned.  In short (and it MUST be short!) tell a success story that best demonstrates the personal qualities you feel will best prepare you to succeed in the job and to flourish within their organization.

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