Although this a very simple question it often throws people in an interview. Firstly, because it’s a question we are more familiar with encountering in an informal situation. It can be hard to gauge how open to be and whether your answer should be strictly work-related or more personal.
Whilst talking about yourself should be easy, knowing you are being judged on what you say can make you feel nervous. On the one hand, not offering more than a sentence or two might make you sound boring, but you also don’t want to come across as arrogant. If you have no idea what information the interviewer is seeking when they ask this question, it is hard to know where to draw the line.
Why do Interviewers Ask this Question?
Open ended questions, like ‘tell me about yourself’ are called behavioural questions. When you hear this question in an interview, you can be sure that interviewer is paving the way to ask you further questions of this type, where you’ll be called on to share personal examples.
Behavioural questioning is becoming more popular because, unlike with traditional interview questions, there’s less of an obvious right answer. They require you to share more about yourself, demonstrate your skills and reveal your ability to think on the spot rather than rely on rehearsed answers.
For example, a traditional interview question might ask you whether you have experience with X, (say a type of software or a sales technique.) Traditionally, reeling off how many years you have worked with X, and perhaps in what context, would be taken as a satisfactory answer. In contrast, a behavioural question might ask, ‘tell us something you achieved or a problem you solved through using X’. This requires you to draw an example to illustrate your experience.
Traditional interviews make it easy for candidates to state they have a certain skill, whereas behavioural questions actually test your knowledge. Behavioural questions therefore help interviewers separate those who know how to ‘pass’ traditional interview questions from those who can demonstrate their knowledge upon request.
Although this may sound nerve-racking, behavioural questions like ‘tell me about yourself’ can actually give experienced candidates a better chance to stand out. And the good news is that behavioural interviews also contain certain stock questions, meaning that, with practice, you can still get prepared.
Understanding what the Interviewer Wants
The key to answering any interview question well is understanding what information the interviewer wants from candidates. In the case of the opening ‘tell me about yourself’ question, the interviewer is:
- Trying to get you to let your guard down
Although this question can have the opposite effect on some candidates, this question is actually meant to relax you and encourage you to be yourself. Being given the opportunity to talk about the subject you are most familiar with (you!) should act as an ice-breaker. It also prepares the way for more behavioural questions where you’ll be asked to draw upon your own experiences.
- Looking for evidence that you can communicate clearly and professionally
While the interviewer is looking for an insight into your personality, they are also gauging your professionalism on what information you choose to present them with. The question also helps them assess your ability to communicate clearly, as candidates should not need to struggle to give an answer here. If you suffer from interview nerves, practising is a good way to ensure that you’ll seem comfortable rather than freezing and looking as if you have something to hide!
You should aim to appear comfortable and seem enthusiastic about helping them to get to know you more.
What to Avoid
Despite being a personal question, the interview context requires a level of formality. It’s therefore useful to set some boundaries on how much you should share. Use the following pointers as cues that you are on (or off!) the right track when practising your responses.
Only offering one or two sentences might give the impression you are closed or unfriendly. However, you should also avoid reeling off every aspect of your interests and work experience. Aim to keep your answer between 1 and 3 minutes. On the day, watch the interviewer’s body language for topics that pique their interest and signs they expect you to wrap up.
- Being Negative
No-one wants to work with someone who complains and brings down the office morale, so keep all your comments positive. Neither will it come across as professional to bad mouth your current workplace or colleagues. Frame everything you say in a positive light. Talk about setbacks or your reasons for leaving previous posts as learning experiences and seeking new challenges.
- Getting too Personal
‘Tell me about yourself’ is a question that can easily lead to over-sharing. Whilst it’s good to give some insight into who you are, keep in mind the formality required of the interview situation. As a rule, you shouldn’t mention anything which could give an interviewer the opportunity to discriminate, so leave out topics such as your love-life, your religious beliefs and political views.
- Including too Much
Doing your homework and reading about the company values can help you select the aspects of your experience, attitude and personality that make you a good fit for the company. Choose two or three personal strengths that relate to the role and stick to these.
- Relating Everything on Your CV
The interviewer already has this information so there’s no need to feel you have to recount every detail. Choose one or two key experiences relevant to the role and say how these have shaped your trajectory and future career goals.
Tips for Success
- Back any statements up with brief examples. For instance, if you think it’s relevant to include that you are a good team player, then give them a short illustration of this.
- Don’t over rehearse. Your aim is to sound natural, so don’t memorise your answer word-for-word. Aim to recall your main points and this will jog your memory to fill in the detail.
- Help them get to know you. For example, If you are going for a role where creativity or communication skills are valued, then feel free to mention a hobby which supports this, such as photography, writing or debating.
Get some Professional Help
Job interviews can be daunting, especially when you are presented with unfamiliar questions. However, remember that behavioural questions give candidates with valuable experience a better chance to stand out.
If you feel you need some more help with practising, or there’s a lot riding on you landing a particular opportunity, you may consider investing in a career coach. However, many people don’t realise that using a reputable, experienced recruiter can provide the same interview preparation support for free. In addition to helping you prepare, they are also experts on matching candidates with their ideal employer, reducing the work of your job search and increasing your chances of landing your ideal role.
Graham Quinn, at WMIS Wireless Mobile International Search, is skilled in preparing candidates in the latest interview techniques, including behavioural questioning. He has over fifteen years’ experience, successfully placing candidates in executive roles within their specialist niche (wireless and mobile networks, systems and connected devices) both in the UK and worldwide. Contact him today to see how WMIS can support you.