You’re in an interview room, you’re on the phone, you’re video chatting or you're talking over a cup of coffee, and it comes up: “So, tell me a little about yourself.” Crickets. Your entire life, relationships, fears, desires and mannerisms flash before you. How do you condense this into a one-minute answer? You don’t.
What do they mean by tell me about yourself?
“Tell me (a little) about yourself,” or TMAY, isn’t a passport application or a dating profile, it’s not even a question to which you can have one canned answer. TMAY is the next generation of “Why are you a good fit for this organization?” It is a step up from “Why do you want this job?” and a more open-ended way of asking: “How are you the best person for this position?” When an interviewer asks TMAY, they do want a story, but it is still an interview: they don’t want a condensed laundry list of your life; they want a story that shows why this position is your next step — and why you're a good fit for the job.
How to respond to “tell me a little about yourself.”
Don’t make the interviewer feel like a drill sergeant (unless they are one): acknowledge that it is a conversation and show that you are happy to talk with the person and provide the information they are looking for. A simple “of course” or “no problem” before launching into your story can go a long way toward making the interview feel like a conversation and making you both feel a little more relaxed.
2. Start somewhere that makes sense.
Knowing what the organization is about and the job description is essential to a good TMAY answer. Only after having this information can you decide which part of your life you’re going to discuss. Then you can decide whether it makes sense to start with your childhood upbringing, jump straight to your education or even begin your story about your last job. Your starting place is important because TMAY answers are easiest to follow and remember when they're chronological.
3. Talk about the pieces that you care about.
The interviewer already has your application and resume, you don’t have to squeeze all your accomplishments into this one minute. Choose around three relevant points — the ones that slide right into this organization’s priorities — and craft your life story around them. You are filling in the blanks from your resume and giving the interviewer an idea of how you got from one experience to the other while leading them down a path that logically implies this position is the next landing place.
4. Don’t include unnecessary details (even if you think they “make you look good”).
TMAY isn’t a place to list all your greatest achievements or even necessarily tell the story about how you singlehandedly raised thousands of dollars for a local charity. You don’t want to drone on or be too wrapped up in your own brilliance. Interviews are a balancing act of talking highly of yourself without sounding like your personal accomplishments are all you ever talk about.
5. Wrap it up.
Time yourself before the interview to make sure your answer is around a minute. If the interviewer asks TMAY at the beginning, there's still a lot of interview left, so keep your answer short, maybe to two main points. If the interview is more casual and TMAY is asked later, feel free to go a little longer, still being conscious that the fewer points you have, the clearer and more memorable your answer will probably be. If your interview is in person, use the interviewer’s body and facial language to determine when there is a natural place to stop talking and let them jump in. If it doesn’t look like they plan to start talking you may lapse into an awkward pause, so draw your answer out another sentence or two or bring the story around to a question or thought you have about the organization or job to make it easy for them.
If you’re entry-level
If you haven’t been in the career world long, think about using your education as a springboard, then touch on a relevant experience and something you care about that aligns with the organization. When I first spoke with FGB about being a content writer, TMAY was the only question they asked, this is what I said:
“No problem! I grew up in Seattle and went to college in Southern California. I originally started on the neuroscience track in college. I was interested in neuro because I wanted to know more about human experiences and the neural underpinnings of human psychology. But I realized that I was only getting one side of the picture and that people’s stories are invaluable to studying human experience. So, I added a literature major on top of my full course load. My all-male science advisors laughed at me and said it was a waste of time. But that literature major has opened a lot of doors for me. It was through having that major that I was selected to first intern with my current employer. Here, I write digital content and articles related to the gender equality projects that the organization runs. I really care about the work, but since it is a grassroots organization, there isn’t always a lot of money to pay staff. Writing for FGB would allow me to engage with the gender issues I care about, while helping me make ends meet.”
If you have extremely relevant work experience
Even if you have a lot of experience in the same type of job and organization you are interviewing with, don’t relax yet! You should still choose a few key points around which to structure your TMAY answer. This answer for a system administrator position integrates an experience, a job and a personal priority:
“Sure. So, I think I first really found my passion for systems work in the early 2000s when I was an IT customer service agent with a local telecom provider. I was supposed to be following a script to answer customer questions, but I always wanted to know more about how a certain problem was caused on our end. I had some great coworkers and ended up learning about our networks and systems in my free time. When I was hired as a system administrator a few years later, I knew a lot more, but I was still just as curious as ever about different solutions and innovative approaches to troubleshooting. That really never changed. I’ve found that there is always more to learn, and the best thing for me to do (outside of keeping up to date on the literature) is just to make sure I’m putting my skills into a company that I think is doing good in the world.”
If you don’t have much relevant work experience
Don’t panic! They still asked you for an interview, so your lack of experience obviously isn’t a deal-breaker. Think about using a story, an experience and a priority to structure your life story, as with this answer for an HR associate position in local government:
“Of course. When I was in my mid-twenties, I was volunteering for a homeless shelter. That was an influential experience for me. They were short-staffed, so I ended up doing anything and everything. One night, a man came to me needing his personal documents for early the next morning and no one was around. I had to call everyone and put together all the instructions to get the right keys and find the documents. A lot of my time was spent just talking to residents and finding ways to get them what they needed. That translated well into my work as a caregiver. I’ve realized that, at the end of the day, I just care about working with people to efficiently accomplish a common goal. Not only is it satisfying, but you are never bored!”
What not to say
You should never offer as a response:
- An existential examination or analysis of your life.
- “Oh boy! I don’t know!”
- A list of adjectives or too many career clichés, such as “I climbed the ranks,” “I’ve upheld a strong sales-record” and so on (they can get most of that from your CV or references, don’t put them to sleep).
- “I like X, and I did Y once…. I really value Z in the workplace, oh, but then I guess you have to consider W….”
- Anything that sounds better suited to paper. We use slightly different language when we write and when we speak: you were invited to speak, so if you're going to sound like you’re reading off a piece of paper, an email would have sufficed.
“Tell me about yourself” isn’t the only interview question for which you'll need to prepare. But it's growing in popularity as it is a solution to a fast-paced world. It gives the employer a break from asking three other questions and allows them to see how you respond to an open-ended query. When you hear TMAY think: “Relax.” TMAY is an opportunity to say whatever it is you were most prepared or excited to communicate in the first place, so take it! As long as you are excited about the organization and know why you will fit, your enthusiasm will show through your TMAY answer.