How to answer the dreaded ‘tell me about yourself’ in job interviews

February 20, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC
Hinterhaus Productions Getty Images

On anyone’s list of the trickiest questions in a job interview, the simple (and ubiquitous) request to “tell me about yourself” would have to rank among the most dreaded—right up there with, “What’s your greatest weakness?” and “Why did you lose your last job?”

It’s not that talking about oneself is hard to do. In fact, it can be so much fun that the tough part is knowing what to leave out. And that’s the problem, according to Fran Berrick, whose firm, Spearmint Coaching, has advised executives at Procter & Gamble, Unilever, LVMH, and elsewhere. The question is “so open-ended you could drive a truck through it,” Berrick notes. “So people really struggle with it.”

Although “tell me about yourself” may seem like a harmless-enough icebreaker, there are at least two common ways to blow it. The first is by giving your interlocutor a recap of your resume. “They’ve already read that, and so they have a pretty good idea of your credentials and experience, or you wouldn’t be sitting there,” says Berrick.

The second way to mess up is by talking about your personal life. In our social-media-steeped culture, the lines between private and professional sometimes blur, but resist the urge to share anything unrelated to the job at hand. An HR manager for a Fortune 500 company recently told Berrick that a candidate, invited to describe herself, launched into a thorough account of what she and her family did on their last vacation. She didn’t get the job.

So what exactly are interviewers hoping that “tell me about yourself” will reveal? Two things, Berrick says: Whether you’re likely to be great at the job you’re applying for, and how you’re likely to fit into the company’s culture. Sounds straightforward enough, but what you say will be most effective if it takes just 60 to 90 seconds and if, in that brief span of time, you come across as “succinct, authentic, and engaging.”

Clearly, this is going to take some careful preparation. Here are the 3 steps Berrick recommends:

1. Create a narrative

Do enough homework beforehand, on the role and the company, to form a fairly detailed idea of what success in this job would look like. Then think back over your career so far and find instances where you made the best use of your talents.

“Let’s say you identify yourself as a positive, results-driven salesperson,” says Berrick. “Give a specific example, along with a few words about how you see yourself adding similar value at this company.” The same approach goes for “any other trait you want to highlight, like analytical skills or effectiveness as a team player,” she says, adding that putting a 90-second limit on your remarks is not only a good way to stay focused, but also “gives the interviewer just enough information to make him or her want to continue the conversation.”

2. Make your answer consistent with your brand

Intentionally or not, each of us has a personal brand—the overall picture of our professional accomplishments, goals, values, and reputation. A resume is the most obvious place to sum up all of that, but sites like LinkedIn matter, too. Invited to “tell me about yourself,” keep your answer in line with the information about you that’s already out there in cyberspace.

That’s not to say you can’t emphasize different aspects of your brand, depending on who’s asking. “With a recruiter, you might stress specific job skills,” says Berrick, while “in an interview with a C-suite person, especially a CEO, you can talk more about the view from 1,000 feet—for instance, how you see yourself fitting into the company’s mission.”

3. End with a question

To finish up your 60-to-90-second narrative, ask something. Berrick recommends, “Can you tell me a bit about the kinds of people who are most successful here?” This not only gives you a clue as to the culture you’d be getting into if you’re hired, and whether you’d be likely to thrive in it, but “it helps you end your story,” says Berrick. “That can be hard for some people.” No one wants to keep an interview going for more than it’s necessary.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—8 good reasons to turn down a promotion
—4 ways to get your resume noticed by companies like Google
—Putting politics aside to close the skills gap
—How to approach difficult conversations when your coworkers drive you nuts
—WATCH: Can you be a leader and an introvert?

Get Fortune’s RaceAhead newsletter for sharp insights on corporate culture and diversity.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

Great ResignationCompensationReturn to WorkCareersLaborSuccess Stories