Answering the “Tell Me About Yourself” Question
Your Guarantee for Making an Impressive Interview First Impression
Lets face it, interviewing is stressful enough without having to answer stupid interview questions. But unfortunately, many interviewers, because of habit, lack of preparation time, poor training, or yes, even laziness, often ask stupid interview questions. Of those, one of the most challenging is the oft used “Tell me about yourself” interview opener.
What most candidates ask me about this insipid interview question is “what do they want to know?” They want to know about you the candidate as a potential employee. They don’t want to know about your family, your last vacation, your hobbies, your religious beliefs, that you like the Red Sox, or that you are a proud member of AA. Yes, I have had candidates give each of those responses to the infamous “Tell me about yourself?” question. I don’t recall any of them ever getting hired by the employers who interviewed them.
Interviewers also think it is improper, a sign of your lack of preparedness, or even rude, for you to answer their “Tell me about yourself?” question with a question like, “What do you want to know?” If you are prepared and seriously thinking about making a career change, you will have to prepared and thoughtful answer to this question before you begin interviewing.
Why? I am glad you asked, and I think one example should convince you I am right.
Let me share just one story about this opening interview question that cost a candidate a job that they REALLY wanted. It is a perfect illustration to make you understand why you must plan a response for this question whether you are asked it or not. The scenario was this: The candidate was a General Manager with 4 years at a nationally recognized casual dinning chain. I had a Client looking to fill a GM position for a $60,000 base + $30,000 bonus. The candidate had an ideal background and skill set, and the client thought that they were a perfect fit. The candidate knew the client and was thrilled to be interviewing with them.
You can more or less guess how the story ended. The candidate didn’t get the job, but please pay attention as to why, because this is the part of the story that matters most. To start the interview the candidate was asked the dreaded “Tell me about yourself?” question. Thinking that it was an inconsequential icebreaker question, they retorted, simply intending to cause an opening chuckle, “Well as you can obviously see, I am 15-20 pounds overweight.”
They were only joking! Yet, due to the impact this answer had on the client, for all practical purposes the interview was over as soon as they said this. That “amusing” answer to what the candidate viewed as a seemingly innocuous question convinced the employer that the $90,000 GM had an image or low self-esteem problem. Despite my insistence that it was just a joke, the employer declined to make the candidate an offer. The retort was just a joke! But not really. It was no joke to the candidate who lost their dream job. It was no joke to me, the recruiter, who invested so much time in finding the employer this ideal candidate. This candidate attempted to humorously break the ice, but the interviewer misinterpreted the response to a stupid question, and became convinced that the candidate was not GM material.
This whole fiasco could have been avoided if the candidate had just been taught a vary simple formula for answering the question. Sure, we know this question is a stupid and unnecessary question with which to begin an interview. But because interviewers open interviews with this question and your answer will set the tone for the rest of the interview, candidates need to know how to respond to this question intelligently. The formula I’ve learned has worked wonders for hundreds of my candidates.
Many, in fact a sad majority, of interviewers open with some form of the “tell me about yourself?” question. It would be an easy question to answer if candidates answered with a prepared and well thought-out initial marketing statement of themselves and their skills, which are applicable for the open job. This sounds pretty straightforward, but few of the thousands of candidates I have interviewed over the years have ever been able to answer this question in this intelligent manner. The best candidates usually answer with a narrowing question like: “What would you like to know?” But let’s get one think straight: It is extremely poor form to answer the opening interview question with another question. Yet, that is how the BEST candidates do typically answer this question, due to it’s ambiguous nature. Though it seems to be a logical approach, you must prepare to do better.
Candidates must teach themselves to answer this question with a three-part pre-planned marketing statement that can more or less be reused from interview to interview. Part one of the three-part marketing statement is always a one sentence summary of the candidate’s career history. For example, let me share with you a former candidate’s opening sentence:
“I am a seven year veteran of the restaurant industry with substantial management experience in casual dinning.”
You get the picture; your whole career needs to be condensed into one brief sentence that encapsulates the most important aspects of your career, the aspects that you want to leverage in order to make your next career step. Few candidates seem to be able to condense a career into one sentence, but it must and can be done. Ask any recruiter for help here, this is what we do.
Part two of the pre-planned marketing statement will be a one, maybe two sentence summary, of a single accomplishment that you are proud of that will also capture the potential employers attention. It immediately follows your initial career summary sentence from above. This accomplishment should be one that the employer will be interested in hearing, one that is easily explained or illustrated, and one that clearly highlights a bottom line impact. When done correctly this will build interviewer intrigue about the accomplishment so that they inquire further, giving you an opportunity to further discuss a significant career success. The above candidate’s accomplishment statement was:
“Recently, as a General Manager at Applebee’s I increased sales for two years in a row and doubled profits during that same time frame by focusing on food, guest service and sanitation standards. This not only increased guest satisfaction but reduced hourly turnover to 62% a year for the 2 year period.”
Part three, the final piece of the marketing statement, is probably the most fluid piece. It needs to be a one sentence summary of specifically what you want to do next in your career. The reason this third part is difficult is that it needs to specifically address what you want to do next, and it needs to change form interview to interview to make sure it matches exactly what the individual employers will be interviewing you for. Continuing with the above example of one of my past candidates, one of his final sentences was as follows:
“For the next step in my career, I would like to find myself as a GM of a small company, that is focused on great food and service, that is only beginning to expand thus allowing me the opportunity to open new locations and down the road rise to the level of Area Director.”
The candidate in this case was applying to a company that had 8 restaurants and is driven by great food and impeccable service. He told them what they wanted to hear. If the candidate was applying to a large company then this wouldn’t be effective so you can see that the third piece must be fluid and ever changing. With some simple planning before an interview, you, the candidate, will quickly realize the benefit of a targeted third sentence in these pre-planned opening statements, as employers feel you are perfectly suited to do the job they are interviewing you for.
If you take the time to prepare this way as a candidate, it will be apparent to an interviewer that you are a prepared and serious candidate right at the beginning of the interview when you answer the “Tell me about yourself?” question with this memorized, brief marketing statement, which combines a career summary, an exceptional accomplishment, and employer-specific career goal as in this example:
“I am a seven year veteran of the restaurant industry with substantial management experience in casual dinning. Recently, as a General Manager at Applebee’s I increased sales by double digest for two years in a row and doubled profits during that same time frame by focusing on food, guest service and sanitation standards. This not only increased guest satisfaction but reduced turnover to 62% a year for the 2 year period. For the next step in my career, I would like to find myself as a GM of a small company, that is focused on great food and service, that is only beginning to expand thus allowing me the opportunity to open new locations and down the road rise to the level of Area Director.”
Clearly you can understand how the candidate who opens with this type of prepared response to the “Tell me about yourself?” question will make a significantly better first impression then a candidate who responds to this question by answering, “What would you like to know?” or worse yet, “Well as you can obviously see, I am 15-20 pounds overweight.” Plus candidates who prepare in this manner are typically more confident at the interview’s start, make a substantial and positive verbal first impression, give a clear indication of their interest in making a career move, and force the interviewer to get past the ice breaker question to the parts of the interview that will help both parties begin the process of seriously determining if this is a solid match. AS you can see, there is a great deal of bang for your preparation buck.
Clearly these three simple steps of, summarizing what your experience is as a candidate, sharing an impressive career accomplishment, and then summarizing what would be an ideal next career step for you, one that matches what the employer is looking to hire, is the key to beginning your interview with a competitive advantage. Candidates, who take the time to do this, significantly improve their initial verbal impression, get their interview off to a confident and focused beginning, and more often then not get called back for second interviews, or better yet, for offers of employment with employers who are impressed.