The Anatomy of a Perfect “Tell Me About Yourself” Answer for Any Executive was originally published on Ivy Exec.
It can be difficult to interpret the common interview question, “Tell me about yourself.” Is it a simple icebreaker meant to make you feel more comfortable? Or is it the most difficult question of all meant to establish the interview’s course towards success or failure?
Joel Schwartzberg for Harvard Business Review says this question is deceptively easy precisely because of its open-endedness.
“It only seems simple. Receiving such an open invitation invites more perils than opportunities, because you’re given no framework for your response — just a blank, clue-free canvas,” he wrote.
How, then, should you answer a question that is – by design – so free-wheeling? In a nutshell, think about your answer as a slightly longer elevator pitch or career story: mention what makes you unique, your achievements, and your professional history only as they relate to the job at hand.
Here, we’ll talk about the do’s and don’ts for answering the dreaded “Tell me about yourself” question concisely and relevantly.
Prepare your response to this question beforehand; you know they’re going to ask it
One of the surest ways to start your interview off on the wrong foot is to talk too long or too briefly when answering a question like this one. Specifically, you don’t want to talk for more than 90 seconds without re-engaging your interviewer with a question like “Is this the level of detail you are looking for?” or “Is this the type of example you’re interested in?”
Additionally, make sure your response runs no longer than three and a half minutes.
That time limit doesn’t mean you should speed through multiple examples as quickly as possible, however. Rather, choose only two or three examples that you can describe succinctly but that provide support for whatever quality you are describing.
Talk about who you are beyond your resume and LinkedIn
Some executive candidates think that this question should result in a simple reiteration of where they’ve worked and the positions they have held. This is a misuse of a response, especially because most hiring managers will have your resume right in front of them!
Instead, focus on describing your most significant accomplishments as they relate to success in the role you’re interviewing for. Even if you feel proud of a particular win, it isn’t relevant here unless you are able to connect it to the role at hand.
Focus on why your background would make you successful for this role
Schwartzberg recommends using the job posting to identify three key attributes in someone who fulfills this role. For instance, the company may want a “self-starter” who can “solve problems” and “build connections across sectors.”
Once you have these characteristics listed, add them to your point-making sentence – “They are looking for someone who is a self starter who can “solve problems” and “build connections across sectors.”
Now you can use this sentence to identify the anecdotes and accomplishments that convey that you fit what they’re seeking.
Add something personal
One of the aspects that your resume and even, to some extent, your LinkedIn page can’t convey is who you are as a colleague and employee. Are you reliable? Passionate? Energetic?
So, add in something personal, even if it’s only a minor aspect of your complete response. Avoid detailing your entire life history, but mention something about who you are outside of work, like a hobby, something about your family, or a passion.
“As the CEO of the world’s largest executive search firm, I have conducted thousands of interviews over the past 20 years. The best — and most memorable — answer I have ever received to that question was: ‘I’ve climbed the highest mountains on every continent, including Everest,” said Gary Burnison.
Mention how this role connects to and furthers your career
It may not feel like a natural segue to respond to “Tell me about yourself” to include information about your possible future self, but this is nevertheless an important component of answering this question well.
First, describe your long-term goals in a general sense, like you want to develop your expertise as a product manager or build on your core value of providing excellent customer service. Then, move into talking about why you applied for the role and mention how it will help you further those objectives.
Using “Tell Me About Yourself” as an Argument You’ll Prove in the Interview
Since it’s almost always asked first, or at least early, in the interview, you can use this question to argue why your background, skills, and personality make you the ideal candidate for the role. Essentially, you want to preview who you would be if hired; then, you can support that snapshot of yourself with more evidence throughout the interview.
It can give you peace of mind to remember that your answer is only an introduction – you can’t win the job with one perfect response! Instead, you’ll be able to use the rest of the interview to create a clearer, more holistic portrait of yourself.
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