Updated October 5, 2023 . AmFam Team
Being asked to talk about yourself seems simple enough, right? After all, no one knows you like you! But if it’s that easy, why do so many job seekers stumble in their response to this common interview question? The truth is, it’s trickier than you might think.
No matter what stage of the interview process you’re in or what position you’re applying for, the meeting will probably kick off with some version of the “tell me about yourself” question. Why? Because it can give the interviewer a straight look at you and your values and direct the course of the rest of the interview. The question can also reveal clues about how you communicate and whether you’ll be a good fit for the role and the company.
While there isn’t one ideal strategy for how to answer the “tell me about yourself” question, we’ve put together tips and examples to help you get one step closer to nailing your interview.
Answering the “tell me about yourself” question may feel daunting because it’s a broad, open-ended invitation. It may also cause confusion because it’s sometimes asked in different ways, such as “Describe yourself” or “What brings you here today?” Yet with a little preparation you can develop a confident, concise response that could work to your advantage as you position yourself as the best candidate for the job.
Many career coaches suggest using a three-part, past-present-future outline to structure a solid response to "tell me about yourself.” But remember, this isn’t a hard-fast rule — you can tweak the order depending on the extent and relevance of your experiences.
For example, if you have been working for decades, it may make more sense to begin with the recent past, when you started to focus on a specific direction along your career path. Or, if something in your present situation is particularly significant considering the job description, you might choose to speak to that first and then briefly summarize how your past led you to this point.
No matter how you decide to organize the parts of your answer, what’s most important is to make sure everything you say relates to the job at hand and assures the interviewer you have the right background and qualifications to be a strong candidate.
When reflecting on what to share from your past, remember it’s okay to cherry pick — especially if you’re a seasoned professional with an extensive work history. Interviewers don’t want to sit through a laundry list of your previous jobs; they want to hear about the past experiences in which you gained skills or key responsibilities that closely relate to their current opening.
If you’re a recent graduate, you won’t have to par down a lengthy career story, but you will have the challenge of sharing what led to your interest in this field without getting too bogged down in personal information. Feel free to mention previous volunteer work or other transferrable experiences, but again, be mindful that the interviewer’s priority is to find a capable candidate with qualities that fit the job description.
If you had a job until recently or are currently employed, briefly describe the scope of your work, zeroing in on (and here’s the kicker!) the responsibilities that are relevant to the job you’re seeking. This is also the perfect time to mention an award you won, a leadership role you took on, or any other significant accomplishment that might underscore the relevance of your most recent work experience.
If you’re back in the job market after a significant lapse of time, briefly note the gap without diving into the details. For example, you might say you took a break to start a family, get another degree or pursue other interests. Then seamlessly turn your focus to why you’re there today.
And if you’re a new graduate, think creatively! Were you involved in an academic organization or extracurricular club? Did you study abroad? Play sports? It’s worth noting anything that provided opportunities to gain skills and experiences that you could connect to the job description.
Whether you started your career story by talking about your past experiences or the present, you’ll conclude your answer by talking about your future goals. This is where you tie a bow on your answer by clearly showing the interviewers how your professional aspirations align with the company mission as well as the role you are pursuing. role you are pursuing.
When you finish your answer to the “tell me about yourself” interview question, there should be no mistake as to why you are there. You’ve shown how your previous positions make you a qualified candidate, and now you’ll cap off your response by describing where you see yourself headed.
By framing your discussion of future goals in light of the job description and company objectives, you’ll prove you’ve done your research and reinforce why you are a great fit for this opportunity!
Even with a solid understanding of the three-part formula above, there are still some aspects to consider before creating your own. Here are a few tips that can give your response to “tell me about yourself” a polished finish.
When talking about your earlier roles, try to spotlight strengths or accomplishments you can support with concrete examples and measurable data. Even if you don’t have exact percentages or numbers, you could estimate or give anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of your work. Think about it — who would you rather hire, the candidate who says, “I helped with patient in-take” or the one who reports, “I helped with patient in-take and worked with a cross-functional team to increase efficiency by roughly 25%?”
While you’ll want to avoid topics like politics and religion, you can still give glimpses of your personality and interests — as long as you tie them back to the position and maintain a professional tone. For instance, if the job description says it’s a fast-paced role that requires a lot of focus and stamina, you might weave in how you’ve leveraged your fitness hobby to stay mentally disciplined for the demands of your career.
If there’s one thing hiring managers can spot instantly, it’s a candidate who uses the same generic response to this question, no matter what position they’re interviewing for or who they’re talking to. Make no mistake — what you’re really being asked to do is clearly and succinctly identify those aspects of your career journey that qualify you for this job. So be sure to adapt your answer to show you understand the job’s specific requirements.
Equally important is remembering who you’re speaking with and adjusting your response to address their priorities. You might focus on a high-level view of your professional background with a recruiter but shift to highlighting specific responsibilities and qualifications when interviewing with a potential manager.
It would also be a good idea to find out what you can about the person interviewing you. If you have their name, do a little research online to learn about their background, experience or interests — anything you might be able to use in your response to establish common ground. For example, maybe you discover that the hiring manager went to the same college as you. This would be a great opportunity to make a memorable connection.
Since it’s likely your interviewer will have already read your resume, you can skip the chronological replay of your work history. Instead, key in on those experiences, skills and accomplishments that will make them think, “Wow, this is just the person we’re looking for!” Remember, this is your elevator pitch, and a long-winded response won’t set the stage for a dynamic, engaging interview.
As you prepare for the “tell me about yourself” interview question, it will help to rehearse at home. Think of the pieces you want to include and keep a basic structure in mind so you don’t ramble. Then, practice — but don’t memorize your answer. You’ll run the risk of sounding overly scripted.
Rehearse your response to this question aloud, in front of a friend or family member, and ask for their feedback. If you prefer to practice alone, consider recording yourself and play it back to see if it sounds natural and sincere.
On the day of the interview, remember to sound conversational and personable. You are, after all, talking about you!
While this may seem like a lot of information for just one interview question, keep in mind the entire answer should take a maximum of about two minutes. Keep it short, sweet and, yes, strategic.
Now it’s time to put theory into practice and write your own response. But first, let’s look at “tell me about yourself” examples representing three different levels of experience within three different industries.
“I just graduated with honors from XYZ University with my Bachelor of Arts degree in Elementary Education. I’ve always had a passion for learning and have wanted to be a teacher from the time I used to gather all the neighborhood kids at our backyard picnic table to ‘play school’ over summer break. While at university, I was a proud member of the International Club, completed a study abroad semester in Spain and developed a strong interest in the relationship between culture and education. I’m very excited to apply for the K-6 opening in your district because I am aware that your schools are very culturally and linguistically diverse which aligns closely with my professional passion and training.”
“After receiving my RN, I got a job as a floor nurse at Research Medical Center, and that is where I have been for the past four years. This was a wonderful place to start my career in nursing because I immediately had the chance to apply all that I’d learned in nursing school and acquire hands-on experience with all kinds of illnesses, injuries, treatment plans and patients. It could be a bit overwhelming at times, but I worked hard to increase my efficiency. I even volunteered to be part of a test group on my unit to implement new software that enabled us to manage patients and complete documentation about 30 percent faster. I believe my ability to be productive, along with my collaborative skills and medical-surgical experience, make me a strong candidate for the OR surgical team at your clinic.”
“I’m currently the lead software developer at 123 Tech Systems, where I’ve spent more than seven years designing, testing and launching new applications. Prior to this role, I spent five years on a cross-functional team of developers at ABC Technologies. Throughout my journey, I have not only broadened the scope of my project contributions, but I’ve also assumed increasing responsibility for directing and inspiring the work of others. Last year, I led a team of software engineers to complete multiple projects on time and under budget. We were later recognized at our year-end conference for achieving a client satisfaction rating of 98%. I believe the skills I’ve cultivated and the successes I’ve achieved have prepared me for the challenges of the Director of Engineering position at your firm."
Using the tips above, you’ll be able to develop a successful response to the “tell me about yourself” interview question and lay the groundwork for a winning interview. Remember the dos and don’ts:
With that covered, there’s just one step left ... practice, practice, practice, practice! The more thought, time and effort you put into practicing your response, the more confident you’ll feel and the easier it will be for your true self to shine through. Always remember, skills can be learned, and tools can be mastered. What a hiring manager is really looking for are the unique dreams and perspectives you’ll bring to the table. Want more tips like this to help build your career? Whether you’re new to the job market, changing careers or considering starting your own business, our professional development resources offer practical tips to guide you on the path to your dream job.
This article is for informational purposes only and includes information widely available through different sources.