Imagine you’ve landed an interview at the tech company of your dreams. After multiple outfit changes and countless mock interviews, you’re finally sitting directly in front of the hiring manager. Then they ask you the seemingly simple question: How would you describe yourself? And then you freeze.
Of course, you could tell them you’re an amateur baker or a runner, but that has little to do with being a software engineer or sales rep. So if that’s the case, what should you say when asked to describe yourself in interviews? And why does this question seem so open-ended anyway?
This question is vague for a reason, said Ashley Watkins, career consultant and former recruiter for nonprofit, banking and manufacturing industries. Prospective employers are teeing up job candidates to see how well they can show their strengths for a role.
Do These Words Describe You?
- Team player
The answers to these questions are important to know because there’s a good chance you’ll be asked to describe yourself or a similar variation of this question during a job interview, Rachel Amos, director of career services and employer relations at Carnegie Mellon University, told Built In.
Why Interviewers Ask This Question
“I think the reason this question is so popular is that sometimes the interviewer really hasn’t had the time to read your resume,” Amos said. “Maybe they’re interviewing 15 people a day and reading hundreds of resumes. So, you’re doing a little of their job for them.”
That said, when your asked to describe yourself it presents another opportunity to pitch who you are, even though you’ve landed the interview, she added.
Decoding this question further, prospective employers ask this question to see what you can offer their company and whether your work experience, accomplishments, knowledge, skills and personality match the qualities they seek, experts said.
Asking “how would you describe yourself?” is vague for a reason, said Ashley Watkins, career consultant and former recruiter for nonprofit, banking and manufacturing industries. Prospective employers are teeing up job candidates to see how well they can show their strengths for a role.
It also tests your communication and listening skills, said Jenny Logullo, communications consultant and early career coach. She added the interviewer is certainly paying attention and evaluating what you say, so it’s important not to get distracted and ramble on.
Some hiring managers, however, don’t ask job candidates to describe themselves.
“I don’t ask that question because it’s not precise enough,” said Philippe Clavel, senior director of engineering at online game platform company Roblox, based in San Mateo, California. “I don’t think it’s set up for success to know what you want to know as an interviewer.”
Instead, Clavel said he’ll ask job candidates about their careers and what impact they’ve had, as well as their passions both in and outside of work.
However, Clavel himself has had to field the question in his past interviews. And his strategy for answering it helped him land past jobs.
How Would You Describe Yourself: 5 Tips and Examples
Clavel, along with career and HR experts, offers these tips and examples on how to develop a strategic strategy for answering this question.
Tip: Research the company
In order to describe yourself, you need to first know yourself. And to obtain this self-awareness, ask friends and family to describe your attributes, said Santina Pitcher, associate director of counseling and programs at the University of California at Berkeley’s Career Center.
Besides showing your interest in the company itself, you’ll also understand what the company focuses on, whether that be collaboration or diversity, Logullo said.
Your research will also ensure the company’s culture and values align with yours, before applying to the position, said Dana McCormick, chief human resources officer at Simeio in Atlanta, Georgia.
“If you are an introvert and the job description is looking for the complete opposite, you’re not going to be a good match,” McCormick said.
Tip: Make an extensive list of words to describe your personality and work mode
This list should include the adjectives that describe your personality and work mode along with an impactful example that backs it up. This will form your master list. In any scenario, whether it’s a phone screen or final interview you’ll be able to pull from this list and easily find stories to share.
For example you could say: “Several of my co-workers said I’m very determined and dedicated when faced with challenges.” The next step would be to go into more detail and share how you made a tight deadline work or reprioritized tasks to hit a certain goal.
Tip: Match words in the job description with your list
Take a close look at the job description to see exactly what the role requires then draw on your own strengths to answer the question.
That’s what Clavel did when he was a director of engineering, and applied for a CTO position at a startup, and landed the job. “The person interviewing me was a seasoned CEO who used to work at a publicly-traded company. When he asked me that question, I made sure my answer matched what they were looking for. I had done a lot of stuff but only used the things that matched the job description.”
For example, let’s say the job description highlights the need for a candidate that can collaborate. Although your co-workers and friends say that you work well with others in sharing ideas and planning, tweak the language slightly. Don’t say “I’m nice to everyone,” instead talk about how you enjoy collaborating with others, according to Robin Ryan, a career counselor and author of 60 Seconds and You’re Hired.
Tip: Back up your self-description with impactful examples
“I tell people to think about ways that they can explain what they do, what they love about it, or what they’re known for, and then give an example of their success in that thing to tie it all together with their target role,” Watkins said.
However, be careful of excess “I did” statements, Watkins added. It can make you sound overconfident and reinforces the idea that the credit doesn’t always belong to you in every situation.
Logullo noted sharing past experiences or short anecdotes will also give you the opportunity to set the tone for the interviewer when answering “how would you describe yourself.”
Here’s an example of what that might sound like: “I would describe myself as driven and dedicated. Earlier this year, we discovered a problem in the software that was affecting customers. I shifted priorities and worked hard to find a fix that saved us from having to switch to a far more expensive solution.”
Tip: Practice answering the question before your job interview
Though you might feel comfortable with the answer in your head, stress can easily take over once the interview begins. Doing a practice session well beforehand can result in more confidence and quell any anxiety that comes with the process, Watkins said.
Record your mock interview sessions to get a good sense of how much time you spend answering interview questions, Watkins said. While many people aim for a 60-second pitch, keeping your response between 30 and 45 seconds often gives you enough time to touch on your main points.
Common Mistakes Made in Describing Yourself
One of the biggest mistakes is that candidates take the question literally.
“The common mistake is to think that they’re interested in a long, babbling rendition of everything you’ve done and how you got there in front of them,” Ryan said.
Instead, give personal information that’s aligned with the job description or the mission and values of the company you are interviewing with, rather than details about your personal life like your favorite food or hobbies, said career and HR experts.
When most people begin searching for words to describe themselves, adjectives like hardworking or team-oriented might come to mind. Those chosen words tell a story, and that requires a bit more preparation than an off-the-cuff answer.
Short, boring answers will also quelch your chances of getting hired.
“The common mistake is to think that they’re interested in a long, babbling rendition of everything you’ve done and how you got there in front of them.”
“I work with software engineers and I’m going to make a huge generalization that they’re introverts. They hate talking about themselves, so interviewing is hard for them. They tend to be way too brief in answering that question and give a vanilla answer,” Amos said.
For example, when asked to describe yourself, a vanilla response would go something like this: I am currently working on my master’s degree in information security and interested in an internship at your company because I would be learning a lot and working on challenging projects.
Instead, Amos said to be as specific as possible in your response and offered up this example: “I really enjoy backend development, especially at the kernel level and getting way deep into the tech stack. I’m looking for opportunities where I can do some backend development at the driver level, storage level or kernel level.”
And in telling a company about yourself, it’s also extremely important to explain why it’s their company you are particularly interested in, she added.
“Another huge mistake is they don’t directly identify why this company is the one they want to work at and companies hate that,” Amos said. “Google is different from Microsoft and you can’t pretend they’re all the same.”
How to Tell if Your Response Hit the Mark
Job interviews via video are really common, especially since the pandemic began, making it more difficult to tell when your response is hitting the mark because you can’t read as much of the body language, McCormick said.
But one sign to watch for is the head nod.
“A positive response is when people are nodding their heads in agreement or saying ‘yes.’ That’s a positive response to your response. But if they suddenly stop taking notes and look at you like ‘I can’t believe you said that,’ then that’s not a good sign,” McCormick said.
And, of course, when you get hired is an obvious sign you’ve hit the mark.
“A positive response is when people are nodding their heads in agreement or saying ‘yes.’ That’s a positive response to your response. But if they suddenly stop taking notes and look at you like ‘I can’t believe you said that,’ then that’s not a good sign.”
When interviewing design leaders, Paige Costello, product leader of core product at Asana, a work management platform company based in San Francisco, recalled a job candidate who gave a winning description of themselves during the interview.
“I was really impressed by the way this candidate linked the way they were raised to their curiosity and willingness to challenge authority and do things differently, which led to their path in various difficult and diverse jobs and ultimately their role as a design leader,” Costello told Built In. “I thought it was a very unique spin on who they were and how it shows up across their work storyline.”
5 Variations of the ‘How Would You Describe Yourself’ Question
There are a few different ways interviewers might ask this question, but the nuances that employers are seeking in your response differ, said career experts and hiring managers. In order to get it right, job applicants should be asking themselves what the interviewer is trying to learn, Amos said.
Tell me about yourself
You may think “tell me about yourself” and “how would you describe yourself” are the same question at first glance, but to employers, it might not be, Amos said.
“Tell me about yourself is a different way of saying, ‘tell me about your professional and educational background,’” said Amos. “How would you describe yourself is more of a trait-based question and not a background-based one.”
Traits are based on your personality, such as, you really enjoy challenges and thrive on situations that call for lots of flexibility.
How would your boss or co-workers describe you?
Employers ask this question to get better insight into your work style, work ethic and what your personality is like in a work situation, Amos said.
She advises pulling the requested skills in the job description and trying to match at least three of those that fit with your own list of skills.
“If the company wants people who enjoy solving complex problems and you have those skills, I would say, ‘I think my former boss would say I’m a person who enjoys solving complex problems, and here’s a couple of ways I’ve done that,” Amos said.
This question may also seek to uncover whether you are a team player or how well you work in a team environment. It could be trying to find out if you share the workload equally or if you can build relationships with others, McCormick said.
What are three words or one sentence to describe you?
“When they give you a number, that right there should be a cue to keep it concise,” Pitcher said. “Don’t just say three adjectives and be done with it. You need to give it a little context but you also don’t want to have a five-minute answer.”
One of the best steps to take to be prepared for a brief but impactful response is to prepare ahead of time for such a question and practice a response, she advised.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Questions about your strengths and weaknesses are designed to help employers get a sense of how much of a learning curve you may face and consider what other types of training and development opportunities may be appropriate for you, McCormick said.
Our egos may take a beating when we list our weaknesses, but avoid wimping out when responding to the interview question about your weaknesses, career experts advise.
“When asked about your greatest weakness, people may say, ‘I work too much,’ or ‘I don’t know when to say ‘no.’ Don’t say what you think they want to hear. They really want to know what makes you, you,” Pitcher said.
Indeed. When asked about your greatest failure, employers are measuring whether you have ever faced adversity and did you display grit or resiliency after the failure.
“If someone says their greatest failure was getting a B-plus when they wanted an A in a class and they were disappointed, that person hasn’t had to face a lot of adversity,” Amos quipped.
How do you choose to spend your time?
“Tech companies in particular love what I’m going to call passion projections,” Amos said.
It tells them what areas you’re excited about and gives them a better sense of whether the current job that is available would be a good fit — and, if not, keep you in mind for future jobs that fit your passion.
“If you didn’t plan for that question, you may say, ‘I enjoy reading.’ That’s not super helpful in a job interview,” Amos said. “But if you said I taught myself Java one summer because I really wanted to create this app and I needed to learn Java to do it, so I watched YouTube videos to learn it. That would be a great example.”
That said, some recruiters like when candidates draw connections between their hobbies and what they enjoy about their work. Think: “I enjoy rock climbing because, similar to coding, I need to solve problems methodically through a series of precise steps.”
Other variations of this question range from “what do you do for fun,” “what makes you tick,” “what are you passionate about,” she added.
How to Describe Yourself on Your Resume
Put a summary at the top of the resume that concisely describes your qualifications and the impact you’ve had at your current or previous jobs. But take the “caveman” approach.
“Especially in the tech industry, recruiters prefer caveman talk. Really long sentences and full-blown paragraphs are difficult. With the volume of applicants they face, they simply cannot spend time reading your essay,” Amos said.
Use strong bullet point statements in the summary that list your skills that match the ones sought in the job description and include the positive outcome from those skills, Pitcher advised.
“If you’re putting the two together — skill and positive outcome — and focus on the job qualifications, you really have created a nicely tailored resume,” Pitcher said.
“The cover letter’s goal is to get you an interview, then in the interview, you can talk about your traits and personality.”
Cover letters are also a place where you can describe yourself, but Amos said don’t send one unless an employer specifically asks for one in the job posting. That’s based on the feedback she’s received from approximately 30 different companies she queried on this question, including Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Google.
“I asked them if you don’t require a cover letter and somebody submits one, what do you think about it? 100 percent of them told me, ‘I don’t look at it. I don’t open it. That shocked me,” Amos said. “But if they require one, then you should go through with that 100 percent.”
The cover letter should tell a story of your skills, which match those listed in the job description, and the impact these skills have had on your current or former employer, project or organization.
But addressing the “how would you describe yourself?” question in the cover letter isn’t necessary, Amos said. The trait-based personality information, such as you like challenges or you thrive in a collaborative environment, should be covered once you get called in for an interview.
“The cover letter is heavily focused on really matching your skills with what they are looking for,” said Amos. “The cover letter’s goal is to get you an interview, then in the interview, you can talk about your traits and personality.”
Olivia McClure originally reported a version of this story in 2021.