Tackling the ‘How Would You Describe Yourself?’ Interview Question

It’s a common question that’s more complex than you might think. Here’s what experts have to say about it.
Olivia McClure
March 4, 2021
Updated: July 11, 2021
Olivia McClure
March 4, 2021
Updated: July 11, 2021

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 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. 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.

Tips on Tackling The Question

  • Choose your words wisely. The words you choose tell a story, so make them count.
  • Back it up with an example. Words alone can’t illustrate your past, so share your experiences.
  • Don’t worry about bragging. This is the time to show off your skills, so don’t hold back on your accomplishments.
  • Practice beforehand. Not only will it allow you to perfect your answer, but it'll lower your stress.
  • Stay present in the moment. You’ll connect with the interviewer while flexing your communication skills.

Yet, it’s not as simple as you might think, said Robin Ryan, career counselor and author of 60 Seconds and You’re 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,” Ryan said. “That’s a big mistake.”

Whether you’re an entry-level applicant or a corporate veteran, this question can easily make or break the hiring decision, so it’s important to approach it with equal doses of strategy and authenticity.

 

Choose Your Words Wisely

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.

It’s important for interviewees to tailor their descriptions to the specific position in question, Ryan said. So for instance, if you’re applying for a job that involves working with a lot of numbers, it’d be smart to describe yourself as “detail-oriented.” It’s about highlighting what you have to offer in the right way.

You should 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. So as opposed to saying “I’m nice to everyone,” you could say something like, “I’m a good collaborator,” Ryan said.

“It’s about highlighting what you have to offer in the right way.”

By connecting the job description to your skills, you’ll also be able to reveal your passions in the process, Watkins said.

“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.

 

Back Up Your Words With Evidence

Of course, word choice carries a lot of weight, but it’s important to illustrate what’s being said. Sharing past experiences or short anecdotes will give you the opportunity to set the tone for the interviewer, said Jenny Logullo, communications consultant and early career coach.

“I think a lot of people want to put you in a box, and you’re better off, I think, putting yourself in front of them and giving yourself a title [or] a description that can stick on,” Logullo said.

If you’re an entry level applicant without a lot of past work experience, draw on volunteer work or school to demonstrate your qualities, Ryan said. Working with a lot of younger job applicants, Ryan suggests thinking about how to tie in experience from work on a school fundraiser or impressive feedback from a professor.

“Sharing past experiences or short anecdotes will give you the opportunity to set the tone for the interviewer.”

Employers are not expecting younger applicants to have years of experience behind them, Watkins said. Don’t waste time pretending you know more than you do and instead focus your energy on showing the interviewer you have the skills to learn how to do the job well.

More Interview PrepWhat to Wear to a Job Interview: 10 Things You Need to Know

 

Don’t Worry About Bragging

If you’re worried about sounding braggy or self-centered, don’t be, Ryan said. You’re creating a narrative and introducing who you are.

Remember that you’re the only person who can share your story, so it’s important that you give yourself credit where it’s due. “If you don’t toot your own horn, no one else will,” Watkins said.

 

Practice Beforehand

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.

During preparation, do plenty of research on the company too, Logullo said. Besides showing your interest in the company itself, you’ll also understand what the company focuses on, whether that be collaboration or diversity.

“They want to see where your energy goes, but they also want to see your expertise,” Logullo said.

“They want to see where your energy goes, but they also want to see your expertise.”

Pro tip: Record your mock interview sessions to get a good sense of how much time you spend answering the question, 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.

 

Opt for Confidence, Not Cockiness

Confidence is key, and as long as you’re being genuine, it’s rare that you’d come off as conceited, Watkins said.

When you share your accomplishments, acknowledge who helped you get there too so that you don’t come across as cocky, Watkins said. By doing this, you can demonstrate the qualities you describe and show that you’re looking beyond yourself at the bigger picture.

“Confidence is key, and as long as you’re being genuine, it’s rare that you’d come off as conceited.”

It’s also helpful to remove excess “I did” statements from your answer, Watkins said. This is an easy way to avoid sounding overconfident and reinforces the idea that the credit doesn’t always belong to you in every situation.

 

Stay Present in the Moment

Worry more about the conversation at hand, rather than the answers you prepared, Logullo said. Being mindful and present allows you to engage and respond in a more meaningful way.

Remember that this type of question also tests your communication and listening skills, Logullo said. The interviewer is certainly paying attention and evaluating what you say, so it’s important not to get distracted and ramble on.

“Worry more about the conversation at hand, rather than the answers you prepared.”

Mindfulness not only helps you answer the question more fully, but it can help you feel more natural, which can be key to nailing a great first impression.

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