Forget what you’ve been told about the “tell me about yourself” interview prompt — it’s procedural, a lightweight teaser, a green light to walk through your resume. Such advice, though common, is quite misleading, according to several hiring experts interviewed for this story.
“What seems like a throwaway question to both hiring managers and to job interviewees is actually the exact opposite,” Jeremy Schifeling, principal product marketing manager at edtech nonprofit Khan Academy, told me. “It’s probably the most important question in the entire conversation.”
3 Steps to Approach the ‘Tell Me About Yourself’ Prompt
- Begin with a brief statement about your career and why you are passionate about your specialization or field of study.
- Provide specific examples of impact you have had in your career and past roles that illustrate your passion for that job.
- Connect your past accomplishments to the potential role you will have with the prospective employer, and their mission, goals, or projects.
Schifeling is in a good position to make such a claim. A former career advisor for students in the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business and senior product marketing manager at LinkedIn, he has interviewed thousands of candidates for tech roles.
Dawn Kawamoto contributed reporting to this story.
Understanding the ‘Tell Me About Yourself’ Interview Question
A whopping 50 percent of hiring managers admit to making up their minds about a candidate during the first five minutes of an interview, Schifeling said, citing a 2017 survey by CareerBuilder.
“And the key word is ‘admit’ to making up their minds,” he said. “I would venture that it’s actually probably a higher percentage of that.”
After that initial impression is made, he added, the next 25 minutes of the interview is largely an exercise in confirmation bias, or “collecting evidence to confirm what I’ve already decided.”
That’s why the “tell me about yourself” prompt is so important.
This is an information-gathering question — not an idle chit-chat question to learn about your hobbies, pets or parenting techniques.
Hiring managers usually ask this question in hopes of hearing what you’re passionate about and the impact you’ve made at your previous positions. They’ll be assessing whether your passions and accomplishments are relevant and transferable to the position you are seeking at their company.
The “tell me about yourself” question is usually presented as an icebreaker, but it sets the stage for the rest of the interview.
Common Mistakes in Answering ‘Tell Me About Yourself’
Many candidates respond poorly to the “tell me about yourself” question because they’ve been duped by misleading information.
The classic misguided advice is to walk hiring managers through your resume. You can imagine the totally tedious answers.
“Here’s where I went to school. Here’s what I majored in. Here’s my first job. Here’s my second job,” is a boring way to begin the conversation and comes off cold and like a robot going through the motions, Schifeling said.
How to Answer ‘Tell Me About Yourself’
Begin with a thesis statement that expresses your career holistically and, in particular, why you are passionate about your field or specialization.
Next, provide concrete examples of prior roles you’ve held that illustrate that passion and highlight all the important impacts that you made while holding those roles.
And finally, conclude with a remark that connects your passion and accomplishments to the role to which you are applying.
Incorporate a good professional story into these steps when answering the “tell me about yourself” question. Consider something with a compelling hook, concrete evidence and a touch of warmth that leaves an indelible impression.
Hiring managers are more likely to be receptive to a refreshing anecdote that entertains them. Really, the answer is less important than what its delivery conveys about the candidate.
Schifeling and other hiring leaders also advise you to respond succinctly while emphasizing your enthusiasm and value to a potential employer.
How to Structure a Response to ‘Tell Me About Yourself’
Structure the response to a “tell me about yourself” question as a five-paragraph essay — a formula rooted in storytelling, not a regurgitated checklist of resume items.
“I don’t want to give the employer all the messiness of my career,” he said. “I want to give them a simple story they can grab onto, just like a journalist uses a hook to grab people’s attention.”
The opening sentence operates much like a thesis statement. Here’s what Schifeling might say, were he asked the “tell me about yourself” question in an interview for his current position:
“All my life, I’ve tried to bring two things together: The power of education and technology to help students in need. From the time I was a kindergarten teacher back in Brooklyn, to doing it every day at Khan Academy as a marketer.”
“I don’t want to give the employer all the messiness of my career ... I want to give them a simple story they can grab onto.”
This example shows passion with a little more warmth, Schifeling said.
The passion, evidence and tie back (PET) method is another way to structure a streamlined response to the “tell me about yourself” question.
It’s an interview response technique that begins with a statement of passion, followed by evidence of that passion and a concluding remark that bridges a candidate’s experience with the company’s mission and the duties of the job description.
PET is similar to the five-paragraph essay, but with the evidence section condensed to emphasize experiences that are highly relevant to the position and that show the candidate’s enthusiasm and energy.
“For example, as a teacher back in [Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood], I was that teacher who loved to teach my kids how to make MP3s, make PowerPoints, tell stories — even [students] at the age of five,” Schifeling said.
Localizing the story, and imbuing it with concrete details, gives it stickiness. The details also provide evidence of his passion for technology as a tool for educational advancement.
Then comes the conclusion, a one-sentence statement that ties his prior experience to the sought-after role: “Now, at Khan Academy, I want to empower a million teachers to teach their hearts out in the middle of a global pandemic.”
The PET model is effective with hiring managers, Schifeling said, because it leads to a highly focused narrative — not a meandering autobiography but a curated professional story that speaks to the audience.
Tricky Variations to ‘Tell Me About Yourself’
The “tell me about yourself” prompt can still be tricky to answer because hiring managers and recruiters may use it to probe different aspects of your personal and professional history.
“Sometimes it’s, ‘Why did you become a developer?’” said Jo-Nell Sieren, a career advisor for design, interactive arts and media students at Columbia College in Chicago. “Sometimes it’s ‘What school or programs did you go to?’ Sometimes it’s [asking for] a highlight list of unique experiences.”
Regardless of the employers’ intent, Sieren advises candidates to emphasize how their school and professional experiences showcase their individual working styles and values.
A software engineering or graphic design student who wishes to differentiate themselves might discuss their contributions to a hackathon, game jam or conference panel. A mid-career UX designer seeking to convey their social values might point to a human-centered design project that emphasizes their empathy for end users.
Keep the executive summary of your professional background brief, typically one minute or so.
Ask a Check-In Question to Build Rapport
The “tell me about yourself” question is not the time for long-winded tales of your summer in Nantucket, said Marielle Smith, vice president of people at Narvar, a San Francisco-based company that offers post-purchase order tracking software. Instead, she said, it’s a great opportunity to ask clarifying questions.
“Did I answer your question? Is there an area you’d like to hear more about? I want to make sure I’m answering your question,” Smith said, suggesting several possible approaches.
Touching base with an interviewer is a good way to tease out which, if any, aspects of your professional story they’re interested in exploring further. It also helps establish rapport, suggesting you are empathetic to their concerns and can communicate efficiently in an office environment.
“It’s always a good signal to ask clarifying questions,” Smith said. “When candidates do that, it shows they’re very detail-oriented and want to save time.”
Own Your Story, Even If You’re a Misfit
Perhaps the key takeaway, Schifeling said, is to own your story. That means being unafraid to put yourself out there, even at the risk of appearing as an outlier for a role.
“Because I think one of the things that, really, was almost magnetic when I’ve had my own career coaching shingle hung out there is that I tend to get a lot of misfits,” Schifeling said. “They’re not the folks who’ve gone the traditional route of getting their MBA or masters in computer science. They’re folks who are square pegs trying to fit into the round holes of standard careers.”
He tells the story of an entrepreneur he coached who worked in the online education space, helping photographers grow their businesses. She had an impressive track record as a business owner but initially refrained from sharing it in interviews, for fear her unconventional background would scare off potential employers.
“She was trying to take all this incredible stuff she had done and boil it down to seem safe.... She was actually ruining all her advantages.”
“She was trying to take all this incredible stuff she had done and boil it down to seem safe,” he said. “She was actually ruining all her advantages: Running her own business, managing a [profit and loss] statement. Like, she had been responsible for the success of other people around her but she felt she had to put all that to the side.”
When she reframed her strategy to lead with her experience as a business owner, her luck changed.
“In fact, what she was able to do is not only get a job offer at a super competitive firm in the Denver area, but then go back to her existing employer with that offer, and turn it into a $60,000 promotion,” Schifeling said.
In the end, she chose to tell the interviewer about herself — to own her story — rather than model her response after an imagined “right answer” or a perfect candidate she thought they had in mind. And that’s what made the difference.