Forget what you’ve been told about the “tell me about yourself” job interview question. It’s not just a procedural, lightway teaser prompting you to walk through your resume; it’s a chance for you to set the stage for the rest of the interview and establish why you’re the right person for the job.
“What seems like a throwaway question to both hiring managers and to job interviewees is actually the exact opposite,” said Jeremy Schifeling, principal product marketing manager at edtech nonprofit Khan Academy. “It’s probably the most important question in the entire conversation.”
Indeed, how you respond to the “tell me about yourself” prompt plays a key role in the direction the interview takes — it shapes the interviewer’s perception of your personality, accomplishments and enthusiasm about the job.
To give yourself an edge in the interview process, thoughtfully craft a response that’s succinct and yet still provides specific evidence of your qualifications.
Why Do Interviewers Ask the ‘Tell Me About Yourself’ Question?
“Tell me about yourself” is an information-gathering prompt — not idle chit-chat or a bid to learn about your hobbies, pets or parenting techniques.
Hiring managers usually bring it up hoping to hear what you’re passionate about and the impact you’ve made in previous positions. While you talk, they’ll be assessing whether your interests and accomplishments are relevant and transferable to the position you’re seeking at their company.
It commonly comes up early in an interview, when hiring managers typically form their first impression of a candidate. Schifeling, who is also a former career adviser, said the next 25 minutes of the interview are largely spent “collecting evidence to confirm what I’ve already decided.”
How to Answer ‘Tell Me About Yourself’
3 Steps to Approach the 'Tell Me About Yourself' Question
- Briefly explain why you are passionate about your specialization or field of study.
- Provide specific examples that illustrate your passion.
- Connect past accomplishments to the potential role.
When answering this question, 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.
How to Structure a Response to ‘Tell Me About Yourself’
The goal when responding to “tell me about yourself” is not to ramble, but also not to sound too rehearsed. Instead, experts recommend devising a brief, purposeful response that offers the interviewer specific examples that relate your passions to the job.
Open With a Thesis Statement
Structure the response 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,” Schifeling 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.”
Connect Your Passion and Experience to the Job
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.
This answer 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.
'Tell Me About Yourself' Answer Template
- Open with a brief statement of passion.
- Offer evidence of relevant experience.
- Include concrete details to support your examples.
- Connect examples to the responsibilities of the prospective job.
- Conclude by linking your passion to the company mission and values.
Showcase Your Working Style and Values
Jo-Nell Sieren, a career adviser for design, interactive arts and media students at Columbia College in Chicago, coaches 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.
Whatever the case, keep the executive summary of your professional background brief, typically one minute or so.
‘Tell Me About Yourself’ Example Answers
Answering the popular “tell me about yourself” interview question is different for every person, depending on their level of experience, education and desired career. Here are some examples to steer you in the right direction.
General Example Answer
“When I was studying business in college, I didn’t necessarily see myself working in human resources, but I’m grateful my career led me in that direction. Being part of a people management team has given me valuable insight into how to put together an effective support system for employees. I actually spearheaded the effort at my current employer to expand the company’s benefits package. It had been several years since those offerings had been touched, and so I led a project to modernize things, to ensure our employees had access to things like mental health resources and financial support for professional development. I bring a lot of experience and knowledge to the table that I think have thoroughly prepared me for an HR manager job.”
Example Answer for Recent Graduates
“I’m a writer at my core, and my love for storytelling carried from childhood all the way to university. I started studying marketing because I wanted to be able to help craft meaningful brand narratives. In my coursework, I’ve handled dozens of projects focused on content creation, like writing SEO articles and developing video concepts, but I also have real-world experience from my internship. Even though I was the most-junior person on my team, I made some really significant contributions and got to get hands-on with the creative process. Getting that taste of the professional world has me excited to kickstart my career, and I’m hoping your agency will be a good fit for me to continue learning and growing.”
Example Answer for Switching Industries
“I started working in finance straight out of college. I was able to hit the ground running because the hard work I put into my internship as a student luckily paid off and the company that I was with offered me a full-time position. The four years that I’ve spent in this job have helped me hone my analytics and financial forecasting skills. I’ve always been pretty good with numbers, but what’s really given me an edge is taking the time to develop the patience and resourcefulness to communicate what can be incredibly complex information to people who come from all kinds of educational and professional backgrounds. This work has laid the foundation for my career, but I’m ready to branch out and try something new. So I’m looking forward to stepping out of the financial sector and putting those valuable skills to the test in a different kind of industry as a business analyst.”
Example Answer for Experienced Candidates
“I’ve worked in software development for the past decade and have extensive experience in building and deploying mobile apps. In my current position, I led a recent project to launch what has become one of my company’s most successful games on both Android and iOS. Of course it’s been incredibly rewarding to get to participate in software projects that let me stretch my creative muscles, but it’s also felt really great to be growing into my leadership potential. I’ve enjoyed getting to mentor and coach younger developers as I took the reins on guiding some projects to completion. That’s why I’m looking to move into a role with more leadership and management responsibilities.”
4 Tips for Answering ‘Tell Me About Yourself’
1. Don’t Just Walk Through Your Resume
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.
2. Ask a Check-In Question to Build Rapport
“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.”
3. Tell an Anecdote that Hooks the Interviewer
Incorporate a good professional story 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.
4. 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,” 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.