Tell me about yourself
‘Tell me about yourself’ is often one of the very first questions that interviewers ask. This can catch some candidates off guard. Candidates may feel that it is just small talk in the same way as ‘how was your journey?’ or conversation about the weather.
However, remember that first impressions matter greatly. So your answer to this question is a critical opportunity to start your interview strongly.
Don’t talk about your personal life
I have heard candidates start with phrases such as ‘I am a married man with three lovely children’ or ‘I’m very proud of myself recently for having quit smoking’. However, details about your life outside of work are almost certainly of more interest to you than any prospective employer.
‘Tell me about yourself’ is technically an open-ended question, allowing you to speak about whatever you want. However, there is an opportunity cost to speaking about your personal life. A few minutes of talking about your personal life means less time to communicate your strengths and the value you could add to the interviewers’ organisation.
So, to maximise your chances of getting the job, answer the question by imagining you have been asked a slightly different question instead: ‘Tell me briefly about your professional experience and the relevant skills that make you a strong candidate for this job.’
Do research each specific organisation
Consider that each organisation has specific skills or qualities that it is looking for. You may be applying for the same kind of role within different organisations. However, it is very possible that one employer may state that it is looking for a candidate ‘with excellent communication skills and great attention to detail’, while another organisation may want ‘people who are dynamic, keen to learn and able to build relationships with stakeholders both internally and externally’.
To give yourself the best chance of succeeding with the first organisation, you might therefore start by saying something along the lines of: ‘I am a finance professional with excellent communication skills and strong attention to detail.’ With the second organisation, you might start by saying that: ‘I can do the technical work, but what I enjoy most is building relationships with stakeholders both within the business as well as outside of it.’
Even though different job advertisements may feel quite similar to you, consider that different employers have chosen the language they use for a reason. Paraphrasing words and phrases used by each specific organisation will help you to convey how you can fulfil the needs of each role.
Don’t ignore characteristics of the organisation
Consider that organisations differ on characteristics such as:
If you have relevant experience of those characteristics, then do say so in your response to the question ‘tell me about yourself.’ For instance, if you are applying for a role with a large public sector organisation and you used to work in a prominent public sector, do mention it and explain why it matters.
You might say something like: ‘My previous job was in a large public sector organisation such as yours, so I understand both the need to keep up with the latest government regulations and the importance of dealing very sensitively with all of our stakeholders.’
Or consider if you are applying to work for a small technology firm and have similar experience. In this situation, you might mention as part of your answer that: ‘I spent nearly three years working for a fast-growing technology start-up, so I learned to be very flexible and adaptable in a growing and ever-changing environment.’
Remember that employers want people who can get results in their kind of organisation. If you have relevant experience, be sure to emphasise this.
Do think about specific examples to back up your assertions
In response to ‘tell me about yourself’, anyone could claim to have amazing communication skills, attention to detail, teamworking skills, adaptability, computer skills, and so on. But strong candidates distinguish themselves by being able to give examples of how they have demonstrated these skills.
Whatever skills and qualities you claim to have in your response to the question, be sure that you prepare short anecdotes that illustrate how you used these in your current or previous roles to achieve real results. For instance, if you intend to speak about your ability to build relationships with stakeholders, then think about a specific situation in which you won over or persuaded a particular stakeholder. Then prepare a paragraph explaining briefly who the stakeholder was, why he or she needed persuading, and what actions you took to win over him or her.
Don’t speak for too long
Remember that ‘tell me about yourself’ is usually only the first of many questions to come. Your answer to the question should only last for a few minutes. It’s important to prepare examples in case interviewers ask you to explain why you believe you have certain skills and qualities. However, you do not need to give these examples straightaway.
Towards the end of your answer, though, it may be worth stating that you can give examples of any of the skills and qualities you mentioned – but only if the interviewer asks for them. A candidate might say something like: ‘My manager told me in my last performance appraisal that I am a good team worker and that I have not only good technical and computer skills, but also a commercial outlook that people across the business have said that they value. I’d be happy to talk about any of this further, but only if it should interest you?’
So prepare examples to illustrate all of your skills and positive traits. But avoid bombarding interviewers with your rehearsed stories. Remember that the interviewers are in control and that you should follow their lead.
Do mention your interest and motivation for this role and organisation
Towards the end of your response to ‘tell me about yourself’, it can often be worth explaining why you are interested in this specific role and the organisation. Avoid simply saying that you are interested in the salary – as few interviewers want to hire people who are motivated only by more money.
Perhaps speak about the enhanced responsibility or challenge associated with the role. Feel free to mention the attraction of the organisation’s mission, brand or reputation. Maybe say that you are interested in further training or opportunities to work with the organisation’s client base.
The bigger point here is to end your answer by stating something positive about the organisation so that you, by association, come across as a positive and likeable person too.
This article was first published in Student Accountant in June 2022