"Tell me about yourself," your potential boss asks during the job interview you worked so long and hard to land. Does your mind go blank, as you're struck dumb by how broad this question is? Or are you flooded with so many possible answers that you know you're about to start babbling about your birthplace and that time you peed your pants in the first grade?
We hope neither happens, since at this very moment you're researching how to answer those all-too-common interview questions. There's not really a correct response for something this vague, but there are some good ways to go about making yourself look like the ideal candidate with your smart response.
What is the real question?
After you've done so much homework to craft your own clever questions for your interviewer, you might be a little miffed that she's giving you such a cliché. Don't be so hard on her, though. Interviewing candidates for a job is also difficult, and probably just one of a million tasks she has to complete that day. She's not trying to torture you here, but rather giving you the opportunity to say exactly what she needs to hear.
"I think it's appropriate, when somebody asks such a broad question, to ask them a question back of where would you like me to start?" Porter Braswell, CEO of the career platform Jopwell and author of the book Let Them See You: The Guide for Leveraging Your Diversity at Work, tells Refinery29. "That allows them to guide you to a more defined answer."
What she's probably not asking is for your entire life story.
"Think about the context from which the interviewer is asking the question, which is to say, you should tailor your answer to the particular role you want," says A-J Aronstein, associate dean at Barnard College's Beyond Barnard office. "Tell them what you've done up to this point that makes you a good fit for the position and that should take no more than about 45 seconds to a minute."
Your elevator pitch
“When answering this question, you must have your ‘elevator pitch’ or ‘executive summary’ ready to go,” Cindy Ballard, chief human resources officer at talent and literary agency ICM Partners, tells us. “Here’s my example: I am a results-driven HR executive with experience across multiple industries including media, technology, and retail. My HR knowledge was gained by working in both specialist and general roles in HR. My passion and expertise is building HR from the ground-up and delivering an HR experience to my clients that is strategic, meaningful, and drives results for the company.”
Plan your answer now
The clues to what you should say about yourself will be in the job listing, as well as in the "about" section of the company's website. An employer wants to know whether you have the right traits for the job and a personality that will mesh well with the company culture. But it's not quite enough to say you're a good problem solver or a detail-oriented person. You should probably think ahead about examples of things you've done at school or in the workplace that demonstrate those qualities.
"In the prep that happens before, you should get to the point where you can fluidly and fluently tell your story," Aronstein says. Once you have that down in your head, you can jot down some bullet points to bring along on your interview, especially if you're the type who develops temporary amnesia when you're nervous.
Be confident in who you are and what you can offer
Whatever you do, don't make something up to fit this job interview. Instead find something both true and positive to share.
"People want to invest in individuals that are compelling, and you can be compelling in a million different ways," Braswell says. "I think that people have to really embrace that and understand their story and what makes them unique. No matter what interview you're going on — whether you're in high school or you're 30 years into the workforce — if you can bring that out, people want to invest in you."