Regardless of whether you’re a software engineer, a data scientist, a web developer, or a program manager, you’ll be asked “tell me about yourself” in nearly every interview. It’s a popular way to get the ball rolling and if you answer it well, you set the tone for a successful interview. In this article, we’ll cover:
- How to begin the interview
- 7 traps to avoid when answering “tell me about yourself”
- 5 ways to prepare and confidently deliver your answer
- How to craft a strong answer using a job description
- A summary of the 5 steps to nailing this question.
How You Start An Interview Can Be Just As Powerful As How You End One
Let’s start this conversation from when you meet the interviewer. Everybody talks about the ever-so-important handshake, right? If you’re in the position for an in-person interview, be sure to look them in the eyes and give them a nice firm handshake demonstrating confidence.
Zoom interviews may have you out of practice, so if you’re visiting as part of an on-site, or simply networking, give a confident but brief grip. The worst thing you can do is give the “dead-fish handshake.” Blech! That can be the kiss of death before the interview even starts.
First, I suggest striking up some small talk to build rapport before the interview even begins. This will allow you and the interviewer to informally get to know each other. Plus, this can help calm your nerves a bit.
Whether you’re meeting a recruiter or a panel of interviewers, be sure to ask the scheduler for their names ahead of time, if they’re not provided. Look them up on LinkedIn, and any other social media. You might discover you have mutual connections or other things in common, giving you an opportunity to talk about something other than the weather.
Before We Dig Into Answering “Tell Me About Yourself…”
Please don’t let this question stress you out. Interviewers tell me all the time they want you to nail the interview. They are actually rooting for you! Keep in mind, they want to interview you because your resume showed you have the skills to do the job!
They wouldn’t waste their time bringing you in for an interview if they didn’t think you were a good candidate. This applies to ALL jobs! The good news is, “tell me about yourself” is a question you should nail every time because:
- You know it’s coming
- You have the job description to prepare with and
- You have the time to practice!
Now let’s break this down.
What To Avoid When Answering “Tell Me About Yourself?”
We’ve all been guilty of one or more of these in the past. Let’s recognize them, note them, and move on.
- Please, I’m begging you, do not start with, “Hi, my name is…” Without fail, 99% of people will start their answer this way. This isn’t necessary because…they asked you to interview. They have your resume with your name plastered across the top (hopefully). Without fail though, people state their name again.
- Do not restate what is already on your resume. Sometimes, if the interviewer hasn’t read your resume they may ask you specifically to review your resume. That is a completely different question.
- Don’t ask them to clarify the question, “Do you want me to talk about my education, personal life, or experience?” You should know exactly how to answer this question.
- Don’t reply with a modest or vague introduction that doesn’t communicate your strongest qualifications for the position. Never shy away from selling yourself!
- Stay away from the personal side of your life when answering this question. This is not a date or an invitation to tell your life story.
- This can be longer than 30-seconds. You use your “elevator pitch,” when networking. They call it an elevator pitch for a reason. You don’t have much time to answer so you need to be succinct and straight to the point. You have more time in an interview, so use it. The rule of thumb, however, is don’t go over 2 minutes. Or if the interviewers’ eyes start to glaze over – that’s a bad sign.
- Try not to ramble. It happens when we get nervous. Take a breath. Use the time to provide enough information to give an overview of:
- What skills and experience do I have that align with the role?
- And how can I provide value to the organization based on my experience?”
Now that we know what not to do; let’s talk about how to Knock It Out Of The Park! Keep in mind, when you skillfully answer this question, it’s a great indicator you know how to interview! Undoubtedly, this will bring a smile to the interviewer’s face. They might even sigh in relief!
5 Ways How to Prepare and Instill Confidence with Your Answer
1. Practice! Practice! Practice!
Answering this is not easy to do gracefully on the fly. It pays to prepare in advance. Trust me on this one. Rehearse your answer in the car or in the shower! Record yourself and play it back. If you cringe, try it again!
Preparation is key to crushing this question and success! Practice with a friend or family member. The more you practice, the better. For those of you who love to wing it…please don’t. You can thank me later.
2. Align with the job description
You’re going to want to craft your answer by highlighting technical and soft skills aligned with the job description. Concisely convey them through specific projects, work experience, and/or education.
3. Try the ‘stacked blocks’ method of progression
One way to structure how you answer this question is by thinking of your previous roles as building blocks to your current role. In each “block,” highlight expertise in a language, framework, or skill you learned or used.
Be sure to spotlight skills or languages they’ve asked for in the job description. Make it easy for them to see what a great catch you are!
4. Identify your main selling points for the role
This could be years of experience or a specific area of specialization. Highlight special training or a Bootcamp experience. By focusing on the qualifications in the job description you’ll be able to tell them how you will meet and exceed requirements.
5. Make your pitch in your closing
Describe why you’re interested in the position. Maybe indicate why you are looking for a new challenge and why you feel this role is the best next step.
Maybe you’re ready to move from being an individual contributor to a team lead. Maybe you’re looking for more autonomy or opportunities to influence the roadmap.
Focus on how you will provide value by reinforcing how your experience, skills, and drive can help them reach their goals. If they match traits in the job description, such as attention to detail, or collaboration with others, they’re relevant.
Feel free to add some side gigs that highlight skills you use: maybe you build websites or troubleshoot IT issues for nonprofits in your community. Maybe you coordinate volunteers or coach a team. Maybe you’re not using a specific language in your current job, but use it as part of an ongoing passion project.
Let’s Put It All Together With This Example
Let’s craft an example using the job description below.
Sample Job Description:
- Use a variety of technical skills, soft skills, and industry knowledge to develop applications and systems.
- Use analysis and critical thinking skills to determine and assess the needs of the user and then create software to meet the requirements.
- Ability to collaborate and provide clear instructions to the project team, clearly explaining how the software looks to the customer. Available to answer any questions using exceptional communication skills.
- Apply keen attention to detail and organizational skills to work on numerous parts (time management) of a system or application at the same time while being accurate and thorough.
- Able to work well and collaborate with others on a team of Designers, Developers, and Programmers using effective interpersonal skills.
- Able to efficiently identify and resolve issues during the design, testing, and maintenance process using strong problem-solving skills.
“So, tell me about yourself…”
“Thank you for asking. I would describe myself as a collaborative and solution-driven software engineer with over two years of experience working with designers, developers, and programmers holding a degree in Computer Science from Purdue University.
I’ve already contributed to over a half dozen projects and assisted with managing a project for one of our firm’s long-time clients.
Something I’ve enjoyed and has been able to use in my current role is leveraging my experience in tech support to help identify and resolve complex issues.
I believe my experience has allowed me to hone my attention to detail and critical thinking skills as well as enhance my communication skills working on team-based projects and with clients.
In my last role in tech support, I received several commendations from customers where I was able to identify and resolve their technical issues with clarity and ease.
I’m excited to collaborate on a team and apply my technical skills to develop applications and systems along with contributing to your team in a way that positively impacts the organization and your clients”
In Conclusion – Tell Me About Yourself Doesn’t Need To Be So Scary!
Note how in the example above, you didn’t see “I was born in” or “I grew up in,” types of autobiographies. It boils down to:
Who you are
“I’m a [characteristic description] [title] with [number] years of experience working with [teams, functions, or industries] holding a [education].”
How you got here
“I’ve contributed to [types or number of projects], managed [types or number of projects], and used my experience to [something from the JD they need you to do]. I’ve used [languages, skills] and achieved [example of success, contribution, or something you learned].”
Why you’re here
“I’m eager to [what excites you about the role], apply my skills to [tasks, projects, or function], and contribute to [positive outcome or goal of the team, company, etc.].”
In a nutshell, remember these five steps:
- Focus on the job you are applying to,
- Think about what makes you stand out,
- Include your technical and soft skills that align with the role,
- Mention past accomplishments,
- End strong with how you can provide value to the company.
It may help to write out your response and read it aloud several times before your interview. The goal is not to memorize it, per se. You want to be authentic. But writing it down helps organize your thoughts. If your interview is over Zoom, it’s easy to have notes and bullet points on a second screen or nearby. Just don’t “read” it. It’s your story, after all. You know it!
The best advice I can provide as a Career Coach is to prepare and practice! I’ve seen hundreds of people move from literally having no idea how to navigate the “tell me about yourself” question to absolutely killing it! You’ve got this!