“Tell me about yourself.”
That’s it. It’s not rocket science and it’s not a trick question. But you would not believe the amount of candidates I have interviewed (both in my past as a recruiter, and in my present as a mock interviewer) who are thrown into complete turmoil by this question. Because while we are so busy focusing on the competencies and making sure we have done adequate research on the organisation we quite simply forget who we are, what we have to sell and how we should be selling it. And whilst that is what this question is all about, so often candidates seem to be missing the point.
What not to say.
Over the years I’ve heard answers ranging from detailed information about where a candidate fits into their sibling order, to a chronological history on what schools the candidate attended as a child, due to multiple house moves. As an interviewer, none of this information would make me feel a candidate is either more or less suitable for the job at hand, and the said candidate has missed a golden opportunity to market themselves and produce a positive and memorable opening to the interview (first impressions count, remember).
The sound of silence.
But even worse than a bad answer is a non-answer. A five second pause followed by a long “errrrrrr” and finally “what kind of thing do you want me to talk about?” This faltering start can be so difficult to recover from, both on the part of the candidate (who’s confidence is likely to be feeling a little shaky) and on the part of the recruiter (who’s confidence in the candidate is likely to be in questioned). The interview could become a bit of an uphill struggle on both sides.
What does the recruiter want to hear?
The best answer here is a succinct and positive answer in which the candidate is predominantly describing their work-self, whether in terms of skills or experience (or both) and in relation to the role they are applying to. That is not to say other information is totally out of bounds – a little personal context is fine. However, the focus should be on work or the candidate is missing a great chance of relevant self-promotion. And brevity is key – interviewers are unlikely to be expecting a long answer at this early point in the interview, but candidates should start positively. Be confident, be relevant.
Of course, “tell me about yourself” isn’t a question that is asked at every interview, but that’s almost beside the point. Much of the value is in preparing for it. It is really useful way for a client to focus on what they can offer and how they can wrap that up in a neat marketing package. It should enable them to focus on the key points that they need to get across, throughout the interview as a whole. So making it a feature of every interview preparation seems to make sense.