Our first tip is a general suggestion- interviews can be stressful and overwhelming, and you can set yourself up for success by controlling what you can. This means getting to the office early (or having your space set up for a virtual interview), dressing in clothes that are appropriate for the setting and make you feel confident and comfortable, and having some answers prepared. You don’t want to feel blindsided or stressed when an interviewer asks you about your background, so have this answer pretty much ready to go. This way, you’ll remember all your key points, and not realize later on that you forgot something important.
To start, don’t tell the interviewer your whole life story. Your answer to this question should be a minute or two, maximum. You don’t need to bog them down with unnecessary details about old jobs or anything that isn’t relevant to this interview. They have your resume, so you don’t need to provide them with a detailed history. Instead, tell your professional story and keep in mind the role you’re interviewing for and the organization’s goals overall. Tell them about your current role, what (overall) led you to it, and how you hope to grow in the future. You don’t want to look back on the interview and realize you spent most of the time talking. As Danielle Hughes, Copywriting and Personality Branding expert says, "What was the question? The question was 'tell me about yourself'. It is not 'read me your resume', it is not 'tell me everything you've ever done professionally', it's 'tell me about YOU and what YOU bring to the table and who YOU are.'"
Keep your answer professional, generally, it isn’t necessary (or advisable) to provide personal details here, about your family or otherwise. Focus on your professional journey. It isn’t that these other personal details aren’t central to who you are or workplace appropriate, it just isn’t a necessary topic of conversation in your interview.
However, this isn’t to say your answer needs to be dry and corporate. In fact, we encourage you to add some personality into the answer. Highlight what makes you unique and different. Danielle Hughes notes that there is a distinction between “personal” and “personality”. “When people say you need a personal brand, I think there is a perception that you have to put everything out there and I don't think that's the case. I think you’re allowed to have boundaries and barriers, and to me, that’s the difference between personality brand and personal brand. YOU are in control of what you get to share with colleagues, coworkers, clients, the world."
Personality isn't just a nice to have, it can help differentiate you from other applicants. Danielle's advice is, "Lean into what makes you different. They want more you. That’s the bottom line. Especially now, I think never in my lifetime or probably in anybody else's has there been more talk around being an individual, bringing a different kind of mindset to a role, being more YOU. We're breaking down these more traditional barriers to what we used to think was being professional in the office. People are really looking for more of that human connection.”
Keep your answer positive. If you’re coming from a negative experience, being fired or laid off, a bad manager or other negative work experience, focus on what you achieved there, what you learned, and how you’re moving forward. Even if the interviewer knows that you’re coming from a negative experience, just keep it positive. Speaking poorly about past companies, coworkers, or managers is a red flag for interviewers. Even if it’s truthful, it can be perceived poorly. If they ask you why you’re leaving your current role, tell them that you’re ready to grow or expand beyond it, or that you’d accomplished what you’d set out to when you took that role. In a case where an interviewer might know something negative about your company (for example, if the company had recently received negative press), it will still reflect well on you if you keep your comments positive. You don’t need to lie and say it was the greatest job of your life, just focus on yourself, your accomplishments, and how you grew there. A negative experience is not your responsibility, but how you respond to it is.
A great thing to include as you tell an interviewer about yourself are specifics. A recent win at work, good feedback you've received, challenges you encountered in your last job that excited you and how you’re planning to use that experience in your next role. Some examples of this might be, “I was able to use my experience to grow X client relationship by 20% over two years”, “I grew the account from 1 million to 5 million over the years I worked on it”, “I led the end-to-end deployment of our new platform”. These answers all have a few things in common, they’re specific, they’re detailed, and they convey a challenge that the interviewee overcame.
Lastly, don’t overthink it. Your interviewer is probably asking you this question so they can get their bearings and frame the interview for themselves. They aren’t looking for your life story or a sales pitch. This is a subtle way for you to frame yourself in relation to the job they’re hiring for, but it doesn’t need to be a long-winded explanation of why you’re perfect for this role. Just have a few things prepared, keep it professional and light, and allow them to guide the conversation.
If you’re feeling a little lost, here is a simple template for curating your “tell me about yourself answer”. Try writing your answer down to help yourself structure it and think it through.
Here’s an example of how this would look.
Since I went to my first tech summer camp, I’ve been a passionate coder. In my professional career, I’ve focused on using technology to revolutionize customer experience. I began my career as a junior developer and have worked my way up to senior software engineer at [Company], where I currently manage a team of 15 developers. I recently led the development of a new customer dashboard that allows [Company]'s clients to see all their trade orders in one place. Next in my career, I’d like the opportunity to work for a smaller organization where I can be not just a technologist but a product leader as well. I’d like to have more opportunities to work with customers to understand their pain points and how the solutions I build can address them. I’m also on the hunt for the best chocolate chip cookie in New York City.