Q: I have an important interview next week. So I won’t be caught unprepared, I’ve been thinking about the questions my potential manager might ask me. One that has caused me great anxiety in the past is, “Tell me about yourself.” I never know how to respond to this. It’s so vague. What is an interviewer looking for when she says this?
A: You can assume this question is part of the interviewer’s strategy for getting to know you. When she asks this very open-ended question, she wants to see how you choose to answer it. Your approach speaks volumes about how you will react to the day-to-day demands and stresses of the job you hope to fill.
Some people start their answer with, “I was born in Buffalo,” and proceed to offer a long autobiography of childhood and work experiences augmented by their marital status, hobbies and children’s activities ad infinitum. Caught off guard, others blurt out everything they promised themselves they would never tell the interviewer, including the latest on their messy divorce. Some freeze like a deer in the headlights and fall into a panic-stricken silence. A few recite a carefully written, often stilted commercial they have committed to memory. As you might imagine, none of these applicants are likely to impress their interviewer.
The smart candidate plans how she will respond in advance. She finds out about the job description and requirements through networking or by reading the employment ad and highlighting its key points. Then she pulls the experience, skills, personality traits, values and education from her background that specifically match what the employee wants. She folds these elements into a two- or three-minute answer that captures the essence of what the employee needs to know without extraneous detail. Candidates who are prepared and concise make lots of points with potential managers because they exhibit a number of characteristics inherent in successful professionals.
You may also answer any vague question with a question of your own. If someone says, “tell me about yourself,” you might reply, ” What would you like to know?” This forces the other party to clarify her intention and gives you more time to prepare an appropriate answer. While you’ll want to use this technique sparingly, it can be very effective in establishing mutual respect between you and your interviewer. It’s a polite way of saying, ” Let’s cut the game playing and get down to the real issues.”
Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979, which works with individual and corporate clients in career change; job search; executive, small business and life coaching; college major selection and talent management.
“One of the smartest minds in the career field,” according to Tony Lee (VP of CareerCast Operations at Adicio and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal’s Online Vertical Network), Besson began writing for the Dallas Times Herald in the early 80s. Having read several of her columns, Lee asked her to contribute regular articles to the Journal’s National Business Employment Weekly (NBEW) as well. Since then, she has been a triple award-winning columnist for CareerJournal.com and Senior Columnist for CareerCast.com, as well as WorkingWoman.com and Oxygen.com. At Lee’s request, Besson authored five editions of NBEW’s Premier Guide to Resumes and three of its Premier Guide to Cover Letters. She has also written articles and/or been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money and Yahoo among others.
Taunee has worked on community nonprofit boards and committees for over 30 years including Girls Inc., Women’s Center of Dallas, Girl Scouts and Dallas Women’s Foundation, The Volunteers of America and Mortarboard, among others. She was a member of the Leadership Dallas in 1987 and Leadership America in 2003.
In 1994, the Dallas Chapter of the American Society for Training and Development chose her as its “Professional of the Year”. Her NBEW columns were selected for the “Ten Best Article Award” in 1990, 1994 and 1997. In 1999, Alpha Gamma Delta, a 200,000 member fraternal organization, named her as one of three “Distinguished Citizens” at its biannual international convention.