by Jon Jacobs
A new acquaintance recently asked for guidance handling the open-ended interview question I used in the headline of this post. “Although it sounds benign, it can be lethal,” he observed. “What do you feel is the answer a hiring manager/recruiter/other is looking for? Just as important: What do they not want to hear?”
While job-hunting in 2006 and early 2007, I faced the question numerous times. Later, when I had the opportunity to hear what career coaches and hiring managers had to say, I realized I’d been going about answering it all wrong.
More Than Where You’ve Been
The key is to not to make the question a jumping-off point for a career-path version of the “autobiography” your third-grade teacher asked you to write. Remember how everyone tackled those? “I was born in Metropolis, Ohio. My father is a car dealer. I have a sister, Patty, two brothers, Joe and Bill, and a dog, Spike. My hobbies are baseball, model trains and coin collecting…..”
In other words: Resist the natural tendency to tick off each of your career roles and transitions in a single narrative.
The interviewer isn’t looking for completeness. Instead, she is looking for a coherent “story” that provides indications you’re a good fit for the opening. That means your answer should briefly convey both:
- A sense of who you are and where you’re going – why the opening you’re applying for represents a logical culmination of where you’ve been. You needn’t make that point explicit, but if you can suggest it in your answer, you’ll score points. And:
- Something about your previous career that prepares you for the role you’re interviewing for. Just as with a resume, take pains to focus this part of your answer on accomplishments, not just responsibilities or functions. For each past or present job you discuss, mention an anecdote about a challenge you faced, a project you completed or a learning experience you had that’s directly relevant to the new role. If you can also relate that challenge or project to your motivation for wanting the role, so much the better.
You needn’t go through each and every job you’ve had. Feel free to skip over any of them. Nor must you explain why you left jobs: The interviewer surely will question you about that later.
The best answer to “tell me about yourself” will have the Goldilocks quality: just enough detail, without getting tedious or long-winded. Concise but not too concise. I envision this answer taking up to two minutes, assuming the interviewer doesn’t break in with tributary questions while you’re speaking.
If you can, try to watch yourself from outside while answering. Imagine one fraction of your mind perched in a corner of the wall and keeping tabs on how you’re coming off. Be on guard against rambling. If you catch yourself starting to delve deeper and deeper into one situation or one past job, cut yourself off and move on.
When I had to job hunt a few years ago, I rehearsed answers to, “describe your three biggest strengths and your three biggest weaknesses.” Surprise – not a single interviewer asked me that question. All the rage in the 1980s and early ’90s, it seems to have all but vanished from modern practice. Instead, today’s obligatory question is “tell me about yourself.” Whether you meet by phone or face-to-face, it’s often the first substantive thing out of the interviewer’s mouth.
I hope this helps you develop a response that keeps you in the game. If any of what I’ve said doesn’t ring true, feel free to comment below.