“Tell Me about Yourself.”

If I had to place a bet on the first question your interviewer will ask you, this would be it. “Tell me about yourself!” Seems like it should be easy, right? Who knows more about you than, well, you? This simple question often flusters interviewees, though, and some people struggle to answer it well. Fortunately, with practice and preparation, you should be able to respond to “Tell me about yourself!” with ease and then smoothly transition to the rest of the interview.

First, you need to understand what the interviewer is asking—and what they’re not asking. I’ve had people start their answer to this question with “Well, I was born in…” or “I’m 19 years old..” That’s not what the hiring manager wants to know! They aren’t asking for The Entire History of You, and they don’t want irrelevant information that will have no impact on whether or not they hire you.

So what do interviewers want to know? It might help to rephrase the question in your head. Instead of “Tell me about yourself,” think of it as “Tell me about your professional self.” This will steer you away from details that are too personal or largely irrelevant and toward information that your interviewer is looking for.

Even after reframing, you’ll have more success if you practice how you’ll answer. You don’t need to memorize a script, but you should mentally sketch out the beginning, main points, and conclusion. Brevity is key here: good answers to this particular question last between 30 seconds and a minute or so. Know when to stop! You don’t have to fill all available air space with words.

What exactly should you talk about? For students or recent grads, a brief description of what path you’re taking in school is a good place to start. You can then (again, briefly!) summarize your work experience. What do you specialize in? What has the focus of your work been? End by telling them why you were excited to apply to this particular job.

Don’t be thrown if your interviewer doesn’t ask this question; not all of them do. It’s common enough, however, that you want to be prepared so that you can avoid an awkward beginning to an important conversation.

As you move forward in your career, your answer to this question will evolve. I hope that it will also get a lot easier to answer. You’ll know what employers are looking for, and you’ll have built a professional background you’re excited to talk about. Until then, practice! You can master the art of “Tell me about yourself!”

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