It’s bound to happen. You settle into a chair across from an interviewer and just as you’re ready to nail the interview, you hear the four most dreaded words in an interview: “tell me about yourself.”

After some sputtering, you take a deep breath and launch into the tale of your rural childhood and how difficult it was coming to the big city.

You mention how you love to knit because your Grandma taught you, and your weekends are spent hanging out with your 5 parakeets.

As you’re wrapping up you take a peek at the interviewer’s face and immediately know that your job interview has taken an unexpected turn. You’ve given a dreaded Wrong AnswerTM and you know it.

Close up - Smiling man looking away.
Close up - Smiling man looking away.

why is ‘tell me about yourself’ such a common interview question?

Why do hiring managers love ‘tell me about yourself’? Why is this question – or some variation of it – asked so frequently in job interviews?

What on earth is an interviewer expecting your answer to be? For starters, it’s a good way to kick off a meeting with someone you don’t know.

It allows you, the interviewee, to direct the conversation. It’s a deceptively simple, open-ended question that allows the interviewer to sit back, observe and listen. 

Remember, the hiring manager’s job is to fill the position with the best candidate. How you choose to answer this vague, open-ended question says a lot about you. It tells them how you operate under pressure and a little about your thinking process.

Do you immediately jump to selling why your skills make you perfect for this job? Do you give a broad overview of your resume? Or maybe you infuse a little personality into your answer?

use the ambiguity of ‘tell me about yourself’ to your advantage

The open ended-ness of this question is often what trips up job seekers. Since there’s no clear answer, you have to make a decision about what to share.

  • Will you provide a rundown of your resume?
  • Sell your qualifications?
  • Show off what a fun addition to the team you would be?
  • With so many potential ways to answer, how can you possibly 'answer this question' to meet the expectations of every interviewer?

Don’t get us wrong, you can prepare. And we’re not talking about sharing a laundry list of your skills, accomplishments, personal preferences and hobbies unless they’re somehow related to the job you’re interviewing for.

First, stop looking at it as the interviewer trying to sabotage you. Instead, consider it a gift, an opportunity for you to take control of the interview (‘I’m glad you asked’), set the tone (concise, professional and enthusiastic) and use this as a chance to tell the interviewer off the most important things they need to know about you, and why you’re the right person for the job.

prepare your elevator pitch

Depending on your point of view, one minute can seem like nothing or an eternity. Some people find it really difficult to talk about themselves, while others have no problem talking about themselves until their voice gives out.

No matter your personality type, it’s a good idea to pre-prepare a short, to the point elevator pitch that can apply to all sorts of broad questions.

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create an answer that you can use as a template

Then customize it for each interview. Some people refer to this as a script. In one respect it is.

You need to practice it until it comes easily to you, especially if you’re naturally uncomfortable talking about yourself.

However avoid memorizing it completely – you want it to sound natural, conversational and confident, not stiff and rehearsed. This will 'set the rest of the interview' up for success.

Don’t ad lib, no matter how witty you may be. Like all first impressions, you won’t get a second chance to make a good one.

While the interviewer should be prepared, they’ve likely gone through several candidates and at some point, they may start to blur.

This is where your elevator pitch helps you highlight your most relevant experience and provides an opportunity for you to connect each point to specifics of the job requirements. A great elevator pitch is memorable.  

keep your elevator pitch short and focused

Your elevator pitch should not be too long or rambling. It’s a brief overview of you, not your entire life history. It should also be 'relevant to the job' you’re applying to.

It’s a sampler of you, the Reader’s Digest version of your experience. So pick and choose what you’ll include carefully.

You don’t want to overwhelm your interviewer with too much information but you also don’t want to appear as if you’re withholding information. Avoid getting too personal or detailed. Altogether, it shouldn’t take more than 1-3 minutes.

Sounds like a short time, but 1-3 minutes of awkward silence interspersed with throat clearing and ‘um…’ and ‘uh…’ feels like a lifetime.

what should you include in your pitch? 

Start with an overview sentence about who you are. Include what you consider your most impactful selling features. Imagine yourself as the product that the interviewer needs to be convinced to buy.

Next, focus on personal qualities or skills that make you a good candidate, without listing them off. Follow that with relevant experience, training or technical skills, and how you meet or exceed the requirements of the position.

Use the job description as your guide. You can finish off with a brief description of your current work situation and why this opportunity appeals to you.

don’t forget to mention the job

Tell the interviewer why you’re interested in the position and how it fits with your career trajectory. Don’t forget to explain how your strengths, capabilities and past experiences relate to the job at hand.

At the end of the day, the purpose of a job interview is to determine how your skills and experiences align with the open position.

Every question the interviewer asks you is an opportunity to show off why you’re right for the job!

Even if you’re not asked ‘tell me about yourself’, the exercise of thinking in terms of an elevator pitch during your interview preparation will help you organize your thoughts and ensure you’re confident when answering job interview questions.

The importance of practice and preparation can’t be understated in a job interview situation. The old adage ‘practice makes perfect’ really is true.

A well-practiced elevator pitch that is thoughtful and memorable will get your interview off on the right foot and possibly even bump you to the top of the hiring manager’s ‘must-hire’ list!

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