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Almost every single job interview starts with the same question. “Can you tell me about yourself?”

It’s a question that many people have trouble answering because it is open-ended, and it can be tough to talk about yourself.

That interview question trips people up because they don’t know what to include or exclude in their answer.

It’s up to the candidate to decide what they think is the most important information to tell the hiring manager because it is completely open-ended.

That can feel like a lot of pressure when you’re trying to make a great first impression.

While it may seem like it’s impossible to know exactly what the hiring manager means when they say, “Tell me about yourself.”

You can use a formula every time you interview to make sure that you include the right information and exclude details that are not important to your story. 

Why “Tell me about yourself” is always the first question

The reason why this is always the first question a hiring manager asks a job candidate is that it’s an easy way to open up the interview and hand it over to the candidate for them to start talking about themselves.

It’s also a perfect way for the hiring manager to get a feel for the candidate’s personality before asking additional interview questions.

Your answer to this question sets the tone for how the hiring manager will view you throughout the rest of the conversation.

While you answer this question, the hiring manager is deciding whether you’re a good fit for the role and the team.

So instead of jumping right into questions about your skillset, the hiring manager can use this opening question to assess what they want to ask you more about. 

As an aside, I have stopped interviews after candidates answered this question because I knew right away that they would not be a fit for the job.

Doing that prevented them from the uncertainty of completing the interview and then waiting to hear from HR about whether or not they moved on in the hiring process.

It’s the humane thing to do.

What to include in your answer

Your answer to the “tell me about yourself” question should include three things. 

The first thing that it should include is a reference to your experience.

You got an interview for the position because of the experience that you had on your resume.

This opening question is an opportunity for you to expand upon that experience and explain how it ties back to the job. 

You do not need to include all of your experience in your answer.

And for God’s sake, do not use this as an opportunity to tell your life story.

Think of this as giving the highlights in your career history, not your full biography.

You only need to talk about the relevant experience and achievements for the position that you are interviewing for. 

For example, let’s say that you moved from account management to sales throughout your career.

All you need to do is quickly explain how you went from account management to a sales role and then talk more about your sales experience.

Use this opportunity to speak to the challenges you faced and overcame in addition to your accomplishments and achievements.

This brings me to the next piece of information that your answer to this question should include, which is your skills.

You need to explain how you have developed the relevant skills for the position throughout your career.

Again, in this case, you only need to include the relevant skillset that the hiring manager needs for this particular role. 

Continuing our example.

If the role is for a sales executive position, you need to talk about your negotiating and forecasting skills because they are essential for this job.

You can leave out your experience in managing client accounts.

Even though you gained that experience when you were an account manager, and it’s included on your resume, it’s not the most important skill set for this position.

So leave it out.

The final piece of information to include in your answer is your enthusiasm for the position.

Use this opening statement to your advantage by explaining how excited you are for this opportunity.

In this statement, you should include a reference to the work you’ll be doing and any additional background on why that’s exciting to you. 

In our example, this job is will allow you to reach new sales markets. Make sure that you mention how exciting that is to you.

What to exclude from your answer

Just as important as what to include in your “tell me a little bit about yourself” answer is what to exclude.  And this is where most people run into trouble. 

The instinct for many people is to start at the beginning of their career and talk about every single position they’ve had up to this point.

The reasons you shouldn’t do this are 1. your answer will be too long, and 2. you’re giving too much information. 

The key here is to simplify and focus your story, so don’t start back at the beginning. Instead, start somewhere between five and eight years ago and work your way forward.

The only exception to this rule is if you have only been at one company for the last 10+ years and have only held one or two positions at that company.

Then it’s OK to start at the beginning. But be brief!

Also, I think this is obvious, but it’s worth mentioning.

Do not, under any circumstances, include information in your answer about your family, hobbies, friends, favorite foods, or what you like to do in your free time.

You may feel like this is important information to build rapport with the hiring manager, but trust me, this is not the time or the place to talk about anything personal

Keep your answer to just your career highlights.

Addressing a gap in your resume

Many people have gaps in their resume because lots of people take time away from work for one reason or another and then come back. 

Do not try to hide a gap in your experience by not using months associated with years on your resume.

For example, listing your job as 2019-2020 instead of Jun 2019-Jan 2020.

I’ve seen this tactic a million times, and it screams, “I’m hiding something!”

Instead, address the gap directly so that when the hiring manager reads your resume, they have a full picture of what you did during your time away from the workforce.

Once you’ve presented the reason, they can decide whether or not that reason matters enough not to interview you.

Never lie about the reason why you have a gap in your resume.

There are so many great candidates out there who have taken time to care for a loved one, go back to school, take a sabbatical, volunteer, have a baby, tend to a medical issue, address their mental health, the list goes on and on.

You are not the only person who has a gap on your resume and is looking for a new job.

It’s more commonplace than you think, so be upfront and honest about why you have a gap.

How long should your answer be

Your answer to “tell me about yourself” should be a maximum of 1 minute and 30 seconds.

I know that seems like a really short amount of time to give the hiring manager a full picture of who you are as a candidate.

But remember, hiring managers are people too, and their attention span is very short, especially when they’re listening to someone drone on and on.

I highly recommend practicing your answer to this question repeatedly and cutting out anything that’s not important to the job you’re interviewing for. 

A good way to practice shortening your answer to “tell me about yourself” is to use the stopwatch feature on your phone to time yourself.

Keep practicing your answer until you have it somewhere around the 90-second mark.

If this seems like an impossible task, use the sample below to draft your answer to the question. Then use it as your guide for practicing your response.

A sample answer to the question “Tell me about yourself”

The simplest way to remember what to include in your answer to this question is to think, “Past, Present, Future.” Here’s a template to use.

For the Past part of your answer, reference your resume and your experience.

“As you can see from my resume, I have extensive experience in (skill 1) and (skill 2). I started my experience in (skill 2) at (past company 1) and then moved into a (skill 1) role when I took a job with (past company 2). That’s where I sharpened my (skill 3 and skill 4) skills.”

Next, talk about the Present part of your answer.

“Most recently, I’ve been a (current role) at (present company), where I (primary responsibility) focused on (team goal). I’m really proud of the fact that last year we were able to (accomplishment).”

Finally, talk about the Future.

“While I’ve enjoyed my role, I am looking for a new challenge. When I came across the job description for this position, it spoke to me in terms of who you’re looking for. My experience directly aligns with the requirements of this role, and this would be an opportunity for me to expand my skill set in (new challenge). So, it was sort of a no-brainer for me to apply.”

As you can see from this formula, it’s pretty simple to put together a concise and impactful answer to the question tell me a little bit about yourself.

Here’s what it sounds like when you put it all together.

Read this out loud to yourself.

As you can see from my resume, I have extensive experience in sales and account management. I started my career in account management at Acme Health and then moved into a sales role when I took a job with BetterHealth. That’s where I sharpened my negotiation and forecasting skills. Most recently, I’ve been a senior sales manager at Patients First, where I manage a team of three sales reps who are focused on generating leads and closing business in the U.S. market. I’m really proud of the fact that last year we were able to close over five million dollars in sales. While I’ve enjoyed my role, I am looking for a new challenge. When I came across the job description for this position, it spoke to me in terms of who you’re looking for. My experience directly aligns with the requirements of this role, and this would be an opportunity for me to expand my skillset into the global healthcare market. So, it was sort of a no-brainer for me to apply.

See! Sounds great. Short, informative, and focused.

Use this formula every single time you’re asked to “tell me about yourself,” and I promised you’ll knock the socks off the hiring manager.

If you’d like to receive personalized feedback on your interviewing skills, sign up for a coaching session here.