One of the most common ways to start an interview is with four small words: tell me about yourself. It’s a simple question, yet it can feel like a loaded one. If you’re uncomfortable talking about yourself or haven’t thought through what you want to say, this basic question can throw you off your game.
So what does the interviewer really want to know when they say, “Tell me about yourself?” We’ll discuss what hiring managers want to hear and share some sample scripts you can use when an interview asks this open-ended question.
Why do interviewers ask you to talk about yourself?
The good news is that when interviewers ask this question, they usually don’t have an ulterior motive. It’s a good ice-breaker and helps you and your interviewer transition from the typical pre-interview small talk to more complex, job-related topics. It’s a more natural introduction than immediately hitting you with a tough question.
In addition to breaking the ice, how you answer “Tell me about yourself” can lead to the following question and give your interviewer an idea of where to go next. So, when formulating your answer, it’s a good idea to consider what follow-up questions it might prompt.
What hiring managers are looking for in an answer about your background
In addition to “tell me about yourself,” there are other ways an interviewer might phrase this question, like “Tell me about your background” or “Walk me through your resume.” The goal is the same: to hear you describe yourself and your career in your own words. Though the hiring manager probably has your paper resume and cover letter in front of them, listening to you speak gives them a feel for your personality, which can help assess culture fit.
This interview question is also a good opportunity to briefly explain any atypical circumstances, like if you have a gap in employment or are changing careers.
How to answer, “Tell me about yourself”
Approach it like a story
A good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Your career path is the same way. You can formulate your answer by describing how you got started, the stops you made along the way, where you stand today, and where you hope to go next.
Cite your passions
Help your interviewer understand your motivations for applying for the job–and, more broadly, being in your field–by discussing what sparks your passion. You might cite a previous accomplishment that was particularly fulfilling or share an anecdote about what prompted you to choose this particular career path.
Make it personal
Inject some of your personality by mentioning the things you enjoy outside of work, like your goal to visit every major league baseball stadium or your ever-growing collection of concert t-shirts.
How not to answer
Remember, this is the first question of many and is meant to help get things off the ground. Your answer shouldn’t be your entire life story; it should take only a few minutes.
Unless you’re interviewing for a job where these things are directly relevant, it’s best to leave potentially controversial topics like religion and politics out of your answer.
While your two kids or the older relative you care for are undoubtedly a huge part of your life, sharing details about your family during the hiring process can lead to bias. Intentional or not, it could be grounds for a discrimination claim if you don’t get the job. As a result, most employers would prefer that candidates refrain from sharing familial details. On your end, it’ll help ensure you’re assessed as objectively as possible.
Your side hustle
While having side hustles that also help you earn money is fine, leaving them out of your interview is best. If you mention having a side hustle, you risk the hiring manager worrying that it’ll distract you from your full-time job or that you might leave suddenly if your outside venture takes off.
Sample answers to the question “Tell me about yourself”
Be honest in your answer–ideally, you don’t want just any job, but one that fits you well. Tie your response to the job you’re applying for, and think about how it might set you up for a follow-up question that allows you to further expand on your qualifications.