With all the work that goes into job-hunting, sometimes simply landing an interview feels like a victory in itself. But don’t start eyeing that corner office just yet: You’ve still got to ace that interview, and that may be trickier than it sounds: one of the first things interviewers learn is that people can be completely different on paper than they are in “real life.”
That’s one reason potential employers ask what seem like trick questions: they’re trying to throw you off, so they can see the “real you.” The classic example—and usually the first one you’ll encounter—is “So. Tell me about yourself…”
“I Started Life as a Child…”
You’ve known you all your life, right? You’ve lived through every moment of every event. So why, when your interviewer smiles at you and says “Tell me about yourself,” does your mind go completely blank? And what do they really want when they ask that, anyway?
Before we go into that, let’s take a look at what we know they DON’T want: your entire life history, from DNA up that afternoon. Too often, potential hires treat an interview like a first date, reeling off long-winded answers, irrelevant stories, and personal interests. Your interviewer doesn’t need to know everything about you in order to make a judgement call. It’s better to remain as focused as can on the moment.
The Art of Selling of You
Even if you’re not in the Marketing field, you still should think of an interview as a sales pitch, with you being the service or product you’re selling. To do that, you need to know both the product (you) AND the target market (your interviewer).
How do you go about that? Imagine a late-night television commercial. We’ve all seen them, but have you ever stopped to analyze how they work? Most follow a similar pattern:
- Introduce the problem (“Tired of eggs sticking to your skillet?”)
- Introduce the solution (The product being sold)
- Make an offer (“But wait! There’s more!”)
Admittedly, you don’t want to come across anywhere near as hokey as those commercials. But the principles are the same:
- The company obviously has a need; identify that, and build on it
- Craft a response that shows you answer as many of those needs as possible
- Show how you meet other needs, besides
One thing you’ll note about these commercials: they push the positive, and they don’t dwell on the negatives. You want the same thing in your response. It’s called being self-aware.
Self-awareness is a great barometer of emotional intelligence, and that’s one of the “soft skills” HR managers are looking for with this type of open-ended question. It’s a subtle way of offering more than a skillset directly relevant to the job. Sure, you may be a little uncomfortable talking about yourself: get over it.
How? Well, consider this: When a company goes to market a product, they don’t book a :30 television spot, then just show up and wing it. A lot of preparation goes into what they are saying (and not saying), trying to make sure they show the product in the best possible light. Your interview is no different: take the time to write it out, memorize the high points, and practice in front of a mirror.
Practice Professional Authenticity
The need to be professional should go without saying. But while it’s important to be professional, you don’t want to be so married to your script that it sounds like you’re reciting a history lesson. Allow your personality to shine:
- Know what motivates you
You’re self-aware, remember? Knowing what motivates you is useful to your potential employer, because it often indicates what you value: the details you highlight or gloss over usually reflect the accomplishments you’re most proud of.
- Share relevant work experience, with examples of why they matter
Select one or two accomplishments or events you’re especially proud of and build your response around them. Someone truly dedicated to their career can be appealing to a potential employer, and that trait usually comes through.
- Make sure your enthusiasm shows
If you’re engaged in and talking about work that matters to you, your enthusiasm should come across. Plus, when you’re talking about yourself—even for professional reasons—it’s easy to sound arrogant; tempering your list of accomplishments with authentic excitement makes it feel (and sound) less like you’re simply bragging.
Being presented with the “Tell me about yourself” question can seem daunting, but try to think of it as an opportunity to share your natural strengths, demonstrate your value, and help guide the interviewer into asking the question you want to answer.
Try to get into an entrepreneurial mindset: Remember, you’re selling the product you know best!