Essay Preview: Interview Questions
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Answering the “Tell me about yourself” question
by Jeff Skrentny, CPC/CTS, ATMS/Copyright © 2000-2003, Jeff Skrentny & Jefferson Group Consulting
Lets face it, interviewing is stressful enough without having to answer stupid interview questions. But unfortunately, many interviewers, because of habit, lack of preparation time, poor training, or yes, even laziness, often ask stupid questions. Of those, one of the most challenging is the oft used “Tell me about yourself” interview opener.
What most candidates ask me about this insipid interview question is: “What do they want to know?” They want to know about you the candidate as a potential employee. They dont want to know about your family, your last vacation, your hobbies, your religious beliefs, that you like the Cubs, or that you are a proud member of AA. Yes, I have had candidates give each of those responses to the infamous “Tell me about yourself” question. I dont recall any of them ever getting hired by the employers who interviewed them.
Interviewers also think it is improper, a sign of your lack of preparedness, or even rude, for you to answer their “Tell me about yourself” question with a question of your own like, “What would you like to know?” If you are prepared, and seriously thinking about making a career change, you will have a prepared and thoughtful answer to this question BEFORE you begin interviewing.
Why? I am glad you asked, and I think one example should convince you I am right.
Let me share just one story about this opening interview question that cost a candidate a job she REALLY wanted. It is a perfect illustration to make you understand why you must plan a response for this question whether you are asked it or not. The scenario was this: The candidate was a financial services professional, her recruiter had a financial services client that was looking to fill a VP position for a 125k base + 25k bonus. The candidate had an ideal background and skill set, and the client thought she was a perfect fit. The candidate knew the client and was thrilled to interview with her. The client joked that when the candidate came to the interview the recruiter should send the candidate with an invoice for the fee, because they thought they might make her an offer on the spot.
You can more or less guess how the story ended. The candidate didnt get the job, but please pay attention as to why, because that is the part of the story that matters most. To start the interview the candidate was asked the dreaded “Tell me about yourself” question. Thinking that it was an inconsequential icebreaker question, she retorted, simply intending to cause an opening chuckle, “Well, as you can obviously see, I am 15-20 pounds overweight.”
She was only joking! Yet, due to the impact this answer had on the client, for all practical purposes the interview was over as soon as she said this. That “amusing” answer to what the candidate viewed as a seemingly innocuous question convinced the employer that this $150k VP had an image or low self-esteem problem. Despite the recruiters insistence that it was just a joke, the employer declined to make the candidate an offer. The retort was just a joke! But not really. It was no joke to the candidate who lost the $150k dream job. It was no joke to the recruiter who had invested so much time in finding the employer this ideal candidate. This candidate attempted to humorously break the ice, but the interviewer misinterpreted the response to a stupid question, and became convinced the candidate was not VP material.
This whole fiasco could have been avoided if the candidate had just been taught a very simple formula for answering this question. Sure, we know this question is a stupid and unnecessary one with which to begin an interview. But because interviewers open interviews with this question, candidates need to know how to respond to it intelligently. The formula Ive learned has worked wonders for hundreds of my candidates, and those of thousands of recruiters I have shared it with over the last half dozen years.
Many, in fact a sad majority, of interviewers open with some form of the “Tell me about yourself” question. It would be an easy question to answer if candidates answered with a prepared and well thought-out initial marketing statement of themselves and their skills, which are applicable for the open job. This sounds pretty straightforward, but few of the thousands of candidates I have interviewed in the last 15 years have EVER been able to answer this question in this intelligent manner. The best candidates typically respond with a narrowing question like: “What would you like to know?” But lets get one thing straight: It is extremely poor form to answer the opening interview question with another question. Yet, that is how the BEST candidates do typically answer this question, due to its ambiguous nature. Though it seems to be a logical approach, you must prepare to do better.
Candidates must teach themselves to answer this question with a three-part, pre-planned marketing statement that can more or less be reused from interview to interview. Part one of that three-part marketing statement is always a one-sentence summary of the candidates career history. For example, let me share with you a former candidates opening sentence:
“I am a five-year veteran of LAN/WAN Admin and Systems Engineering with substantial experience using Novell , NT , Cisco, and Lotus Notes/Domino.”
You get the picture; your whole career needs to be condensed into one pithy sentence that encapsulates the most important aspects of your career, the aspects that you want to leverage in order to make your next career step. Few candidates seem to be able to condense a career into one sentence, but it must, and can be, done. Ask any recruiter for help here, this is what we do.
Part two of the pre-planned marketing statement will be a one-, maybe two-sentence summary of a single accomplishment that you are proud of that will also capture the potential employers attention. It immediately follows your initial career summary sentence from above. This accomplishment should be one that the employer will be interested in hearing, one that is easily explained or illustrated , and one that clearly highlights a bottom line impact. When done correctly this will build interviewer intrigue about the accomplishment so that they inquire further, giving you an opportunity to further discuss a significant career success.
The above candidates accomplishment statement was: