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The Wrong Way to Tell an Interviewer About Yourself


A human resources manager and a hiring manager are anxiously waiting in a brightly lit conference room. When the door opens, a nervous-looking, sharply-dressed job applicant enters, shakes their hands confidently, sits down with his freshly-printed resumes and smiles. He knows the first question will be an important one, and he’s ready with what he thinks is a winning response.

“Welcome, candidate!” says one of the interviewers. “Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?”

“What do you want to know?” remarks candidate, with a sly smile.

If there was a trap door underneath the candidates’ chair, this is the moment where the giant gong sounds and that trap door opens wide. (Whether or not you envision hungry sharks/crocodiles/fire ants waiting to engulf the candidate is up to you.)

There are a lot of ways to answer this question, and a lot of them are good. But according to human resources professionals, the single worst way to answer the “tell me about yourself” question is by responding with another question.

When hiring managers ask this question, it is for a few reasons. Even those who use it as a way to help calm nerves or buy themselves more time to get organized are paying attention to how you respond and what you say. Much like a movie buff screens the previews to decide if they will pay money to go see a film – hiring managers screen candidates to find out…

How they handle themselves in un-structured situations

What they think is important

How confident and articulate they are

What kind of impression they make

When a candidate answers the “tell me about yourself” request with a question, he or she demonstrates not only a lack of preparation, but a lack of confidence. Huge mistake. This is an opportunity for a candidate to demonstrate an understanding of what the interviewer is interested in: your accomplishments in relevant roles/situations, how you can help their organization achieve their goals, and how well you’ll fit in.

So how do you answer this question, exactly? Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts that might help.

DO:

  • Start with your most recent job, and explain why you are qualified for the new position.
  • Use civilian-friendly language.
  • Match your qualifications with the job posting/what the interviewer is looking for. Keep your response brief, personable and professional.
  • Give the interviewer clues about topics they can ask more questions about in the interview.
  • Highlight your most important accomplishments.
  • Make it clear you can do the job.
  • Tell a memorable story that illustrates one or two of your strengths.
  • Write out your response in advance and practice, practice, practice.

DON’T:

  • Tell your life story.
  • Talk about what you did early in your career – stick to the most recent and relevant.
  • Offer a lot of personal details – steer clear of topics that are illegal for the interviewer to ask more about (religious beliefs, marital/family status).
  • Use a lot of military jargon or go into descriptive detail about past missions or operations, particularly if they are combat-heavy.
  • Ramble, exaggerate or outright make stuff up.
  • Get too comfortable – the interviewer doesn’t really want to know about you as a person, they just want to know what kind of impression you’ll make on the team.
  • Take more than a minute to answer the question.

The way you answer this question sets the tone for the remainder of the interview. You want to stand out from the other candidates in the best way possible and be the kind of candidate that they want to learn more about. You don’t want to be the kind of person that they wonder if they’ll ever be able to get you to shut up during a meeting or a lunch. Set yourself up for a successful interview by following these tips.  Good luck in your search.

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