By Nancy Wu
When a candidate is preparing for an interview, they seldom remember to prepare for the most basic question of all: “Tell me about yourself”. Interviewers often ask this as a way to gauge how you approach the question, rather than for the content itself. Thinking of a response can be frustrating, since it is so vague and open-ended. But, if you prepare properly, this dreaded question can turn into an opportunity to emphasize your strengths and make yourself memorable.
This is not an invitation to tell your life story. In fact, this question ought to be rephrased as, “tell me about your professional self.” The interviewer isn’t trying to elicit an hour-long saga about the forces that shaped your childhood and adolescence; they are simply trying to get an idea of your professional goals and achievements, and how you relate to the company.
With that said, don’t recite your resume, either. You want to give a brief overview of what you do, how you got there, and why you want to move forward from your current position. Be direct and concise. Plan out 3-5 professional achievements before the interview that you would like to highlight. If possible, relate them to the position you are currently applying for. For example, recent graduates could explain how the knowledge they gained in school can be leveraged to fulfill the new role, and refer to extracurriculars in which they gained valuable leadership experience. For seasoned professionals, there is no need to go in depth. Mentioning the subject in which you got your degree and giving a general outline of your career path thus far should suffice.
After giving a brief and purposeful summary of your professional profile, always link your achievements to what the company needs. Doing so will make explicit to the interviewer what your contribution will look like. Make clear that you have reasons to join the company other than a financial increase. Talk about what you admire about the company, the work culture, and why you would be a good fit there.
Think of the question as your personal elevator pitch. You have about 60 seconds—the length of an elevator ride—to make a simple but impactful impression. Why should the interviewer (and ultimately, the company) invest in you? Reflect about your primary selling points in relation to the job opportunity, and on your interest in the position.