You enter the interview room. You sit down with nervous excitement. You are quietly confident as you are well qualified for the job role. After a little chit chat you begin to relax. Then the first question is fired and your stomach sinks…“Tell me about yourself”.

For many of us we loathe the moment an interviewer requests us to tell them about ourselves, yet this is the ice breaker many job interviewers use. It is an open-ended question that quickly sees the nerves we felt stepping into the interview room overridden by a new kind of panic. If we understood the value of this question to the interviewer, would we still stress or would we respond with confidence?

“What do they want to know?” is generally what we ask ourselves. Do they want to know that I love to bake and walk my dogs, or are they asking me to tell them about my professional background? Many are confused about the real purpose of this question and momentarily hesitate. Putting yourself in the interviewer’s shoes you will understand that there is method to the madness. When posing this question an interviewer is testing the candidate to see how confident they are performing in an unstructured situation. They are not seeking an autobiography, but rather they’re determining if you are a good fit for the job role. Your elevator pitch therefore needs to be viewed as an opportunity.

The smart applicant will realise that this question puts them in the driver’s seat. You can set the tone for the interview with your response, highlighting what you want the employer to know about you. For example; “For the past two years I have worked in a retail environment as I completed my studies in marketing. My exposure to the retail industry has enabled me to develop excellent customer service skills while building quality relationships with customers. I have developed skills in promotions through the company’s in-store sales campaigns, as well as public relations as my employer actively supports local community groups with sponsorship and in-kind donations. I am very interested in pursuing a career in retail marketing as I not only enjoy this working environment, but my skills and my passion are well suited.”

It is ideal that you keep your response short, about one to two minutes. You also want to engage the interviewer, spark their interest in you and ensure that what you say is relevant to the role you are being interviewed for. If you went on and on about your love for travel or stated that you recently moved to the area because your partner was transferred, you may give the impression that you are not reliable and could move on at any time. Preparation will help you to identify what to say in this moment whereas ‘winging it’ may portray you as candidate that is disinterested, disorganised or not in tune with the needs of the organisation. You do not want to pitch yourself as unsuitable for the employer’s needs in the first few minutes of the interview.

It is imperative too not to recite the contents of your resume. The interviewer has already read through your application. They want to get to know and understand you. Are you articulate or a poor communicator? Are you a risk to the company or can they see you as an asset? Are you organised or a flake? Do you understand the role on offer? Remember, this a job interview, not a Sunday afternoon chat with a girlfriend. Understanding what they want to know about you will help you to formulate a winning response. If you are unsure about the type of information the interviewer is seeking, you can always ask the interviewer to specify the type of information they want you to share. Or if you’re confident in responding, you can ask the interviewer if there is any other information they would like you to tell them.

“Tell me about yourself” is the most commonly asked interview question. It is to your advantage to be prepared. Research the company and the job role. Know yourself and how your qualifications, skills and experience relate to the job role and the company. If you are prepared, your response will be delivered naturally and with confidence. For the interviewer, they will gain a sense of what is important to you. Remember, the interviewer wants to like you. So if you can approach this conventional interview question with a positive attitude, you will have fun with it and take another step towards landing the job!

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