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How to Answer the Hardest Job Interview Question


Every interviewer will ask this one. Unfortunately, most of us won't come up with a great response

A woman shaking a hand at the meeting

It’s 8:45 on a Monday morning. You arrive at a downtown office tower for a final-round job interview with your dream employer. Your heart is racing. You feel a nervous anticipation in the pit of your stomach. You remind yourself that this energy is useful. It shows excitement rather than fear.  

After all, you’ve prepared for this moment. For months you’ve pored over the company’s website, annual reports and research papers. You’ve had numerous conversations with folks at various levels in the organization. You feel confident that the company culture is a perfect match. Plus, you’ve worked with a career coach to ensure your knowledge and skills can be clearly articulated.  

And yet, it’s the first interview question that causes you the most concern . . .  

“Please take a few moments to tell us a little bit about yourself.”  

On the surface, it appears to be an easy question. After all, the subject is one you should be most familiar with: You! It’s not a question that demands a specific right answer, and you don’t need to cite sources to back up your points. But it is for precisely these reasons that “Tell me about yourself” (or TMAY) causes so much anxiety.  

Where do you start? What do you focus on? What do you leave out? 

If you’re like most interviewees, you’ll probably ramble for a few minutes, touching on everything from your hometown to disjointed resumé points. In other words, you’ll miss the perfect opportunity to start your interview off on the right foot. Let me explain.  

The importance of first impressions  

Typically, TMAY kicks off the formal part of an interview. As such, it is key in setting the tone and establishing rapport between you and the interview panel.  

Behavioural psychology research has repeatedly demonstrated that social judgment (that is, the opinions and thoughts that we form about other human beings) occurs within seconds of meeting someone. So how you answer the first question in an interview matters.  

Research also shows warmth and competency to be the two most important dimensions underlying social judgment. While interviewers might think they are making decisions based on logic alone, feelings and emotions play just as big a role. So, while there may not be any right or wrong answer to TMAY, your response, and the way you deliver it, will go a long way to determining how interviewers feel about your character (warmth), and your skills and abilities (competence).   

Framing your answer  

Knowing this should give you the confidence to present and frame your answer effectively. Think less about all the details of your background that you want to share (such as schooling, professional experience and values) and more about how you can establish warm relations with the interview panel while simultaneously demonstrating competence.  

The former comes down to things like dress, body language, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, how you structure content, word choice and pacing. The best way to understand these aspects of your communication style is to ask trusted colleagues and friends for feedback and to analyze yourself on video. 

Yes, you read that right. Record yourself answering the question: “Please take a few moments to tell us a little bit about yourself.” Watch it back. Critique yourself (with grace). And try again. Yes, this can be a painful process. However, analyzing their video recordings is one of the quickest and most effective ways I’ve seen students and professionals improve their communications skills.  

As for competence, this is a matter of understanding exactly what attributes the organization is looking for and incorporating clear examples of how your education and experience demonstrate them. This is where your company research and networking prior to the interview are crucial.  

If, for example, your investigation reveals that the role you’re after prioritizes the ability to establish strong relationships with clients, combined with advanced data analysis skills, your TMAY should focus on illustrating your competence in these areas.  

The power of storytelling  

But what should you actually say? Tell a story! Effective use of narrative plays a huge role in how engaging you are and whether the interview panel will remember you. An open-ended question like TMAY is the perfect opportunity to direct the conversation toward your strengths while making real, human connections.  

You’ve no doubt been advised to include clear, succinct examples to back up your claims during interviews. To ace TMAY, you need to go one step further. Craft a short story that not only draws from your unique life experiences but also elicits positive emotions in the heads and hearts of the interview panel. Keep your audience in mind.  

On the surface, “Tell me about yourself” seems like an impossibly vague question. But it’s actually the perfect opportunity to show how aligned your skill set is with the competencies being sought for the role. If you can simultaneously deliver your answer in such a way that the panel feels genuine warmth towards you as a person, you’ll be off to a great start and well on your way to landing the job of your dreams. 

Matt Reesor is a continuing adjunct lecturer at Smith School of Business and owner of Reemark Consulting and Coaching Services.