What Does “Tell Me About Yourself” Actually Mean?

Almost any interview you’ll ever have will start with a question along the lines of “tell me about yourself.” And somehow, it’s become a staple without anyone really knowing what it actually means. We’ll break down what the interviewer is looking for with this question, and an easy template to make your answer. 

What do they want?

“Tell me about yourself” feels like an infinitely broad question that could bring infinite answers. And it is. So how can we know what each individual hiring manager wants or means? Well, based on my own experiences in interviews—both as the hiring manager and the candidate—and from searching the internet, there seem to be two answers. Our template will accommodate both.

The most common answer they could be looking for is a summary of your work and your future work goals. However, don’t just list your resume and trash your current/last position. This is your chance to connect the dots between your experience (however fragmented it may be) and your aspirations, in ways that may not be obvious in your resume. 

To a lesser extent (and depending on the company or position), “tell me about yourself” could just be an invitation for the hiring manager to learn about their candidate as a person, like it seems to be. In general, the more casual the company, or the more team-based of a position, the more likely it is they’re looking for an insight to who you are as a person. These will be jobs where the lines between coworkers and friends are more blurred, so the hiring manager wants to make sure you’re a good fit for the work-community. Now, this still doesn’t mean you should answer like you’re talking to your best friend, but, as we’ll see below, it’s an important distinction to make.

So, what do you answer?

Because of the split nature of “tell me about yourself,” it’s good practice to include both of the above responses in your answer. However, that doesn’t mean you should be talking for five minutes, nor does it mean you should go hyper-personal. Usually it’s better to lean heavier on the career-based part of your answer and slip a few personal details in. Overall, your answer shouldn’t take more than a minute.

To address everything we’ve mentioned, we’ve split this answer into two parts for you to make your own. 

Part One: How You Got Here

This part of your answer to “tell me about yourself” should be mostly made up of summarizing your work experience with a common thread, and explaining why you do what you do. You can also include things like where you went to school, where you’re from (if it’s not the city you’re interviewing in).

Two things to note: 

First, when I say common thread, I mean find a way to make all of your experience make sense together. Especially as a young worker, but also in general, our resumes can look sort of pieced together. From service industry to an internship to school work, it might not make sense to a hiring manager. So, try to find the common piece that drew you to each of those positions. Maybe you really like working with people, and all of the positions were team-based. Or maybe they all allowed you to write, and that’s your passion. Make the connection so interviewers aren’t left wondering why you put something on your resume. 

Second, “why you do what you do” can mean a lot of things. Maybe it’s the same as the “common thread,” in which case, you don’t have to do this part. But it could also be your overarching ethos for your career path, which, theoretically, relates to the company or position you’re applying for.

For example, in recent years (as in, once I actually got clear on it), my common thread is writing, and my “why” is to understand how or why inequalities exist. For Molly, her common thread is working with others and her “why” is wanting to understand people. It doesn’t have to be all encompassing, and we probably all have outliers. But we tend to navigate towards jobs that fit with our beliefs, even if it’s subconscious at the time.

Part Two: Where You Want To Go

This part of the answer should both relate directly to the position you’re interviewing for and talk about your long-term career goals. When talking about the position, show how it fits into your common thread and how it’ll expand on skills you already have or develop ones you’re interested in attaining. Then, include how that position fits into your further goals (if you have an idea of them). It shows the hiring manager that you’re someone who plans ahead, and also can show them where you may fit into their company long-term. 

Example:

Now that you have the motivations behind the question, and the parts to answering it, it’s time to get to writing. If you need, I’ve included my answer to “tell me about yourself” below. I used this for my current job as a writer for a data science company. As you’ll see, I incorporated some personal information that makes the interview more conversational, but I tend to stay more career-focused, since the position seemed very formal and corporate (turns out it’s not, but I didn’t know that at the time).

I’m from Santa Monica, California and my past experience there includes content creation and information dissemination. I was a content writer for an advertising firm, and a customer service manager for a jewelry brand. I recently moved, and got a job as a ghostwriter, which has taught me how to research and write about almost any topic. Now I’m a senior at Emerson College, in a degree I created myself called Writing and Publishing on Inequality. I’m passionate about understanding why and how inequalities happen.

I was interested in this position because of its focus on making this highly-technical information accessible to a broad audience, which I think is an important part of fighting many of the inequalities we see today. I think this position will give me great experience working with and writing about difficult-to-understand information, and will help me immensely when I, hopefully, get into grad school next year.

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