Your response to this common question sets the tone for the rest of the interview. [TWEET]

Hiring managers know how to break out those odd, uncomfortable questions. It often seems they have a telescope, peering into the very depths of your soul. None of their tactics are more profound or confusing as the age-old question “So, tell me a little bit about yourself.”

Does this mean they want to know what you do on the weekend? Or are they asking about your experience and skills? Should you tell them about your hobbies and passions? Simple answer: the hiring manager wants to know all of this and sometimes none of this. The biggest roadblock for applicants facing this question is focusing too much on the question. They tend to overthink their answer and fear giving the wrong information or making a 'tell me about yourself' interview answer mistake. It's not the question that is problematic; rather, it is the fear of doing something wrong that causes us to sweat.

Keep one thing in mind: your response to this question will set the tone for the rest of the interview. The fact is that the wrong "tell me about yourself answer could kill your interview before it even starts. Many hiring managers use this question to start the interview and guide it to other areas. You can use the question to your advantage. Just give it some thought before the interview and develop an outline to guide your answers. Don't be fooled into thinking there are no wrong answers. This is the farthest thing from the truth. Hiring managers have heard several versions of the answer. Make sure your 'tell me about yourself' answer isn't the on their negative list, which includes:

  • “What do you mean?”

  • “I'm a single mother with three children.”

  • “I'm looking for a company that will help me grow.”

  • “I worked in customer service.”

“What do you mean?”

The most important piece of advice to consider includes the “none answer.” Never ask the hiring manager what they mean. This shows them you are not able to think outside the box, don't understand simple instructions and can't provide the necessary skills. Worse, they may think you are trying to hide something from them. This answer is equivalent to “I don't know” on your final exam. It's better to give any 'tell me about yourself' answer than none at all.

The interviewer wants information that is pertinent to the job you're interviewing for or some inside look into how you think and process information. Think of this as an essay question. Your "tell me about yourself" answer should include the items you think are your best traits. Before the interview, be sure to:

  • Consider your answers and practice several times before the interview.

  • Have an answer ready before you get to the interview.

  • Write an outline, and guide the next potential questions.

“I'm a single mother with three children.”

Yes, your friends think your toddler is cute, and raising a family is difficult. However, family business is your business, not the hiring manager's. Unless they ask a question about your family, it's best not to bring it up. Some companies don't understand the hardships of family life. Others misunderstand your implications. For example, if your wife is in the military and moves around every few years, the company may view you as a liability rather than an asset. On the other hand, if you have three children, a working husband and gorgeous home, the hiring manager may assume you aren't willing to relocate or travel in the future. Both scenarios may disqualify you from the position.

If the hiring manager asks about your children or family life, keep it simple and sweet. Don't go into details in your 'tell me about yourself' interview answer. “I am married and have three children.” Or you could answer, “I'm married and have a family.” Most hiring managers will leave it at that. Others may be a little nosier. Give a gentle nudge to get the interview back on the right track. “My children are a big inspiration to my career.” Then draw attention to a similarity with a past achievement. During the interview be sure to:

  • Stay away from information about your family and personal life.

  • Offer simple, short answers when questioned about your family.

  • Try to connect your family life to past work achievements.

“I'm looking for a company that will help me grow.”

If you need a company to help you grow, well, you're in a bad position. The only person or thing that helps you grow is YOU. Hiring managers take this "tell me about yourself" interview answer as a serious red flag. To them, it means several things, all of them bad. They may think you hit a slow patch and need a pick-me-up. Or they may read it as a sign you made a serious mistake that has kept you from achieving higher goals. Either is not a message you want to send.

Instead of alienating yourself within the first few minutes, focus on similarities between the company's achievements and your own. For example, “Over the past five years, I have helped clients build better solutions, increased company earnings and developed rapport with many experts in the industry. Considering [company's similar achievements], I believe my growth can be parallel to the company's achievements.”

“I worked in customer service.”

Hiring managers love to hear about your relevant career history and skills, especially in your 'tell me about yourself' answer. This is actually what the question was designed to gather. They didn't invite you there to chat over tea. It is all about the job. Use the question to provide information about your three most important jobs. Tell them what you did. Or rather tell them what you accomplished. Applicants make the mistake of telling the hiring manager a short, one-sentence job duty. “I worked in customer service.” This doesn't tell the hiring manager anything about your abilities. Yes, it is important that you worked in customer service. Does this mean you answered phones, ran a cash register or spearheaded daily operations for a call center? The differences are staggering.

Consider your three biggest accomplishments or notable achievements. Detail those instead of listing bland duties. Use action verbs and detailed descriptions. For example, “I saved the company more than $50,000 by rectifying aged client accounts and educating customers about their financial responsibilities.” Doesn't this sound better than “I worked in customer service?”

Avoid bad answers by giving the right one.

The best method of avoiding 'tell me about yourself' interview answer mistakes is by providing the right one in the first place. Answering the “Tell me about yourself” question doesn't require a lot of nervous speculation. Just the opposite, preparation is the key to preventing the interview from washing downhill. List five strengths you have that are pertinent to this job (experiences, traits, skills, etc.). Use those as a guideline to creating a script for your answer. Prepare a script that includes the information you want to convey. Begin by talking about past experiences and proven success. Once you practice for the test, you'll ace the interview and start your new career. Be sure to:

  • Think of your answer as a semi-cover letter.

  • Highlight achievements and notable contributions.

  • Mention your strengths and abilities.

  • Conclude with a statement about your current situation.

  • Practice with your script until you feel confident about your statement.

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