Why is "tell me about yourself" so difficult in an interview?

If I were to select the most notorious interview question, that honor easily goes to “tell me about yourself”. Regardless of whether it is asked during job interviews, university entrance interviews or scholarship interviews, almost every candidate expresses their concern about this question. Why is this highly talked about question so difficult for most people?


Let’s start out by taking a look at the question structure. Firstly, it is the epitomy of an open-ended question. It asks you something that does not have a beginning or an ending. It treats your life like an open book and throws you into the flux of scanning through all these pages of your life history and then you ask yourself “where do I start?”


Secondly, it then requires you to figure out which parts of the incredible number of pages in this book do you want to highlight to a complete stranger, and at the same time, which parts do you leave out?


The question therefore requires the human brain to do multiple things all at once. Sieve through a lot of data, choose some parts to talk about and then exercise control over things you do not wish to discuss. All that needs to be done in microseconds, and then you need to structure it and deliver it in a coherent answer. And in an interview setting, this happens under some degree of stress.


While I would not say that this is the most important question in an interview, the likelihood of this question being used as an opening question is very high, which then sets the tone for the rest of the interview. Nailing this question can sometimes make or break a candidate as it changes the confidence level of the candidate. The interviewer is also able to make a reliable gauge as to how prepared and confident the candidate is using just this one question.


So, how do you nail the question “Tell me about yourself”. Firstly, it requires preparation. There is no two ways about it. Being able to do a two-minute summary of your life requires preparation. So, do not wait for an interview opportunity to come about. Start preparing for this question.


Secondly, choose a structure that works for you. There is no one specific way to answer the question, but in every good answer, there is usually a structure. You can choose to go with a professional highlights structure, or start with your most recent experience, and then work backwards or any form of structure that is most logical to you. Just ensure that you are well versed with the structure and deliver it confidently.


Thirdly, do not answer the question with a question. I have had candidates who ask “which version do you wish to hear?” or “do you want to hear the funny version or the serious version?”. A confident, professional candidate knows precisely who they are and how they will introduce themselves to another individual.


Last but not least, tailor the answer to the company or interview you are preparing for. If you are preparing for a university interview to study medicine for example, it may be beneficial to you to include your interest in Biology and part time experiences in a healthcare setting. If you are interviewing for a job that requires expertise in teaching, you may wish to include highlights of your teaching experience.


The beauty of this notorious question of “tell me about yourself” is that it is predictable, and it is a low hanging fruit, waiting to be tackled. Spend time preparing for this question so that it places you in a good position to gain confidence and showcase who you are. After which you will then be ready to face the other interview questions that follow this one.


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Written by Siew Ling Hwang, Founder of Discovering Potential


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