What Does It Mean When an Interviewer Asks You To "Tell Me About Yourself?"

Question from the reader mailbag: "A lot of interviews seem to start out with the, 'so, tell us about yourself' type of question. Is it better to start with the early years (training, etc.) and work up to today and why I'm perfect for this job? Or is it better to start with what I've been doing most recently and follow the path backwards to show how I got here?"


During job interviews, I hated being asked by interviewers to "Tell me about yourself." The question is painful for so many reasons:

  • It's vague, and wide open to interpretation.
  • You don't know specifically what the interviewer wants to know about you. Are they interested in your work history? Or are they interested in the fact that you ran around wearing little more than red and white body paint at every college hockey game? A wrong gamble could toss you out of the running.
  • It is, quite frankly, a lazy question. It requires no imagination or planning on the part of the interviewer, and places the burden squarely on you to make of it what you can.

I also have a confession - when I had to run into an interview with a job candidate, and I had little time to prepare, I asked this question, too. Sorry, Momma.

What do you do?

The good news is, it's an opportunity to direct the interview in a favorable direction. In my opinion, the best strategy is the "elevator speech" approach.

An elevator speech, in case you haven't heard the term, refers to a short sales pitch that can be delivered in the brief time of an elevator ride with your intended target.

As an example, let's say you devised an incredible process for converting used candy wrappers to gold. Then, let's say you miraculously find yourself in an elevator ride with the president of a major candy company. The ride in the elevator might last about a minute, at most. How can you sell your idea to the president in that time that will make her excited to invest in your candy wrapper-to-gold idea?

Now, let's transfer the concept to a job hunter. What can you offer an employer that makes you unique, and will steer the conversation in a direction to highlight the value you bring to the table?

Let's say you're a teacher interviewing for a tenure-track educator position at a school district. The conversation might look something like this:

Interviewer: So, tell me about yourself (yawns).

Job Hunter: I would be glad to. I am a highly skilled and experienced educator, with over ten years of experience in changing the lives of young students for the better. My teaching methods have been recognized as highly progressive and current in my field, and I currently hold the latest state certifications. In addition, I have experience mentoring students in not just the classroom setting, but through my leadership in extracurricular activities such as coaching the soccer team and academic tutoring.

Interviewer: (Perking up) Very interesting! As you know, we have a teaching position available, but we also lost our last soccer coach who succumbed to a fatal case of pinkeye!

Think about what makes you unique and exciting to a hiring manager. Then polish it into your very own elevator speech. Then you'll be ready when this doozy of a question comes your way.

Scott Singer is the President and Founder of Insider Career Strategies Resume Writing & Career Coaching, a firm dedicated to guiding job seekers and companies through the job search and hiring process. He is a Human Resources professional and staffing expert with almost two decades of in-house corporate HR and staffing firm experience, and is a Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW) and Certified Professional Career Coach (CPCC).

Insider Career Strategies provides resume writing, LinkedIn profile development, and career coaching services, including a free resume review. You can email Scott Singer at scott.singer@insidercs.com, or via the website, www.insidercs.com.