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How to Respond to "Tell Me About Yourself"

Q: "I have an important interview next week. So I won't be caught unprepared, I've been thinking about the questions my potential manager might ask me. One that has caused me great anxiety in the past is, 'Tell me about yourself.' I never know how to respond to this. It's so vague. What is an interviewer looking for when she says this?"

A: You can assume this question is part of the interviewer's strategy for getting to know you. When she asks this very open-ended question, she wants to see how you choose to answer it. Your approach speaks volumes about how you will react to the day-to-day demands and stresses of the job you hope to fill.

Some people start their answer with, "I was born in Buffalo," and proceed to offer a long autobiography of childhood and work experiences augmented by their marital status, hobbies and children's activities ad infinitum. Caught off guard, others blurt out everything they promised themselves they would never tell the interviewer including the latest on their messy divorce. Some freeze like a deer in the headlights and fall into a panic-stricken silence. A few recite a carefully written, often stilted commercial they have committed to memory. As you might imagine, none of these applicants are likely to impress their interviewer.

The smart candidate plans how she will respond in advance. She finds out about the job description and requirements through networking or by reading the employment ad and highlighting its key points. Then she pulls the experience, skills, personality traits, values and education from her background that specifically match what the employee wants. She folds these elements into a two-three minute answer that captures the essence of what the employee needs to know without extraneous detail. Candidates who are prepared and concise make lots of points with potential managers because they exhibit a number of characteristics inherent in successful professionals.

You may also answer any vague question with a question of your own. If someone says, "tell me about yourself," you might reply, " What would you like to know?" This forces the other party to clarify her intention and gives you more time to prepare an appropriate answer. While you'll want to use this technique sparingly, it can be very effective in establishing mutual respect between you and your interviewer. It's a polite way of saying, " Let's cut the game playing and get down to the real issues."

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