While to many, if not most, job seekers the question seems nothing more than a “throw-away,” “warm-up” question, actually, the “Tell me about yourself” question—also known as the “90-second elevator speech”—is one of the most critical elements to consider when preparing for a job interview, and you would be well advised to treat it as such. Blow the answer and you risk irrevocably and immediately branding yourself as just another “run of the mill” candidate and ending up blowing the entire job interview. Nail the answer and . . . well . . . good things certainly can follow!
As I point out in “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets: The Rules of the Hiring Game Have Changed . . . Forever!, “tell me about yourself” doesn’t really mean, “tell me about yourself” in the traditional sense. Still, the overwhelming majority of job seekers usually respond to the question with an inane, irrelevant answer such as this:
“Well, I grew up in rural Minnesota and I graduated from high school in 2005, and I really am a BIG baseball fan, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseum.”
When asked at the beginning of a job interview, the “tell me about yourself” question is certainly not a request for a brief personal biography! Your answer to the question definitely should be laser-focused on the specific task at hand: Getting the position for which you are applying!
A three-part answer works best
The recommended, correct way to answer the “tell me about yourself” question is by utilizing a three-part, pre-planned and prepared marketing/branding statement approach. (Each part, of course, is delivered consecutively to comprise the entire answer to the question.)
Parts One and Two can normally be used from interview to interview, while Part Three will need to be customized for each unique career opportunity. Let’s briefly examine the makeup of each of the three parts.
Normally, Part one will consist of a one-sentence statement of your career history, i.e., essentially the condensed version of your entire career history. But that’s not as challenging as perhaps it might first appear. Here is an example of how Part One can easily be constructed:
“I am a five-year veteran of LAN/WAN administration and systems engineering, with substantial experience using Novell, NT, Cisco and Lotus Notes/Domino.”
Part two consists of a one- OR two-sentence summary of a single career accomplishment that you are especially proud of and one that can reasonably be expected to capture the potential employer’s attention. It must also be an accomplishment that can be easily explained and/or illustrated and it absolutely MUST highlight a “bottom-line” impact for the potential employer. Here is an example:
“Recently, as a long-term contract employee at a local regional bank, I learned that the bank was about to install Lotus Notes/Domino and they were planning to use outside consultants for the project. I let them know that I had done a similar installation at my last assignment, outlined how we could get the job done with in-house staff and successfully complete the installation for $55-$65K less than it would have cost with outside consultants.”
This final part is the most dynamic, as well as the part that must be customized to fit the particular career opportunity being sought. It needs to be a one- OR two-sentence summary of specifically what you want to do in your next career move AND it must be relevant to the position being sought. Here is an example of how Part Three might be constructed:
“For the next step in my career, I would like to move away from contract work and find myself as a direct employee of a large firm where I can join a substantial IT team and be involved with a group that focuses on email and network security applications, while having access to the knowledge base that would come with a large, diverse IT group.”
OR, here is yet another example of how Part Three might be prepared:
“For the next step in my career, I would like to find myself as a direct employee of a small- to medium-sized firm that is looking to hire an in-house IT generalist so I can continue growing my career by getting exposure to multiple IT areas, such as networking, help desk, security, and application issues for the users of the organization. As the firm’s IT needs grow, I would love to apply my past team project management skills to managing the members of a small, growing IT team.”
As you can see, two very different endings but ones that perfectly match what two different employers are looking for in a candidate.
Putting it all together
Let’s assume that Suzanne Smith is applying for a chemical engineering position with XYZ, Inc., and at the beginning of the job interview, the hiring manager asks, “Well, Suzanne, in order to get the ball rolling, tell me a little bit about yourself.” Here is how Suzanne might answer the question, in order to brand herself, right off the bat, as certainly not being just an “average” candidate:
“I am a chemical engineer with eight years of experience, four which were in process engineering at Clorox working on improving plant productivity and four in specialty resin chemical sales where I help customers develop new products that improve their competitiveness in the marketplace. (Part One)
“Recently, through networking, I learned of a company that had great products except for their concrete coating line. I knew that we had a resin that would enable the company to develop a faster drying concrete coating, thereby improving the company’s ability to compete more effectively in their marketplace. I called on the decision-makers, got their interest, worked with R&D and helped them develop a product line that resulted in $2 million in new sales for the company in the first year, which meant $400K in new sales for us. (Part Two)
“For the next step in my career, I would like to be with a larger firm with more resources so that I can continue to drive business and grow sales for both the company and my customers in a wider variety of applications. Once I have proven myself and earned the right to get promoted, I would like to use my skills to lead and develop a sales team.” (Part Three)
Does Suzanne’s answer adequately address all THREE criteria (parts) recommended in an answer to the “tell me about yourself” question”? You bet it does!
First, she provided a brief history of her career up to that point. Next, she cited a significant career accomplishment and it was one she knew the potential employer certainly would—or should!—be very interested in learning more about because it (or a related accomplishment Suzanne might come up with) could potentially and positively affect the hiring company’s “bottom line.” And finally, she made it abundantly clear as to what her future career goal was and it certainly was relevant to the position for which she was applying.
Just for the record, if you read Suzanne’s answer at a normal speaking pace, you will notice that it would take about one minute to deliver. Yet significant to note, during that brief time, she clearly and immediately branded herself as a true professional who knows the value of what she has to offer the potential employer and has communicated that information in a very convincing, believable manner. You can accomplish the same thing—if you anticipate this question (and I can absolutely assure you that you will be asked the “tell me about yourself” question in one form or another during virtually any job interview!) and adequately prepare your answer to it.
By taking the three-part approach to the “tell me about yourself” question recommended in this blog, you will automatically set yourself apart from the overwhelming majority of your competition, i.e., other candidates seeking the same position. You will automatically brand yourself as certainly not being just another “run of the mill” candidate.
Because the vast majority of the other candidates can be expected to take the approach mentioned above to answer the question: “Well, I grew up in rural Minnesota. . . ,” and the hiring manager’s eyes will start to glaze over . . . his/her mind will begin to wander . . . he/she will start thinking of ways to conclude the interview as quickly as possible in order to move on to the next candidate.
Skip Freeman is the author of “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets: The Rules of the Hiring Game Have Changed . . . Forever! and is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The HTW Group (Hire to Win), an Atlanta, GA, Metropolitan Area Executive Search Firm. Specializing in the placement of sales, engineering, manufacturing and R&D professionals, he has developed powerful techniques that help companies hire the best and help the best get hired.