Q: I have an important job interview next week. To prepare for it, I've been thinking about the questions that HR might pose to me. The problem is, I always get nervous when a manager asks me to "Tell me about yourself." I never know how to answer, since the question is just so vague. What is an interviewer looking for when they ask this?
A: You can assume this question is part of the interviewer's strategy for getting to know you. The point is to ask a very open-ended question, so they can see how you choose to answer it. What you say can give a great indication of how you will react to the day-to-day demands and stresses of the job you hope to get.
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, children's activities, etc. Caught off guard, others blurt out everything they wanted to avoid telling the interviewer, such as the latest on their messy divorce. Others freeze like a deer in the headlights and fall into a panic-stricken silence, while a few recite a carefully written, often stilted self-marketing commercial they've got memorized. As you might imagine, none of these applicants are likely to impress their interviewer and get the job.
To answer this interview question the right way, you need to plan your response in advance. Find out about the job description and requirements online or through networking, then highlight some of its key points. Then pull the experience, skills, personality traits, values and education from your background that you think specifically matches what the employer is looking for. Then, work these elements into a two- or three-minute answer that captures the essence of what the employer needs to know, without going into too much detail. Being prepared and concise will score you a lot of points in a job interview, especially when you're meeting with a potential manager, because these are characteristics inherent in successful professionals.
Another tactic is to answer any vague question with a question of your own. If someone says "tell me about yourself," you might come back with "What would you like to know?" This forces the interviewer to specify what they're looking for, and also gives you more time to prepare come up with a good answer. Using this technique is the equivalent of the "nuclear option," however, so you should use it sparingly. But done right, 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 games and get down to the real issue of discussing this job."
This can anger some mangers, but others will find your confidence and candor refreshing - and in today's employment market, sometimes it takes a little extra risk to gain the reward of a great new job.