Working Strategies: Avoiding the ‘Tell us about yourself’ trap

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Amy Lindgren

Do you remember the last time you were asked to tell someone about yourself? This being one of the top 5 awkward questions of all time (don’t ask about the others), there’s a good chance it occurred in a situation that was already uncomfortable.

Such as … meeting your significant other’s parents, or joining a new group therapy session, or facing a panel of job interviewers.

Since this is a question that you’re certain to be asked throughout your life, the smart move is to find a way to manage it. You’re on your own for the other situations, but the following ideas will help you craft a strong answer for your next interview.

Welcome the question: Even though most people dread this question, it’s actually a blessing. That’s because “Tell us about yourself” is one of the candidate’s few chances to control the message in an interview. And if it occurs at the beginning of the meeting (as it usually does), it also provides an excellent opportunity to lay the foundation for the conversation. Learning to welcome this question rather than dread it, and you’re halfway home.

Consider why it’s being asked: There are a few reasons interviewers might use this question. One is that your answer will help them synthesize the information they already have from your application materials. Another reason is to see what you think is most important for them to know. If you focus on how your answer can help the interviewer, you’ll have the right idea.

Decide what information to convey: You can build your answer around a number of different themes. For example, you could give a professional chronology, describing your career path to date. Or you could enumerate the skills and knowledge that will help you do this job. One of my favorite answers relies on key messages, with each one highlighting a different reason you’d be a good person to hire. Here’s how that could look for a communications professional interviewing at a nonprofit:

“Thank you for asking. There are three things I especially wanted to tell you about myself, in relation to this position. The first is that I have been in communications for my whole career and I’ve developed skills that include everything from cold calling reporters all the way to managing social media campaigns. Since yours is a one-person communications department, this means I’ll have the range you need for the job.

“The second thing I wanted you to know is that I’m passionate about nonprofits in general and about your agency’s mission in particular. Low-income housing is an issue I want to contribute my skills to improving. I especially like your approach for community-focused planning. It would be exciting to be part of that effort.

“And the third thing I wanted to tell you about myself is that I’m a fast and accurate writer, so I’m able to quickly produce the newsletters and donor profiles you need to raise funds. I’m really excited about this opportunity and I’m looking forward to our conversation today.”

Think in threes: Three is a number that is easy for both you and the interviewer to remember. The sample above uses an obvious three-point structure, but you can also be more subtle. For a theme focused on your professional chronology, for example, you might begin with your current work as your first point, then transition into explaining different stages of your career, then conclude with your future goals and how this job fits in. That’s called a present-past-future answer structure.

Avoid these mistakes: Although this feels like a difficult answer to get right, there are really only a handful of mistakes you need to avoid.

• 1. Going on too long. Shoot for two or three minutes and practice until you know what that amount of time feels like.

• 2. Being overly detailed. If you write down your answer before practicing it, you can more easily edit out the extraneous information.

• 3. Giving information that is too personal. Family details, personal hobbies, illnesses you’ve overcome … these will just distract the interviewer from more relevant information. This is another place where writing your answer and then practicing it will help.

Speaking of practice — that’s an excellent way to get more comfortable with your answer without actually memorizing it. And the more comfortable you are, the more natural you’ll sound — and the better your overall connection to the interviewer will be. That’s when you’ll know you’re truly telling them about yourself.

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Amy Lindgren owns a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at

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