Careers advice: How to master the million dollar interview question

18 February 2019

So tell me about yourself.” Few interview questions sound so simple, yet this unremarkable icebreaker is one that recruiters say candidates most frequently get wrong. Alumni Careers Manager, Sonja Stockton shares her advice on how to master the million dollar question.

On the surface, the question may seem straightforward, one that’s almost impossible to get wrong. But what most candidates fail to realise is that the interviewer isn’t really asking you to talk about yourself; they’re asking you to talk about your professional self, and there’s quite a difference between the two.

Avoid getting too personal

As enthralling as your life-story may be, interviewers are looking for you to focus on your professional self with this one. While there’s no harm in telling them where you’re from, they really don’t want every candidate they meet to tell them all about their hobbies and interests as the focus for this question, so keep it professional. There is no harm in showing your personal skills and strengths in what you learned in your roles, and the reasons you moved roles, as this links to your professional development and growth; even if an experience tested you and showed your determination and resilience this will demonstrate what makes you ‘you’.

Be concise (two minutes or less)

When given such an open-ended question, it can be tempting to respond to “tell me about yourself” with a long-winded answer. It is important to remember that the recruiter has your CV; you can assume they will be familiar with your career chronology, what they want you to do is bring this to life and highlight experiences that show what kind of a person you are. Let’s not forget, it is your communication and ability to stay on track with your answer that they will be watching closely. So if your answer extends beyond two minutes you are shooting yourself in the foot. 

An answer below 90 seconds is ideal. Try practicing at home with a timer! Choose a starting point based on your experience and its relevance to the job you are being interviewed for; if you have 20 years of experience and you start at the moment you graduated, your answer will be too long. Timing is another reason to tailor your response; if you share everything instead of picking relevant pieces, your answer will be too long. It might be useful to map out your points on paper, starting with A and finishing with B. A good way to end your answer is to explain what led you to apply for the role you are being interviewed for.

Don’t repeat yourself

Imagine you’re shopping for an item online and hit the “More Info” button. A pop-up textbox appears, but when you read it, it’s just the same information rephrased. This frustrating and useless course of action is unfortunately all too common in interviews. By the time you’re sitting in front of a hiring manager, they already know what you studied, and that you worked in your last role from April 2016 – November 2018. Regurgitating this information is not only a waste of time, it’s a waste of an opportunity for you to tell them your professional story. What made you decide to switch to your last role? What were the main things you learnt and achieved there? And why are you looking to move on now? The interviewer wants to see that you can tell your story from A to B without getting side-tracked, distracted or scattered. Your answer should show structure and sequence to illustrate how you’ll communicate as an employee.

Speak with an engaging style that shows your enthusiasm

As a previous Director responsible for recruitment in a large global professional services firm, one of the most common complaints from the team was how candidates were monotone and brought no ‘colour’ to their voice in their response to the question. When you think about it, if you can’t be enthusiastic about you, who can?  The number one piece of advice recruiters would give to candidates is to show your enthusiasm. As much as employers love to see a candidate with a great education and solid experience, enthusiasm for the role can make or break the interview.

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