Careers advice: The inevitable interview question

24 February 2022

What’s the one interview question you can predict with near certainty? That the first question you’re asked will be a variation on the theme of ‘Tell us about yourself’.

Caroline Egan, Global Alumni Careers Manager at WBS, writes that this a particularly timely topic as both new and experienced alumni seek support with interviews for new roles.

Few interview questions sound so simple and yet this unremarkable ‘icebreaker’ question is one which both recruiters, and candidates (as I have personally observed), most frequently get wrong by answering the question in a literal sense. Superficially, it might look like a straightforward question but what most interviewees 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 a significant difference between the two.

Avoid getting too personal

As interesting as your life story may be, interviewers want you to focus on your professional self in your answer. While there’s no harm in telling them where you’re from as the background to your professional journey, they don’t want every candidate they meet to tell them all about their hobbies, interests or other irrelevant details, as the focus of their answer, so keep it to professional matters.

Use it as an opportunity to tell your story and mention your skills and fit for the role.

Although one of your later interview questions is also likely to be about what skills you think you can bring to the role, the chances are that they will be looking for you to demonstrate numerous skills (too many to mention in response to that question alone), so don’t miss the opportunity here to showcase relevant skills and strengths you’ve gained in your past roles.

You can also mention the (virtuous) reasons you moved roles (e.g. to broaden your experience, or gain other skills you needed to progress) as this demonstrates your drive for professional development and growth. Even if a past experience didn’t turn out to be what you wanted long-term, it shows your ability to learn from it, and determination and resilience to turn it in to a positive and move on from it. This all tells the compelling story of what makes you 'you'. 

Be concise: they are assessing your communication skills

When they say 'tell me about yourself', it can be tempting to give a long (and potentially long-winded!) answer after such an open-ended question. What’s important to remember is that the recruiter has seen your CV and application and you can assume they will be familiar with your career history already.  What they want you to do is to tell them your professional story, and bring this to life, highlighting the experiences which show what kind of a person you are i.e. the perfect fit for the job.

However, don’t forget, they’re also assessing your communication skills and ability to stay on track with your answer. I’d recommend taking a maximum of two minutes to answer it (less than 90 seconds is ideal). Since you absolutely know you will be asked this type of question, practice answering it beforehand with a timer.

How to tailor your answer

  • If you have 20 years-plus work experience and you start at the moment you graduated, the chances are your answer will be too long
  • If you share everything, instead of picking the relevant parts, your answer will likely be too long
  • Trying mapping out your points on paper starting with point A and finishing with point B: What made you decide to switch to your last role? What were the main things you learnt and achieved there? Why are you looking to move on now?
  • Your answer should show structure and sequence, as this tells them how you’ll communicate as an employee: when there’s a problem, when there’s a disagreement, or when you simply need to share your knowledge or opinion
  • Focus mainly on your experience which is relevant to the job you are being interviewed for
  • A good way to finish is to explain how this led you to applying for the role you’re interviewing for.

Speak with an engaging style which shows your enthusiasm

Feedback from interviewers and recruiters (and my personal experience), suggests one of the most common issues observed in interviews is that candidates speak in a monotonous voice, or don’t appear enthusiastic when answering this and other questions. If you think about it, if you can’t be enthusiastic about you, who can?  The piece of advice I give most often to interviewees is that recruiters want candidates who show their enthusiasm – about their fit for the role, the role itself, and the company. While all employers love to see a candidate with a great educational background and strong experience, enthusiasm for the role can ‘make or break’ the impression you make at interview.

WBS offers lifelong career support for alumni: if you need support, please contact