I have two kids in college and two recent graduates. If their early work life is like mine, every few years they’ll be changing jobs or even careers. When you’re in your 20s, it’s always “interview season.” Even later in life we’re occasionally asked to explain our career arc to others when speaking on a panel or starting a presentation. How can you best respond to that question, “So, tell me about yourself?”
Let’s say I’m interviewing you for a job. If I’ve done my job well, I have read your resume and made some notes about your work history. I’m ready to ask some pointed questions to find out if you have the skill set to perform the job in question. If I start the conversation with, “Tell me about yourself,” I’m trying to see how you view yourself. Wherever you start reflects your sense of self. If you start with your academic credentials, you’re communicating you think your education is impressive. If you start by talking about your current job, you’re saying what you do now has relevance to the job you’re seeking. If you’re in your thirties and you start with, “I graduated at the top of my high school class before going on to the University of X,” you’re telling me you live on former glory. Since I already know where you went to school and what you do now, there’s not much added value in sharing those points. Granted, it gets the conversation started, but it’s not the strongest start.
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Instead of sharing what’s already on your resume, tell me what makes you tick. Tell me about your value. I recently passed a college-age woman on the street who was wearing a T-shirt that said, “I bring absolutely nothing to the table.” I laughed at the honesty and humility of the message. She’s young and isn’t going to pretend she knows more that she does. It’s a great line for a T-shirt, but it isn’t true. In fact, she probably has a lot of innate talents and skills, not to mention a sense of perspective and a sense of humor that are valuable to any employer.
To prepare for an interview, reflect on the attributes that have made you successful in your career and life so far. If you’re just out of school, think about what you have added to clubs or sports in which you’ve been involved. If you’ve been working for a while, what skills, talents or attitudes have helped you succeed? If you’re returning to the work force after an extended absence, what talents have you been using and what perspective have you gained that would be of value to me as an employer?
Pick three adjectives that describe you. Then, think of a real, targeted instance in which you have applied those skills. What story can you share that proves to me you have the skills or aptitude you claim to have?
Don’t tell me where you worked. Tell me what element of you helped you succeed and the benefit that brought to your employer. Since you can probably list 10 or more adjectives that describe you, how will you know which to share with the prospective employer? Think about the job for which you are interviewing. What do you think the most important tasks will be? Of your many attributes, which are most important to this role? That answer will determine which adjectives and supporting stories you need to share.
Chances are that one of the adjectives that has made you successful is that you are smart. Don’t tell the interviewer you are smart. Demonstrate that you are smart throughout the interview – by how you answer questions, by what questions you ask, by not making grammatical mistakes, and by having a clear message about yourself. Use the interview to share attributes that won’t be evident from your resume.
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