No amount of advance work can help prepare for off-the-wall interview questions like "How do you fit an elephant into a cupboard?" There is, however, one question that every candidate should assume will always come up: "Tell me about yourself."
Not only is it one of the most frequently asked interview questions, but it's also typically the first. More importantly, your answer could easily make or break your chances of landing the job.
According to the advisors at Yale University's Office of Career Strategy, the best answers to "Tell me about yourself" all include a "motivational story." (Think of it as a short narrative that illustrates how and why you first became interested in your area of work.)
There isn't a standard rule for how long your answer should be, though a general guideline is to keep it under two minutes. According to research from Yale's career experts, one version of a perfect answer might look like this:
"I graduated last year from Yale, where I majored in Data Science and Environmental Engineering, with a specific interest in fashion and sustainability. The field is so aligned with everything I loved doing as a kid: Volunteering at Street Care events, joining a community garden, thrift shopping, and making my own clothes.
I first became interested in sustainability because I wanted to work with a company whose mission is to promote a new textile economy — one that will protect the future of our planet. When I learned that the fashion industry will consume a quarter of the world's annual carbon budget by 2050, I decided to organize a campus fundraising event to help fight textile waste.
We raised more than $10,000 and donated an entire truck of unwanted clothing to a local homeless shelter. It was one of my proudest accomplishments. At my last job, I helped develop a new technology that turns cotton waste into new materials that can be used for many industrial purposes.
I'm very excited about this opportunity at your company because it would allow me to use my knowledge and experience to educate people about how their actions — like their shopping habits and what brands they support — can make a serious impact on our environment."
The answer above consists of all the elements that Yale's career experts agree make up a strong answer:
- Opening: Short and sweet; no longer than one sentence.
- A motivational story: Briefly tells a story about a challenge (or new situation) you faced, what choices you made in response, and how the outcomes of those choices influenced your interest in the field.
- Academic work and supporting experiences: Relevant coursework, research, passion projects, internships, or past employment that helped you build the knowledge and skills that will be useful to the job.
- Closing: This can be a few short words explaining how your story and background make you a good fit for the job — or something about the company you're particularly excited about, and why.
I've conducted hundreds of interviews over the past several years, and the candidates who were able to hold my interest all had one thing in common: They were personable.
I'm not saying you have to be outgoing, charming, nice, bubbly, pleasing, and generous all at once. Just be open and pleasant. If you were the candidate giving the answer above, for example, consider showing the interviewer pictures from the fundraising event from your phone (just don't forget to put the phone away once you're done).
Showing authenticity is also crucial. By presenting someone vastly different from your true self, you may find yourself in a role that isn't a good fit for you.
If you're a homebody who enjoys alone time, for example, don't try to come off as an energetic thrill-seeker. The values, ambitions, and accomplishments you bring forward in your answer should be impactful and reflect who you are today.
To get started, review your resume and identify which pieces of your background you want to highlight. The career experts at Yale also recommend using the questions below as prompts to plan your answer:
- What sparked your interest in this field?
- What are some supporting experiences have helped you further develop the skills that would be useful for this job?
- What have you already learned about the field and what are you hoping to learn from this opportunity?
- What activities or groups are affiliated with? What experiences or exposure are you gaining from the affiliation?
- What about this company do you find particularly exciting?
Finally, as important as it is to structure and plan your story, it's equally important to practice presenting it. As the career experts at Yale put it, "what is in your mind is often not what is actually communicated in the moment."
Also, avoid writing every word out and memorizing it. "This will make your story sound unnatural, rehearsed, and overworked," the experts note. "First impressions are made quickly, so make sure you present yourself as a confident, self-aware professional."
Debby Carreau is the founder of Inspired HR. She has been recognized as one of Canada's Top 25 HR Professionals and is a regular contributor on multiple TV shows, Entrepreneur Magazine and many other print and online publications. She is a board member for Young Presidents Organization and sits on the Advisory Board for FinDev Canada.
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