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Interview Questions – “Tell me about yourself.”

Posted by James M on November 4, 2008

“Can you tell me a little about yourself?”

This is one of the most deceiving interview questions you are likely to get.  It’s deception lies in its simplicity and our tendency to answer as we would if asked by a stranger on the street–we talk about where we’re from, what we majored in, and perhaps what we like to do in our spare time. But the interviewer is really trying to get a sense of who you are in professional terms:  what your goals are, what your passions are, and what skills you can bring to the organization.  In short they are trying to determine what is called “fit”–the way you “fit in” to their organization, what you can do for their company and to some extent what they can do to help nurture your career so you will continue your growth and contributions.

So let’s take a look at a structured way to respond to this questions.  As I said before, most students can not escape the tendency to tell a narrative.  For that reason, I suggest blending a short narrative introduction to get the ball rolling with a strong argument about your “fit” coming in the second half of the response. I recommend using the following story points as a framework:

  1. A short (a couple of words) introduction about your home city
  2. A short description of why you chose the college you attended
  3. A short description of why you choose the major that you did
  4. A description about how you learned about the company and the position
  5. A description about why you are excited about the company
  6. A description about why you are a good fit for the company and position

I want to emphasize that this is just a framework.  It is a way to allow you to tell a story, ease into your answer, build your confidence, and give your response structure.  Feel free to substitute other narrative bullets in for the first three if you’d like.  The most important part of your response, the part you can’t substitute, are the last three bullets.  Also, notice you should spend the majority of your time talking about these last three subjects.  To give an example of how these story points might be combined in the real world, let’s look at an example response:

“Hi, Nice to meet you.  First, can you tell me a little about yourself?”

“Well, I was born and raised in Seattle and as a high school senior I knew I wanted to attend the University of Washington because of it’s strong engineering department and my passion for technology.  While taking prerequisite classes in the engineering department, I discovered I have a strong interest in computers and the way they interact with humans to create the user experience, this led me to a major in Computer Engineering.   During my junior year a representative from Microsoft came to speak with us about theZune portable media player and the technology behind it.  Of course I had heard of Microsoft, but the Zune was completely new to me.  After going online and investigating the company further, I discovered that Microsoft has a User Experience team that works with various departments within the company to help create user experiences across a wide range of products.  Because of my strong passion for user experience centered design, the knowledge I have in the software development life-cycle I gained last year as an intern at Adobe, and my ability to work well in a team as shown by my involvement in student government, I would be able to start off as a contributing member of the user experience division.”

I want to point out a couple of things.  First, notice how quickly I moved from my opening, “I was born and raised in Seattle”, to telling the interviewer about why I wanted to work for Microsoft.  By the third sentence I was already talking about a company representative coming to speak at the school and how excited I was about it.  This should show you that it is possible to create a coherent narrative while still quickly moving to the meat of the response.  Second, notice that even as I was setting up the background about why I went to the University of Washington I was already mentioning my passion for technology.  In doing so, I was able to show the interviewer that technology has been something important to me for several years (at least since high school), as well as set up a recurring theme of passion for technology.  I later elaborated on this “passion for technology”, first stating that it brought me to the University of Washington, second that it encouraged me to apply to the Computer Engineering program at the school, and third by talking about how it led me to apply to this particular position.  This set up my closing where I used this passion, as well as some other experience I had, to talk about how I would be able to start contributing to the company right away.

I know what you might be thinking–I’ve cheated.  I created “The Perfect Candidate” for this position with all the right skills and experience which made answering the question easy.  What if I didn’t have all of that other experience–that internship with Adobe or that position with the school’s student government.  What if I wasn’t even a Computer Engineering major.  Could I still make a case for myself?  Let’s assume I am applying to the same job, I still have an interest in technology, only this time I am a Marketing major with no additional work, volunteer, or leadership experience.  How could I possibly respond in that case?

Let’s try answering this interview question again, using our standard structured story points and the new candidate background information I mentioned above:

“Well, I was born and raised in Seattle and as a high school senior I knew I wanted to attend the University of Washington because of it’s strong engineering department and my passion for technology.  However, while taking prerequisite classes in the engineering department, I started to feel removed from the human element which I never knew was so important to me until it was missing.  This led me to pursue a degree in Marketing which is very focused on examining the way people think and perceive information in order to create the most effective advertising campaign.  I never lost my curiosity for technology however, I still regularly read a variety ofblogs and news articles about the latest products being brought to market and the technology behind them.  So it was natural for me to investigate careers with Microsoft, a company that is at the forefront of technological innovation.  When I started the job hunt I was on the Microsoft website one day and found some information about your User Experience team that works with various departments within the company to help create user experiences across a wide range of products.  I was immediately hooked.  Although, I’m a non-traditional candidate for this particular position, I think my background has the potential to strengthen the diversity of the User Experience team.  My insight into the way people perceive information that I gained from my marketing education as well as my broad knowledge of the latest consumer technology products being developed will add a useful counter point to the members of the team which have a computer engineering background.”

Not bad huh?  Notice that I was able to come up with a strong and compelling answer despite the fact that I didn’t once mention internships, work experience, volunteer positions, or even school projects.  What did I mention?  Again, I made my passion for technology a theme, this time highlighting the fact that, although I didn’t pursue a degree in a technical field, I still stayed involved and up-to-date on technology.  Because of my lack of experience I was forced to find another creative way to show that I was still passionate about the strong technical aspects of the position.  I was also able to turn what seems like a weakness, a degree in Marketing, to my advantage by highlighting themes about my education and what I can bring to the table that is unique from other candidates.

Are you starting to see how creative and relevant all aspects of your life can be in marketing yourself during the interview.  Anything you’ve done is fair game to bring up if you can find a way to make it fit coherently within your responses and show the interviewer how it is a strength for the particular position you’re applying for.  And I really challenge you to think about these aspects of your life, especially if you are nervous about your qualifications for a particular job.  Again, I think you’ll see that preparation–in this case reflection and creativity–can help you overcome any perceived shortcomings in your qualifications.

Well that’s it for today, as always let me know if you have any questions or comments.


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