“Tell me about yourself,” is the most important interview question to prepare for.
Almost every interview will ask it in some form:
- Tell me about yourself.
- Walk me through your resume.
- Why are you interested in this job?
- What are you looking for in your next job?
- Tell me why I should hire you for this job?
It seems like the ultimate softball question in an interview, right. You’ve got an engaged audience, primed to listen! Right?
This is your chance to introduce yourself, explain why you’re qualified and motivated to do the job, and get your interviewer excited to hire you. Many interviewers will make up their mind about you before you finish responding.
So the stakes are high, but I’ve heard hundreds of responses to this question when hiring people, and I’ll share my insights on how you can nail it, including:
- Why interviewers ask “tell me about yourself”
- A checklist for what interviews look for in your response
- How to answer “tell me about yourself” in four steps:
- A sample response
- Public Narrative: how to answer “tell me about yourself” like Barack Obama
- Other interviewing resources
Why interviewers ask “tell me about yourself”
If someone asks you a variant of “tell me about yourself” in an interview, it’s a good sign: they’re trying to give you an easy question that makes you feel comfortable.
But it’s not just a filler question. This is the most important question you’ll be asked, because it’s your opportunity to make a direct “pitch” for why you’d be excellent at the job.
Your interview may say, “tell me about yourself,” but what they’re really asking is:
- Tell me how your entire life has led you towards this job.
- Tell me why you’re the perfect person for this job.
- Explain why you’re the best candidate for this job based on your past experiences and accomplishments.
Your job in an interview is to answer the question they don’t ask: omit anything that isn’t relevant to why you’d be fantastic at the role, and frame your bio around what they’re looking for.
A checklist of what interviewers look for in a response to “tell me about yourself”
Most interviewers have a mental checklist when listening to how you introduce yourself and your career. They’re looking for six things:
- Relevant experience. They’re looking to see that you’ve met the job’s prerequisites: you’ve had relevant past jobs, and developed expertise required.
- Tangible accomplishments. They’re also looking for tangible results: if you were in sales, what was your quota? Did you hit it? No matter your role, what were the most impressive, and quantifiable results you produced? If you don’t use numbers, they’ll assume your results were bad.
- Consistent focus. Interviewers want to see a “through line” in your career: consistent motivations, activities and expertise throughout all your work. When preparing for an interview (see a complete guide on interview prep here), your job is to draw this through line.
- Understandable motivation. They want to understand what motivates you: you can talk about extracurricular or formative experiences to illustrate your motivations. You can link athletics to competition, you can share an early role model and how that inspired you down your career path. No matter how you do it, explaining the “why” behind your career focus will convince them you’re going to work hard in their role.
- Concise, direct communication. They’ll evaluate how you communicate: are you concise, or do you ramble? Do you answer the question? Does your response have a clear “through line” or is it just a list of information?
- Emotional resonance. Finally, they’ll be aware of the emotion in your response. This is most important related to your motivation: are you building wealth for your family? Did you enter health-tech because of bad experiences with the healthcare system. Linking your motivation to a real, emotional experience will forge a connection and help you stand out.
How to answer “tell me about yourself”
To knock your answer to “tell me about yourself” out of the park, you want to check off each of the six requirements above.
Here’s how you do it, in five steps.
Step 1: Make sure you know what the job is looking for
Start by reading the the job description, and list out all of the activities, accomplishments or skills required for the job (or you can see a full interview preparation checklist here).
For a junior product management job, this might include:
- Data analysis in SQL and Excel
- Understanding of the company’s tech stack
- Wireframing and user flows in Figma
- Writing PRDs and working with engineers
- Writing tickets for engineers
- Creating and managing a product backlog and your part of a product roadmap
Once you’ve outlined the essential requirements, you can make sure you emphasize how your professional experience has prepared you for them.
Step 2: Define your motivation in a way that resonates emotionally
Make sure to introduce yourself in a way that makes your motivation clear – so that your chosen function and career path are obvious – but also in a way that people understand and empathize with.
|Approach to explaining your motivation
|Examples of how to do it with emotional resonance
|Focus on the industry / sector
|Growing up, the most important person in my life was my grandmother. When my parents didn’t have work, she made sure we had food and a place to live, and no matter what happened in her life, she was always there for us. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she was able to spend her final months at home, surrounded by family instead of in a sterile hospital or nursing home. I was in college at the time, and that experience is why I went into healthcare – and particularly, why I focused on elder- and end-of-life care.
|Focus on the function
|I’ve always been competitive. In high school, I loved sports – I played three varsity sports and was All-American in both lacrosse and football. But, in the summer, I ran a lawncare business, and by the end of high school was making $100,000 a year. I loved the competition and teamwork of selling, and realized that I enjoyed getting customers. So that’s why I went into sales.
|Focus on the product / mission
|I know what it’s like being different. As a gay boy growing up in a rural community in the South, I never fit in. I love how your product connects kids and young adults, so they know that they’re not alone.
|Focus on your family
|Throughout my career, I’m motivated by taking care of my family. My parents came to the US when I was a kid, and sacrificed a lot for me. I remember my Dad working two minimum wage jobs to make sure I had time to study and go to college. So it was important to me to choose a career that could earn enough money to support my parents in retirement.
How to develop your own introduction
In order to find a coherent way to communicate your motivation, start by asking yourself the following questions:
- What parts of this job am I most excited about? It could be the product/mission, the ability to be competitive and succeed, the industry focus, the day-to-day activities or something else.
- Why does that job resonate with me? Think about it – is it the activity itself (“I do this thing for fun”), the feeling of winning, the sector, or something else?
- What experience in my life can I use to illustrate why I care about this? Now think of a quick story you can tell that illustrates why your are deeply motivated to excel in this kind of job. Your goal is to leave your interviewer thinking, “Wow, it seems like they were born to do this.”
Once you’ve chosen an experience, ask yourself (or a friend) if this feels universal: is it something that your interviewer is likely to share or empathize with? If not, go back through other experiences, until you can anchor in something that will resonate emotionally.
Step 3: Outline the parts of your professional experience to highlight
Once you’ve found your introduction – the emotionally resonant story that explains your motivation – you need to decide what experiences to focus on. The goal is to pull out aspects of your work that directly relate to the job you’re applying for.
Start with your complete resume of experiences, and ask yourself:
- How did each job prepare me for this new role?
- What was the most impressive project or accomplishment in each of my roles?
- If any role was not obviously related, what aspect of my motivation did that role fulfill?
Put your answers into a grid that looks like this (say you’re applying for a performance marketing job):
|Skill you developed
-Writing speed, quality
|Wrote 100 pieces in 2 years, that have generated 400,000 visits and $600K in revenue
|SEO / Content manager
|-Understanding of tech stack
-Managing backlog of SEO work
-Recruiting and managing contractors
|-Created and managed network of 20 writers, to produce 1,000 content pieces in 2 years, generating 3 million visits and $5M in revenue for clients
-Managed technical SEO for 20 websites, increasing traffic 100% on average (from 2M to 4M annual visits) and revenue by 300% ($1M to $3M)
|-Created a product, sourced and managed production contractor
-Created website and managed all aspects of marketing (email, blog, paid acq., affiliate)
-Currently generating $200K revenue per year
Step 4: Put your response into bullet points, and practice
Now you have the building blocks, you just need to create short bullet points, starting with the personal story that reveals your motivation and resonates emotionally, and continuing to include each major career step.
Your goal should be to keep this intro to about 90 seconds, so focus on your most impressive accomplishment for each role. No need to list the skills.
For example, imagine you’re applying for a software engineering job at Lego:
- Legos changed my life. When I was a kid, I grew up in a low-income neighborhood. Today, most of my childhood classmates work minimum wage jobs. But my parents took me to a Lego camp after school, and it got me excited about science and building things.
- I went from legos to software engineering, and in college I worked in the lab that created the Scratch programming language at MIT – which is basically Legos for programming (a modular language).
- After college, I created a mobile game that teaches kids to code. It was featured by Apple and Android, and has more than 1 million downloads, and generates me $50,000 per year.
- My friend told me about this job at Lego, and I’m really excited by the opportunity – when I was a kid, you had to have access to a physical program, but your product can let any child with a computer or smartphone have the kind of life-changing experience I had.
Sample response to “tell me about yourself”
I recently took a new job as Head of Innovation at a venture studio (a company that creates and spins out startups), focused on business that foster economic opportunity. My role is to find and validate business ideas for the studio to found.
Here’s how I’d answer “tell me about yourself” in an interview for that role.
I feel like my entire life has prepared me for this role.
Growing up, my family spend most of my time in elementary and middle school under the poverty line – I remember my parents arguing about money, worry about whether we’d be able to afford food, and even spending a summer living at a friends’ house. At the time, it was fun – only recently, I realized that I was technically homeless.
In college, I realized that business can be a powerful tool to solve social problems, and that I love the earliest stage of de-risking business ideas. I founded a mobile health company to stop the sale of counterfeit medicine. We won an Echoing Green Fellowship, raised $6 million, built a product and got early customers. Today, 15 years later, the company’s profitable and has protected 50 billion doses of medicine.
Then, I went to business school at Harvard, spent a year researching tech innovation with Clay Christensen, where I published on tech and startups at Harvard Business Review. I then consulted for impact investors and social enterprises (including MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and Echoing Green) for two years.
After that, I joined an Ed Tech Startup, where I created a new program that brought an app that teaches kids to read to 50+ languages. I raised $3M in grants, donations and revenue, created partnerships with the World Bank, UNICEF, and other organizations to run large scale projects, and ultimately reached 100,000s (if not millions) of kids.
Then, I co-founded Almanac, Google docs competitor built for async teams, where we raised $50 million, and I led growth to acquire our first several hundred customers.
Public Narrative: how to answer “tell me about yourself” like Barack Obama
Another related way of developing your story is to use Harvard Professor and activist Marshall Ganz’s “Public Narrative” framework.
Your story – and response to “tell me about yourself” in an interview, or whenever you introduce yourself professionally – can be distilled to three smaller stories, of:
- Self. What personal experience called you to this moment?
- Us. How does this experience relate to values and experiences that we all share?
- Now. Why is now the time to act? What is our strategy, and the step we need to take? (In the context of an interview, that’s going to be hiring you for the job.)
See this worksheet for a step-by-step guide and examples, but you can see this framework in action here, from the world’s most famous community organizer: