Editor's note: This article is one in a series on how to answer some of the toughest job interview questions.
Looking for a new job is stressful enough, but to make matters more challenging, some interview questions seem like minefields. But understanding more about what hiring personnel want to know when asking these questions can help you prepare. You can then formulate an answer ahead of time, which can help calm your nerves and allow you to tackle the challenge with insight instead of guesses.
We asked human resources experts for their insider knowledge on the traditional-but-tricky phrase that opens many an interview: "Tell me about yourself." Here they share what this prompt is designed to reveal about a candidate, and good ways to reply to it:
What the hiring manager wants to learn
Your answer to "tell me about yourself" gives an interviewer their first impression of your communication style, confidence level, understanding of the position, and personality, said Sue Arth, a San Diego-based career consultant who coaches people in accounting and other fields.
This question is also designed to reveal clues about your emotional intelligence, said Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a national staffing, recruiting, and culture firm that specializes in accounting and finance recruiting.
"This is about whether or not you're a fit for their cultural environment," he said. "Perhaps you're an intellectual who loves to read, or you're someone who's analytical during the day and plays team sports or takes improv classes at night to find balance. Your answer should share information beyond your résumé about how you view yourself, and how ultimately that can relate to your job."
Good strategies for answering the question
Be authentic, said Sarah McEneaney, CPA, partner and U.S. digital talent leader for PwC, who is based in Chicago.
"Mention past experiences and proven successes as they relate to the position," she said. "Don't be afraid to consider how your current job relates to the job you're applying for, and the strengths and abilities that you have developed over time."
Arth suggested starting with general information about your education and experience, and moving into how the strengths you've acquired relate to the position, using the "STAR" structure to formulate your answer:
- Share a "situation" you experienced.
- Describe the "task" you were assigned.
- Detail the "action" you took.
- End with the "result" you achieved.
"This format will increase your confidence, make you appear more professional, and lead into a good conversation of the job and your qualifications," said Arth.
What to avoid doing or saying
While it's tempting, don't summarize your résumé word for word, said McEneaney.
"Instead, discuss highlights that are relevant to the position, and come with examples of your best qualities," she said. "Quality over quantity."
And while the question is broad, don't go through your entire career history, unless you are young and just starting your career, Arth said.
"Don't be too detailed in relaying your job experience," she said. "Too many details distract from your message. And don't get personal. This is about your professional history, not family, friends, and relationships."
As with any interview question, think about how you'll answer by considering the interviewer's perspective, said Gimbel.
"Be careful what you say," he said. "You don't want to say that you're a workaholic if you're not. You're setting yourself up for failure."
With impressions formed within the first five minutes of an interview, "Tell me about yourself" becomes a very important question to answer correctly, Arth said. "Employers are seeking qualified candidates, of course, but they are also seeking people who can fit into the company culture and make a difference in the future," she said.
— Stephanie Vozza is a freelance writer based in Michigan. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.