How to ace the “Tell me about yourself” interview question

Candidates often say their most dreaded interview question is typically the first one out of the gate, “Tell me about yourself.” But it’s not a question at all, it’s a request; and it’s usually the first real measurable moment after the initial interview pleasantries.

So, you’re in an interview for a role you really want, and the first question is not specific other than you need to encompass your whole Work+Life into a couple of sentences while sounding confident, not boastful, and interesting but not unfocused — easy right?

We asked several of our recruiters what they were looking for when they ask this question and here’s what they said:

Gillian Osborne, Director, Operational Performance, Atlantic Canada: I want to know what they are passionate about and how that relates to the opportunity we are going to discuss. 

David Long, Senior Recruiting Consultant, Engineering & Tech Calgary: What brought them to where they are today, why they are passionate about the work they do, what interests them outside of work.

Julie Bristow, On-Site Delivery Manager, Integrated Staffing Partnerships, Windsor: Some key words I look for when someone tells me about themselves are specific skills or attributes and something fun about themselves to show character.

Rose Arsenault, Market Manager, Victoria: I’m looking for a recent and relevant overview of their work history/schooling/reason for moving (if applicable) to Victoria.

Yasmin Erfanipour, Account Manager, Office Professional, Mississauga: Alignment between previous experiences & the position being discussed. I want to hear about alignment with the role and company.

Leah Reynolds, Account Manager, Halifax: When they tell me about themselves, I am looking for them to tell me about their professional background first and personal interests second.

Cynthia Moore, Recruitment Consultant, Office Professional, Edmonton: I look for someone to articulate what is important to them. Whether it is family time, an opportunity for advancement, or a hobby — it helps us to get a holistic view of the candidate as an individual rather than just a job seeker. It also allows us to speak to their personality when chatting with the hiring manager. 

Kyla Rigby, Manager Talent & Diversity, Mississauga: I usually use this question in two different ways at two separate times during the interview. I use it as an icebreaker question right at the top of the interview. “Tell me about yourself outside of work. What do you like to do for fun? What are some of your hobbies?” I also like to hear about their career goals and aspirations when I ask them to tell me about themselves professionally. I want to hear the journey folks have been on, where they started, where they are now and where they see themselves, and how Agilus can be in support of their journey.

So, does all that mean you are at the mercy of guessing what the manager wants? No. If you look closely, there are a few common themes in the answers above:

  1. Work+Life - Most recruiters want to know more than what’s on your resume, so share something about your hobbies, interests or passions.
  2. Manage your time - If you are booked for a 30-minute interview, you want to spend at most 2-3 minutes on this question. Be brief and concise; don’t tell your life story and leave little time for the technical questions.
  3. Ask for clarification - There’s no harm in clarifying what they want to know. “Are you looking for an overall work summary?” “Do you want to learn more about my career journey and how my interests and work lead me here?”
  4. Stay relevant - Most importantly, whether you are speaking about your work experience or your time outside of work, ensure to tie it back to the role or company you are interviewing for.
  5. Watch for body language - One of the toughest things to do in an interview is watch for key signs that you’re answer is too long. Has the recruiter gone back to check her notes or watch? Have they stopped nodding or smiling? Do they seem disinterested? If so, wrap your answer up quickly.
  6. Do your homework - Assuming you have looked at the company’s website, social media, and job description, how might you use this question to demonstrate your fit with the organization in a way that may not come up in more traditional questions? Do you volunteer at the charity the company sponsors, do your values of lifelong learning coincide with their corporate value of a growth mindset? Look for commonalities to be memorable and demonstrate your fit.

Although many candidates dread this question, if you prepare, you can differentiate yourself from other candidates and score big points with the interviewer.

For nearly half a century Agilus has served our candidate and employer networks, connecting great job seekers with meaningful employment. Every year we place thousands of job seekers in roles in Technology, Office Professional, Engineering, and Trades/Technical roles. With over 100 recruiting consultants across Canada, we can help you find your next role or find that new career path with interview tools and resume support. For more information about Agilus, please follow us on LinkedInFacebookInstagram and Twitter or check out our current open roles.

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