May 14, 2012

Another Top-10 Stupid Interview Question: “Tell us all about yourself!”

Filed under: How to Say It, Interviewing, Q&A, Readers' Forum

In the May 15, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter comes up with a good way to deal with one of the Top-10 Stupid Interview Questions:

I’m looking at positions as an intermediate- or senior-level software developer, and I’m trying to think of new ways to tackle the famous open-ended interview question. Here’s one approach I am considering.

Them: “Let’s start off our interview with you telling us about yourself.”

Me: “Actually, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take a few minutes to give you a little whiteboard presentation of some of the projects I’ve worked on during the past 3-4 years. May I?”

Basically, instead of giving them the typical, brief executive summary about myself, I’d like to show what I’ve done and discuss it, so I can use it as a reference throughout the interview. What do you think of this approach?

My Advice

Another of the Top-10 Stupid Interview Questions rears its head! “Tell us about yourself!” Sometimes I think employers are just lazy. The question reveals the interviewer has no idea whom she’s talking to. But let’s put criticism of employers aside…

I like your approach a lot, because it focuses on the work. When a person talks about the work they’ve done, they invariably reveal a lot about themselves in the proper context. In other words, the employer can see how the candidate’s personality and character fit the job. Talking shop is a good way to reveal a lot about yourself.

Loaded questions yield canned answers.

In most interviews, this highly-loaded question usually evokes a well-rehearsed narrative akin to a political speech. All it tells the manager is that you’ve rehearsed a pitch. But if you embed information about yourself in a discussion of work and projects you’ve done, the information is not just more palatable; it’s more relevant. Pause during your presentation to ask the employer how her team handles similar projects, and your presentation becomes a dialogue. Now you’re talking shop, and you will also find yourself relaxing because a discussion is more natural than a presentation. That’ll make you perform better.

Steer discussion to the work.

This approach is even more effective if you discuss not just the work you’ve done, but your understanding of the problems and challenges the manager’s department is facing. In other words, steer the discussion away from your last employer’s objectives, to what this employer needs. Map your expertise and abilities onto the manager’s projects as you understand them. (Ask the manager to confirm you’ve got the story right.) This is a polite and deft way to turn the discussion around to the employer. If you can get the employer to outline one or two things she needs a new hire to take care of, then you can show the manager what you can do in terms that matter to her.

All of a sudden, you’re the candidate that’s solving problems, right there in the interview. That makes you stand out. (For more detailed tips about how to stand out, please see How Can I Change Careers?, which is not just for career changers, but for anyone who wants to stand out in a job interview by showing what they can actually do for the employer.)

If you do your homework carefully before your interview, you’ll be able to conclude with “the bottom line” when you describe each project. That is, how did your work benefit your employer? If you can describe this in dollars, all the better.

Now for the capper.

Discussing how your work paid off for your old employer is a perfect launch pad for a dialogue about how you might help the bottom line of the projects the manager needs done. Suddenly, you’re revealing an unusual focus (for a software developer, or for any employee): You’re talking about the impact of your work on the company’s success and profits.

Now you really stand out.

If the manager presses you for “what your career goals are” (This is just another angle on “Tell us about yourself”), turn the discussion back to the employer again.

How to Say It

“I love developing software, but I could do that on my own. The satisfaction I get out of my work comes when I see how it actually produces a profit for the company. My goal is not only to be a great developer, but a profitable one. I really believe that my career success depends on that more than anything else.”

I get the feeling you’ll be able to provide some examples from your background. It seems to me you’re already taking this in the right direction! My compliments.

(Do you like to talk about yourself? Does it get you anywhere? What do you think an employer is really looking for with that question?)

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51 Comments on “Another Top-10 Stupid Interview Question: “Tell us all about yourself!””
By Some Guy
February 2, 2015 at 8:29 pm

I have had it with the Tell Me About Yourself question. I put a lot of time into my resume and cover letter, especially the cover letter. Read it, take notes on it, and don’t ask questions you already have the answers to.

Next time I am asked this stupid, vague question my response will be to the effect of: Everything of significance is in my cover letter and on my resume. Is there anything you’d like me to expand on? If they don’t like it, tough beans. The real me is analytic and matter of fact. Get to the point.

Ask me job related questions that aren’t vague, check in on my former employees to get an idea of what type of worker I am, and give me an aptitude test for technical skills. Leave the analysis of my behavior to trained professionals.

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