What is the best answer to the interview question ‘Tell me something about yourself’?

As a top-billing headhunter, I’ve been observing, consulting, and advising candidates on exactly what to do or don’t during interviews to make sure we increase the odds of my candidate landing the role.

Through careful analysis, training, and experimentation of what works best, I’ll first break down how to answer “tell me about yourself” and then “tell me something about yourself”: two VERY different topics. Beware of the nuance of the word “something” being added to the mix.

Firstly, here is how best to attack the “tell me about yourself” question:

#1. Start with a pithy sentence summarizing your career background.

It’s absolutely CRUCIAL that you kick off on the right foot to say something very professional because you’ll have plenty of time to distinguish yourself later on the personal front and build more rapport throughout the interview.

The first sentence is NOT where you want to be taking chances; you want to set the stage almost as generically as possible so you can start gauging the interviewer’s style and preferences before you start selling blindly which could be a very dangerous strategy.

The whole point is to avoid turning your interviewer off so early on into the interview. Thus, stick with what you CAN’T go wrong with: just state your experience professionally.

I.e. “I’ve been a headhunter for 6 years now, working with c-level executives and senior leadership to find top candidates to fill hard-to-find niche roles within the technology sector.”

Headhunter tip: A common mistake is the candidate answers the wrong question instead of “tell me about yourself”. As in, “I was born in a small town in Maine and I studied at XYZ school…” That answer isn’t ideal because instead of answering “tell me about yourself” (which is a summary question), you answered “where were you born?” and “where did you study?” BOTH not the question being asked by the employer. To make things worse, your school is on your resume, so it’s not necessary to bring it up unless asked about it.

#2. Transitionary statement that links your experience with why you’re now here for the interview.

“Tell me about yourself” asks for a STORY, thus give the people what they want! Make your story interesting and paint why you’re now on the interview with your potential future employer:

“Due to my passion for recruitment and sales, I am eager to progress within this career as a headhunter so I’d like to continue in my profession but there may be a few things that could be different at other recruitment firms. Currently, due to the Covid situation, things are a little unsettled in my current role so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to learn about other exciting recruiting companies that are growing in the NYC area.”

The trick here is to subtlety alert the interviewer of how ACTIVE or PASSIVE you are as a candidate.

If you’re unemployed and you really need a job, your answer would more so sound like this:

“Due to my passion for success within agency recruitment, despite being furloughed due to Covid, I’m still very much committed to this profession and I’m eager to learn about other recruitment agencies to pick the right one to work for as I continue to establish myself.”

Why you want to cleverly share the active or passive state you’re in, is that it will impact the speed and urgency (as well as salary flexibility) of your interview process.

If you state that you’re more “passively exploring the market”, it puts the onus on the employer to show you why they’re worth your time and also helps minimize anybody trying to strong-arm you because you’re actively employed and wouldn’t tolerate it.

If you state that “you’re eagerly seeking a new role and actively interviewing”, then the client knows that you’re willing to move quickly which may help in certain cases move you along the process faster if they understand that you’re being hotly chased by multiple employers.

#3. Thank them for the time they’re spending to interview you and also how grateful you are for the opportunity to learn more.

This is what I call the “sell”. You’re selling the employer on how conscientious, kind, likable, and thoughtful you are! Also, you’re selling how much you are interested in the role and your genuine excitement to continue the conversation, like this:

“I’m really grateful for your time today to speak with me about what’s happening at {firm name}. I’ve heard so many great things about the initiatives in diversity you’re leading and your business seems to be an innovator in our space. I’m excited to learn more and also share more details about my background.”

With these 3 pieces of your intro (hopefully not taking up longer than 1 full minute), you’ll have kicked off the conversation in a friendly, knowledgeable, mature, and pleasant manner.

“Tell me SOMETHING about yourself”

Unliked “tell me about yourself” which is more professional and less creative, “tell me SOMETHING about yourself” is a question that allows you to build rapport, get more personal, and share an interesting story about yourself that exceeds just the professional side of you.

You can pick a fun fact about yourself, a hobby or talent you’re very proud of and enjoy doing, some fun places you like to travel or interesting travel story, something interesting about your family and your upbringing, your favorite pet, nothing is really right or wrong here as long as it’s genuinely representative of your unique personality, like the following example:

“Before I became a headhunter, I used to compete competitively as a pop singer in the Chinese-American and Asian market where I specialized in power ballads by Whitney, Celine, and Chinese artists like Coco Li and A-Mei. My biggest dream was to be a singer in my teens so I went to 3 different American Idol tryouts, and also was invited to go to China to be part of a TV singing show. It’s still my top hobby!”

It’s fun, it’s unique, it’s kinda cool, and it’s pretty personal too! The interviewer will be bound to react by either asking you to sing something (which has happened to me in the past!) or say something polite like “well, we must hear you sing one day!” Either way, the rapport you’re building by sharing a true and personal story will absolutely benefit your interview process to engage your interviewer to remember the impression you made.

Warning: Pick something that isn’t really weird (taxidermy as a hobby) or potentially offensive (hunting as a passion which is a polarizing issue). Again, you don’t know who your interviewer is, their political leanings, and how they think! If they’re a vegan, you may have committed a terrible faux pas in both cases. Just stick to the tried and true and don’t try too hard to go out of your way to prove a point!

In Conclusion

The trap to these two simple yet complicated questions of “tell me about yourself” and “tell me something about yourself” lies in that the interviewer is testing you to say literally anything.

The onus is on the job-seeker to prove how savvy, mature, and commercially-intelligent he/she is. At the end of the day, your job as the person being interviewed is to be your authentic self but to also be strategic and prepared to nail your narrative.

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