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How to answer ‘tell us about yourself’ in an interview

jobinterviewOne of the most commonly asked interview questions and one that candidates find difficult to answer is, ‘tell me about yourself.’

While interviewing, I have seen fresh graduates panic when asked this question. I have also witnessed experienced candidates mumble words and come out as unprofessional. This question scares candidates irrespective of the profession or gender.

Whenever I interact with job seekers, a majority want to know why employers insist on “tell me about yourself” as the first interview question. After all, it is correct to assume that an employer has gone through your CV, but they still want to know more about you.

The ‘tell me about yourself’ interview question is an ice breaker. It also sets the tone of the interview. Perform well, and you have the interviewer impressed.  Get it wrong and it’s downhill all the way and very fast.  Apart from your appearance and body language, this is the second most important part of an interview and I can say without exaggerating that interviews are won or lost at this stage.

So, how do you go winning an interviewer by answering the ‘tell me about yourself” interview question?

What you need to realize, and this is where many candidates go wrong, is that this question can be rephrased as tell me about your professional life. i.e. the interviewer wants to know about your career and how it relates to the current job.  The challenge most candidates face is that they are not sure whether the employer wants them to talk about their professional or personal lives. From today, concentrate on your professional life UNLESS the interviewer asks a personal question.

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Another area that is a point of confusion for candidates is how long one should take to answer the question. This varies depending on one’s work experience.  However, if you ask me, an ideal time is between two and three and a half minutes. Less than that is too short and will not convince an employer and more than that is too long and you might end up giving irrelevant information or boring the interviewer.

So, how do you go answering this important question?

Step one is to introduce yourself and a few personal details i.e. my name is Jane jobseeker and I am 25 years old. That’s the far you go with the introduction. Don’t mention how you grew up in Nairobi and later in Mombasa when your father got a transfer etc.

Step two is to mention your education background. Here you start with your highest qualification to the lowest.  Using Jane as an example, she can say that she is a holder of a business management degree from the University of Nairobi and a diploma in customer service from the Kenya Institute of Management. If she has a certificate, she can also mention i.e. I have a certificate in public relations from ICM. Do not go mentioning the grades you got i.e. first class, lower etc or KCSE grades. Reason being, the employer has those details on the CV.

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The third and most important step is mentioning your work experience. Assuming you have gone through the employer job description, you can approach this section in two ways. Either, you can give an overview of your experience, highlighting how your previous or current role has exposed you to what the interviewer is looking for. Secondly, and you might find this easy, is to take the interviewer through each role you have performed while mentioning the specific experience that matches the employers JD.

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Those with less than five years experience will find mentioning each job they have had and how it matches employers needs easy while those with many years are better off summarizing their experience and choosing to highlight only the relevant experience.

Assume Jane is applying for a customer care job and the job description has the following as the top duties

  1. Answering calls
  2. Keeping the reception area clean
  3. In charge of petty cash
  4. In charge of internal and external communication
  5. Supervising casuals etc.

From the duties listed, she can answer the experience part as follows. “While working for XYZ Company, I was in charge of the front office and my main duties included answering telephone calls and diverting them to the necessary departments. I was also in charge of communication by liaising with the office messenger in ensuring that they delivered company letters in time. I also had a petty cash float of Sh15,000 a month. This was to ensure that the office never run out of supplies including printing papers, cleaning materials and repairing minor breakages. During my stay at XYZ Company I not only supervised casuals but ensured accurate payment of their wages after every two weeks.”

The last part is to indicate why you are interested in this position. Jane can mention something towards additional duties and responsibilities i.e. “Looking at your job description I can see that the successful candidate will be the responsible for the managing the director’s diary. This is a chance to learn how to organize a high profile office. This is a major reason why I am keen on this role as it will help me grow as a customer care professional and give me exposure on office administration duties.”

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There you have it, answering ‘tell me about yourself’ need not be confusing. However, if you have a question and some tips to add, write in the comments section below.

Perminus Wainana has over ten years experience in human resource management working with employers from different sectors. His major goal is to build relationships with employers in order to gain a better understanding of their recruitment needs and meet the requirements in a cost effective and timely manner. Email

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