You are huddled in your apartment waiting for the phone to ring and are mentally running through the checklist of questions you think you might be asked during the interview. Once the phone rings and you exchange pleasantries, it begins.
“Tell me about yourself and your interest in this position,” says the employer.
Inwardly you groan. This is it. This is the question that everyone dreads, because it is seemingly impossible to answer without sounding like a used car salesperson or a live interpretation of your resume.
Flip the script on the question; it isn’t intended to be an obstacle. Rather, this question is a gate opening on the express lanes of employment. It is your time to shine and stand out from the crowd of other candidates. It sets the tone for the rest of the interview.
Don’t Regurgitate Your Resume
The employer has already seen your resume. That’s how you got here. Resumes get you interviews, but you will need to get yourself the job. Because you’re in a job interview, it’s easy to fall into the trap of talking about your professional accomplishments and goals. The employer has already seen the list of what you’ve done; this is your opportunity to show them who you are.
Use a Formula to Answer the Question
Experts recommend using a formula to answer the question: Past-Present-Future
Give a little information about your past experience, share what you are currently doing that is innovative or relevant to the position for which you are interviewing, and then go on to explain why you are excited about the opportunity for which you are interviewing.
An example of this formula in action may sound like, “I did my undergraduate work at Old University, where I majored in rhetoric and philosophy. I’m currently a graduate student at New University with an assistantship in conduct and community standards. I’m excited about the opportunity at This University because it combines my interest in Title IX with my current experience in conduct.”
Relax and Give Anecdotes
It's acceptable – and welcomed – to personalize your answer and show off your personality here. Add in details about who you are outside of the office. While it may feel unnatural at first, it gives employers a sense of who you are or what you value. This doesn’t mean rattling off a list of your obscure hobbies or monopolizing the interview time with excessive detail about your personal history. Consider including a mention of the project of which you are most proud or a very brief overview of an initiative you planned from start to finish. This leaves the employer with something memorable about you, making you stand out from other candidates with similar backgrounds or experience.
Match Your Answer to the Mission
Before you ever get to the interview, you have researched the mission and goals of the department with which you are interviewing. Tying your answer back to what you learned highlights the excellent research that you did and demonstrates your understanding of the direction of the department. A good example is drawing a parallel between your experience and an initiative of the office or department. For example, you might mention your previous experience as the graduate hall director of a living learning program and that you saw on the office’s website the creation of two new living learning programs for the upcoming fall. Be strategic.
Practice Your Answer
You will be asked this question in job interviews for the rest of your working career. Having a script that you can practice so your answer feels natural will help you start interviews on the right foot. You will feel more confident and secure. Tailor your answer to the position and the interview, of course; rehearsing prepares you for the question and allows you to organize your thoughts.
Answering the “tell me about yourself” question should be a confidence-building moment in your interview. Feel good about what you’ve accomplished and your ability to articulate it to an employer. You are in control of the tone of the interview. Show off your personality and personal accomplishments in the context of the position description.
Stacy Oliver-Sikorski is the associate director of residence life for student success at Lake Forest College. She has more than a decade of experience in student affairs, primarily in housing, residence life, and student conduct. Stacy has served in leadership roles within ACUHO-I and GLACUHO, and is a prolific writer in the field. You can connect with Stacy on Twitter at @StacyLOliver or via her blog at http://stacyloliver.com.