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Tell Me About Yourself – How to Ace the Interview Question

This article is sponsored by Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.


Interview day is here and you’re ready to go. You’ve researched the company, practiced talking through your resume, and selected the perfect outfit. You feel prepared to take on the toughest questions with confidence.

The interviewer smiles and leads with an opening so innocuous, it sounds almost like small talk:

“Tell me about yourself.”

Suddenly, your pulse starts racing. This seemingly harmless question establishes the tone for the entire interview. It’s so open ended—how do you approach it and what should it include? A simple framework focused on the past, present, and future can provide structure and set you up for success.

Review the past – selectively

Introduce yourself with an opening statement that will pique interest. For example, a lead off such as “I have 10 years of experience in corporate communications, and I’ve been fortunate to work at a variety of organizations with a diverse group of clients” immediately solidifies your value proposition and presents the framework for reviewing your achievements.

As you describe your past experiences, remember not to repeat everything on your resume. Choose a few highlights of your background that are most relevant to this particular role. The highlights can be past positions, specific accomplishments, or related skills. Prepare no more than 2-3 sentences for each as follow up questions provide the opportunity to elaborate.

Linger on the present

After summarizing your past, take a moment to spotlight the present. Often, this is your current title and organization. The purpose here isn’t to outline the day to day details of your responsibilities. Think high level—what are the positive things you’ve learned that have prepared you to take on this new challenge?

If you are between jobs, don’t worry and don’t feel the need to explain during this opening question. Instead, emphasize successes from your past roles that align with this job description.

Look to the future

A clear way to sum up is to focus on the future. Why are you here, right now, for this interview? Think about what you’re looking for in your next opportunity and why this particular role appeals to you.

Consider statements that are forward-thinking and demonstrate how your experience and expertise fit the position. Have you worked at big companies and are now looking to make your mark to impact strategy in a smaller domain? Are you planning to combine the financial acumen gained from your MBA with your technical background to target a role in fintech? This leads into the rest of the interview showcasing why you’re the right match.

Other tips

  • Keep it professional. Unless there’s a unique aspect of your background critical to share up front, save personal interests or other details for later. This is your first opportunity to prove credibility so stick to your related experience.
  • Keep it brief. If you take too long focusing on each part of your background, you’ll have less to talk about throughout the rest of the interview. Practice out loud so your delivery is crisp and on point—no more than 90 seconds.
  • Keep it positive. An interview isn’t the time to air your frustrations with your current role or badmouth others. Be upbeat and focus on wins.

Jennifer Bobrow Burns is the Director of Career Development for Executive MBA Programs and Alumni at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.

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