The Personal Interview – Tell me about yourself

Today we’ll look at a question commonly posed at the start of an interview: “Tell me about yourself”

The knee-jerk response to this question is often something like “My name is ABC. I am an EXTC engr from XYZ college. I come from a middle-class family. My father is a government servant. My mother is a housewife. I have a brother who is an engineer and a sister who is doing her MBA….” and so on. But it is worth asking yourself: is this what the interviewer wants to hear?

Let’s examine this questions from the interviewer’s point of view. Is the interviewer interested in you as a person? Not really (though a good interviewer will pretend to be). Then why ask this question?

The key thing to understand is, the interviewer has a limited time with each candidate (around 20 minutes on average). To make a reliable decision in 20 minutes is already a daunting ask. How should he go about it?

One way is to make a pre-defined list of 20-25 questions and ask them to all the candidates. But this is quite likely to be unfair as those topics might not lie in the comfort zone of some of the candidates.

Another option is to spend the first 7-10 minutes of each interview probing the candidate to find out his/her area of comfort and then going ahead to ask questions on those areas. While some interviewers do this, it can end up being a waste of already limited time.

A third option is to start off by asking the candidate “what do you want to talk about?” and then taking cues from the answer received. However, an interviewer cannot phrase the question in such direct terms, and therefore instead couches it in a more neutral way as “tell me about yourself” – the implied meaning being “tell me where you want to take the interview”.

In other words, this question puts the reins of the interview into the hands of the interviewee; a skilled candidate can use this to guide the interview wherever he/she wishes to take it. There is a flip-side, of course – if, not being aware of this thought process, you mention a topic outside your comfort zone, the interviewer will assume that you are eager to talk on that topic and will judge you based on your answers.

A sensible answer would thus be to very briefly introduce yourself and then quickly move on to those topics which you are eager to talk about. So your pre-work for this would be to identify (a) those topics in which you know you can make a good impression with your knowledge and passion and (b) those topics which you absolutely wish to avoid. So if your academics are stellar, you will quickly bring them into the discussion. But if your academics are terrible while your extra-curriculars are impressive, just pass over your education in one line and jump to your other interests. If you feel that your work experience is your USP, bring that in as early as you can.

Most importantly, don’t bring in unnecessary, extraneous elements without a reason. If possible, every point you bring up should bolster your candidature. Bringing in your family to demonstrate that they inculcated good values in you is fine. Bringing them in just to introduce them is pointless – the interviewer is considering you as a potential student and not your family.

With luck, if you answer this one question right, the rest of the interview can be a breeze as the reins will be firmly in your hands.

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