The “Tell me about yourself” interview question is so stupid yet so important

Interview questions, what a headache. For example, let’s discuss the most ridiculous and foolish interview question ever asked in the history of interviewing.  “Tell me about yourself.”

We all have a canned answer. However, it appears really hard to tackle well.  I even criticized a major HR publication for getting this question/answer wrong in my recent blog.

At the end of the day, I would love to give an honest answer: “I’m the kind of person who hates stupid interview questions”

However foolish, this question sets the tone for the rest of your interview. Not understanding that you can use a key framework can sink your chances of moving on.

 “Tell me about yourself”, keeps me up at night

First, “Tell me about yourself” is not the same as “Walk me through your resume”. “Walk me through your resume” is a more focused stick to the facts type of interview question. This topic for a future blog.

“Tell me about yourself” is open-ended and invites you to add your personality and go “off resume”.  I can go “off resume?”

Second, “Tell me about yourself” has a secondary hidden question.  Yes, the interviewer wants to know about you.  However, you must end the answer at the end with why you are a fit with the company. Facts are boring. It’s about sales, just sales.

Third, how do you capture your life in 1.5-2 minutes, no more, no less?

Great news “Tell me about yourself” is really quite easy to answer

First, you need to communicate two forms of content appropriate for the target job:

  • Personal; and
  • Professional

To answer this interview question, grab something about your personal life, from when you were young, which shows a passion for your target job.

  • I have been solving puzzles ever since I was 5 years old, including chess and other board games
  • Running around 2 weeks before my birthday, I would my relatives for certain presents and then got what I wanted
  • My parents taught me how to balance my checkbook at the age of 10, and then I did it for all my siblings

I’m not suggesting making up an answer.  Just find something from your childhood that is appropriate for your target job and start your story from when you were young. Everybody loves a good story.

Second, bring in your professional life continuing the same theme.

  • I continued my love for puzzles in my university by majoring in computer science, which gave me the tools to solve business problems
    • At Goldman Sachs, I applied my puzzle-solving skills to help the investment banking unit create dashboards to understand finite slices of revenue sources and provided management with actionable data that increased revenue by $3 million.
  • I continued my love for sales by majoring in sales and marketing in college
    • At JP Morgan in fixed income sales, I really focused on the needs of my client and delivered derivatives’ solutions (provide example) to solve their pain points
My investment banking client Jessica had the worst answer possible

When I first met Jessica, she had an answer to “Tell me about yourself” which was a 5-minute regurgitation of every job she had on her resume.

I quickly pointed out to her that I knew everything she just told me since I have her resume in front of me. She just wasted 5 minutes boring me to death at the outset.  Bad precedent.

How I helped her formulate a great historical-based answer

First, we focused on her personal connection to finance. By asking her to think about why she really wanted to be a banker or continue banking, it got her thinking.

She said to me the next day, “I ran a lemonade stand and made all the kids happy.” However, realizing a few years later that her parents paid for the lemonade ingredients got her thinking about how and whether she really made a profit.

Personal light bulb moment:

  • You can’t sell lemonade and make people happy if you don’t make an investment in purchasing raw materials
  • Ah, the recognition of how important capital was for her lemonade business, which made kids happy was her personal story

Second, we focused on her professional interests.  She had helped companies in the telecom and technology space access capital at Goldman and UBS as an investment banker.

Her clients used the proceeds to invest in machinery, computers, and warehouse space.  These investments then helped create jobs, helping people live happily.

Professional light bulb moment:

  • She had helped over 50 companies access $1+ billion
  • She loved helping her clients purchase what they needed because the money ultimately employed people

Telling a childhood story that described her love of helping people and realizing that capital was a key ingredient was great.

To solidify a great answer, she finished her Credit Suisse interview question with “You are a top 5 capital raising investment bank in debt and equity and have been over the past 15 years with a current market share of 25%…

I want to continue my career with you, not only helping CS grow market share but also assisting my clients in accessing capital to invest and employ more people.”

The result?

Her “Tell me about yourself” answer was 1.5 minutes long, starting from her childhood, and continued the theme of raising money to employ people.

She set the tone for a successful interview and now works in equity capital markets at Credit Suisse.

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