You’ve probably heard a great deal about the admissions interview, including various perspectives on its relative importance as part of your college application. It’s a good idea to look into interview options at the colleges on your list, because not only does it provide a good opportunity for the admissions committee to learn more about you as a person, but it also gives you a chance to learn more about the school itself.
Once you’ve scheduled an alumni or on-campus interview with a college, how do you prepare? While you have no way of knowing exactly what an interviewer will ask, you can — and should — expect and be prepared for certain types of questions.
At CollegeVine, we specialize in guiding students through the admissions process, including holding mock interviews with tons of practice questions to be as prepared as possible. Learn more about how our College Applications program can help you ace your interview.
Starting the Interview: What your Interviewer Wants to Know
The interviewer will most likely begin with some form of the question, “Tell me about yourself.” While this may seem like a fairly open-ended prompt, and perhaps even a bit daunting, there are certain ways to answer effectively, as well as topics to avoid.
Setting the Tone
You should see the “tell me about yourself” prompt as an opportunity to show the interviewer your most important qualities and describe what you can contribute to the school community. Just as with any interview you will have over the course of your career, college years and beyond, this prompt is meant to give the interviewer an idea of what qualities you offer that are relevant to the position at hand — in this case, as a member of that college’s matriculating class.
Because this may well be the interviewer’s first question, it will set the tone for the rest of the interview, so be ready with a strong, but not overly rehearsed, answer. Keep in mind that this is not an invitation to share your life story or overly personal information with your interviewer; doing so will make you appear unprofessional and unprepared.
Topics to Cover
In general, it is a good idea to begin by mentioning the area in which you grew up. Don’t spend too much time discussing the intricacies of your hometown and home life, but mention if you’ve lived there your whole life or moved around a lot, and, if possible, connect it to your interest in the college’s area, size, or campus.
Tell the interviewer about your prospective major, if you have one, or what your main area of interest is and what you hope to study. Also, describe a few personality traits (roughly three), which will allow you to segue into your academic areas of interest and extracurricular activities and why they are important to you. End your answer with why you want to attend that college.
Since you should have researched the school thoroughly before the interview, you will have a good idea of how your personality and academic and extracurricular interests will fit in there, so make an effort to connect what you know about the school with your personal strengths and the topics you’ve covered in your answer. Keep in mind that, if the school offers you admission, the admissions officers want you to choose them as much as you wanted them to choose you, so you should express how interested you are in attending.
I grew up in a small town in Connecticut and have lived there my whole life, so I’d really love to experience city life in college. Since I live relatively close to New York, I’ve had the opportunity to visit a few times, and it has so much to offer, especially in terms of the literary scene. I love reading and writing, so I’m planning on majoring in English or journalism. Journalism seems like a good fit because I’m good at noticing the details and know how to dig deep.
I’m proud of my ability to persevere and overcome challenges. This year I was having a hard time in trig, but I met with the teacher outside of class and committed to studying for two hours a day, and ended up with an A in the class. I’m also really passionate about my interests, especially writing and foreign languages. That’s why I’m a columnist for my school newspaper and the president of Spanish club.
I also tutor English and Spanish at an after-school program in my town. I’d love to attend NYU because it has such strong English and journalism programs. I’m also interested in foreign languages, and I hear NYU has an amazing study abroad program. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, New York is such an amazing city, especially for an aspiring writer.
In this response, the interviewee touches on the topics relevant to her interests and qualifications for the school. She discusses her background a bit and connects it to why NYU and the candidate are mutually good fits, explaining her interests in English, writing, and foreign languages, what she has to done to explore them both inside and outside school, and how she can continue to pursue them in college.
She also makes it clear what attributes of NYU appeal to her. Additionally, she reveals some attributes that make her unique and avoids offering cliché personality traits. She provides examples that illustrate these attributes, such has her ability to persevere and overcome obstacles in a challenging course, also demonstrating her ability to turn a negative into a positive.
Tell me about yourself.
Well, I’m from Colorado. I raise goats. I have a rash.
Most people get nervous before interviews. And nerves can cause you to stumble through even the most fundamental interactions.
That’s why the tell me about yourself interview question is the hardest part of the interview for some job seekers. It often comes first, and it’s mystifying.
That’s why you need to prepare.
But how do you know where to start?
It takes a bit of research and practice. But it’s worth it. And at least you can be sure that you won’t start your interview with a rant about your early childhood diseases.
This guide will show you:
- What the interviewer is really asking.
- How to answer the tell me about yourself interview question.
- Several examples of the best way to answer and why.
And if you want to make sure you’ll turn every interview into a job offer, get our free checklist: 42 Things You Need To Do Before, During, and After Your Big Interview.
What a Hiring Manager Wants When They Say Tell Me About Yourself
The tell me about yourself interview question is one of the first you'll hear in an interview.
Now, a lot of job seekers find it tough to provide a satisfying answer. That’s because they’re not sure what the hiring manager is asking.
So, what is the hiring manager asking?
There are a few possible ways that hiring managers can phrase the request.
You might hear:
- Tell me about yourself.
- Tell us a little about yourself.
- Tell something about yourself.
- Say something about yourself.
- Describe yourself in three words.
- What would you like me to know about you?
But what are they really asking?
- Tell me about yourself as a professional.
- What do YOU think is important for the job?
- How are you going to fit in with the company and provide value?
- Can you answer an “unstructured” question on the fly?
Even if the hiring manager doesn’t ask you point blank to talk about yourself, it’s a good idea to prepare an answer. That’s because the entire interview is about answering this question.
Preparation will also stop you from listing hobbies or talking about the time you got a rock stuck in your nose.
|The hiring manager is asking you to talk about your professional self.||The hiring manager is asking you to talk about yourself in general.|
You’ll also want to keep in mind that the request is “unstructured.” See, the hiring manager will leave some interview questions vague on purpose.
That’s because the hiring manager wants to see HOW you answer the question. She’s less interested in what you say.
When she says tell me about yourself, what do you decide to share? What do you find important to tell your future employer about yourself?
What’s important - the company’s needs or yours?
- Do you answer with personal information or professional?
- Are you aware of what position on offer requires?
- Do you know what the company does and values?
What type of thinker and worker are you?
- Do you repeat information off your resume word for word?
- Do you recite something practiced like a robot?
- Do you think on your feet or do you ask for clarification?
What initial impression do you make on other people?
- Are you articulate and confident?
- Are you flabbergasted and confused?
- What kind of first impression do you make?
Pro Tip: Your answer should reflect that you're aware of the company's needs and values. Meanwhile, your tone should register as articulate, confident, and prepared.
Do try to avoid sounding robotic. It’s hard, but not impossible. Even if you’re the nervous type.
Introducing yourself during an interview is a lot like introducing yourself on your resume. Read our guide: "How to Write a Resume Summary: 21 Best Examples You Will See"
How to Prepare for the Tell Me About Yourself Interview Question
To talk about your professional self, you’ll need to do two things.
First, you’ll need to identify your greatest professional achievements.
Second, you’ll need to tailor your accomplishments to the needs of the company.
So, what are your greatest achievements? Ask yourself:
- Have you ever accomplished anything at work that you can illustrate with numbers? (Good examples are earning money, cutting costs, or improving efficiency.)
- Can you think of accomplishments that demonstrate how well you use a skill?
- Was there a time when your boss praised you?
- Did you ever win an award or receive a promotion?
Note, you do not have to take your examples from your job experience.
If you have little or no work experience, you can take examples and success stories from anywhere.
Are you a student or fresh graduate? Your achievements can include success stories from your extracurricular activities. You can also talk about awards and honors you received at school.
Let’s say you’re a professional with a stretch of long-term unemployment. Or you’re a career changer, and your success stories are unique to a different industry.
It’s more than okay to refer to success stories from jobs you had a long time ago. Your tell me about yourself answer can span your entire career.
You can also talk about your achievements at the jobs you held in different industries.
The point of the exercise is to identify your achievements. You’ll narrow them down later. You can write down as many as you can think of now.
Once you have a master list of your top achievements, go back and take a long look at your job description. Underline all the skills and requirements listed. Where do you exceed the requirements?
Here’s an example of a job description for a Product Marketing Manager:
Notice the keywords underlined in the job description:
- Strong analytical skills.
- Can optimize the use of data and information to uncover customer insight.
- Can provide strong evidence-based analyses that build brand equity and a differential advantage.
- Customer Focused
- Can develop and sustain positive relationships to obtain customer insight.
- Strong communication skills (verbal and written).
- Can coordinate information and requirements with related operational departments.
- Proactive in identifying needs/issues.
- Can employ effective solutions in a timely manner.
- Detailed and action oriented.
There are a million possibilities here for your tell me about yourself sample answer.
The candidate could choose a success story based on communication. She could talk about the time she developed a relationship that gave her insight.
Now, look back at your master list of achievements. You’ll want to circle those that match the qualities you find in your job offer.
The next step is to choose a couple that you feel strongest about and use the STAR approach to illustrate them.
The STAR approach is an interview technique that helps you keep your answers on the right track.
STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result:
Situation - You start by explaining a situation which required you to solve a problem, use a skill, or come up with a new idea.
Task - Next, you explain the action that your job requires in such a situation.
Action - After, you describe the action that you took. If it’s different than the required task, you should also explain why you chose a different path.
Result - What happened in the end? How did the situation play out once you acted? It’s best here to illustrate successes with numbers and details if you can. Numbers help reinforce the impact that your action had.
Here’s an example of our Product Marketing Manager candidate’s achievements:
Can coordinate information and requirements with related operational departments.
Strong communication skills (verbal and written).
So, tell me about yourself.
Situation - As a Marketing Manager at XYZ Company, I am required to coordinate projects with the IT department. We create a lot of audiovisual marketing materials.
Task - At the beginning of the year, I received a budget and a list of projects. I had to figure out how to complete every project on the list within budget.
Action - I held a meeting with the IT department to discuss tech solutions that might save money. I then discussed the situation with my marketing team. I sent cross-departmental communications calibrating the tech solutions with the team’s talents.
Result - Under my leadership, we completed 15 audiovisual projects under budget in 2015. The projects covered a range of initiatives, but three also helped increase sales by 10%.
Okay, great start! But how do you know which achievements will impress the hiring manager the most?
The tell me about yourself interview question gives you the opportunity to show the interviewer you’re on the same page. If you do a little bit of research, you can prioritize your achievements.
That’s why you’ll want to research the company. Go online. Check out the company’s website, social media profiles, blog, and recent media mentions.
Do you get a sense of what the company finds valuable?
You can also go to LinkedIn and have a look at people who have a similar job title as the one on your job description. What kind of achievements do they list?
Now, go back to your master list. Do any of the achievements you circled match company values? Are they common accomplishments listed by professionals on LinkedIn?
Yes? Then select the top two to mention as part of your answer.
Pro Tip: Don’t start your answer by asking, “Well, what do you want to know?”
Some of you might say that’s not true. You’ve asked for clarification before, and it was okay. But it’s risky.
As mentioned above, part of what the hiring manager is trying to find out is if you can answer questions on the fly.
Want more examples of professional achievements? These examples aren't just for resumes. Read our guide: "Achievements to Put on a Resume - Complete Guide (+30 Examples)"
How to Respond With the Perfect Three-part Tell Me About Yourself Answer
Your response should only last a couple of minutes. It’s not the time for a Shakespearean monolog or a recitation of your resume.
Give the interviewer a taste of the good stuff right away. Who are you as a professional and what are you doing right now?
I am a professional tiger wrestler. I wrestled the biggest Siberian Tigers for the opening act at the Awesome and Dangerous Circus.
And don’t be modest. You wrestled tigers. Big tigers. Big dangerous tigers. So, don’t say that you cuddle kittens.
I am a tiger wrestler. That means that I take big cats and I sort of get on their backs. Then when I get on their backs, I have this technique where I grab their fur. When I grab their fur, it gives them a signal. It’s not a cuddly signal, but an Alpha Male signal, you know what I mean? Then I do this other technique...
Your tell me about yourself answer should be a brief elevator pitch of your professional self. Like your resume summary.
Part One - Your Professional Persona
I am a Copywriter with 5+ years of experience working for large advertising companies. I’ve worked with clients including Pfizer, Coca-Cola, and Johnson & Johnson.
It’s good to tell the hiring manager how long you’ve been working and for whom. At this point, it’s also not a bad idea to name drop if you can. Of course, never mention confidential clients.
Part Two - What Makes you Stand Out (2-4 points)
Here’s where your achievements and past success stories come into play. Use the examples you’ve come up with to illustrate the skills and value you’ll bring to the position.
Don’t forget to use the STAR approach when answering the tell me about yourself interview question.
I am highly dedicated and ambitious. Every time I start a new campaign, I aim to win an award or nomination. Of course, my ultimate goal is to please the client. But the fact that I aim high has resulted in at least 20 industry awards and nominations.
For example, I once led a project for a client who was sure that he didn’t want to add digital media to his campaign budget. He wasn’t behind the times, but he was sure that his client-base was. My Creative Director asked that I get the client on board. So, I created some samples, and I put together a presentation. I set out to show the client that he was missing an entire demographic of untapped customers.
He was sold. He added digital media to his campaign budget making my boss happy. The work I put into the digital campaign to impress the client was above and beyond what we normally do. The result was two Cannes Lions awards.
Situation - Client didn’t want digital.
Task- Get the client to add digital to his budget.
Action - Went above and beyond to create samples and a presentation for the client.
Result- Client decided to add digital to his budget and the work won two awards.
- Here you will want to tailor your tell me about yourself answer to the job and the company. Which of your achievements will match those listed in the job description?
Part Three - Why You’re Going to Fit
It’s here that you’ll want to stress that the position is in line with your plans and career goals. It’s also a good idea to make it sound like you’re interested in staying on for awhile.
While I enjoyed my previous work, it was commercial. It’s a dream of mine to do work for nonprofit clients. Your company has done some amazing work for nonprofit and NGO clients and I’d love to switch gears. That’s why I applied for this position.
The candidate has done their homework and is familiar with the company. Plus, the hiring manager knows it won’t bore the candidate to switch environments. This is how you answer the tell me about yourself interview question.
The story of your life.
Well, I was born a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Get it? Nah, I was born in 1990. In Michigan. When I was a child, my mom said I ate so much that she couldn’t buy me clothes that fit. I was a toddler with a Britney Spears midriff through the end of the 90’s. That’s how I got competitive. The other kids used to pick on me, so I got superb at coming up with comebacks. Now, I’m a great writer. I’m highly competitive. And I’m a winner.
Don’t do it. It’s not smart. You’re at a job interview.
Okay, you've aced your interview. But what's next? You need to send a thank you email. Here's how to write one: "How to Write a Thank You Email After an Interview (+10 Examples)"
BONUS: Struggling with job interview anxiety? We've got you covered. Download our FREE ultimate checklist Things You Need To Do Before, During, And After Your Big Interview and make sure you come out on top.
The last step is to rehearse your answers. Don’t waste a lot of time memorizing them. Remember, you don’t want to sound like C3PO.
Once you’ve done that, you’re sure to deliver a satisfactory response to the tell me about yourself interview question.
Everyone gets nervous during interviews.But now you know how to tell the hiring manager about yourself. And now, you’ll never have to dread the initial request again.
Still not sure what to say about your professional life during an interview? We can help! Leave a comment and we will help you find out how best to introduce yourself during an interivew.