“Tell me about yourself.” It’s a seemingly innocuous request that will come up in pretty much every job interview. But beware — it’s actually a loaded question. While preparing for your next interview, make sure not just to prep answers that put your best foot forward, but also to take detailed inventory of what should not be a topic of conversation.
Even in smaller companies and the most casual workplaces, the golden rule is to keep any interview conversation strictly professional. What may seem like relationship-building on the interviewer’s part could actually be a test. For example, during an interview over a meal, even if the interviewer orders a drink, you should abstain. And, even if they start to open up about their personal lives, don’t take this an invitation to do the same.
Indeed, you never know what someone’s biases may be. You don’t want to offer up something that could be used against you. A lot of the time these are subconscious biases, so you may not pick up on the fact that something you said is working against you. Take control by avoiding the pitfalls outlined below.
Being yourself and working your personal brand is great. Oversharing personal information is not great when prompted, “Tell me about yourself.” In the era of live streaming and documenting our lives on social media, personal-professional lines are more easily blurred. Especially in industries where you leverage your personal brand in your role — like sales. You’ve likely set personal boundaries for what you share online. In that spirit, create personal boundaries for interviews by avoiding these topics:
Letting on that you’re tight on cash can hurt you, especially in the negotiation phase. Talking about your financial goals like paying off debt or saving for a house are also not great topics for the first interview. They can lead to more personal questions and detract from the purpose, which is to talk about how you’re the best candidate for the role.
Also, there is no need to disclose how much you were compensated in previous roles. In nine states it’s now illegal to ask people their current salary, including in Oregon and California. For everyone else, if asked this question, consider this response: “I’m not comfortable sharing, but I look forward to receiving an offer if you find I’m the best fit.” Check out these tips for handling salary-related questions.
Seems obvious, but sometimes we slip personal details into our stories without thinking about it. Perhaps you moved to a new city after a breakup or to get away from family drama. These small details can be big red flags for potential employers who are more focused than ever on building strong company cultures. When you’re asked, “Tell me about yourself,” the interviewer isn’t looking for your personal bio, but rather your professional one.
In 35 states and over 150 municipalities, it’s now illegal to ask about your past or current legal situations because of campaigns like Ban The Box, which aims to reduce the biases that come with conviction and arrest questions. Regardless, you shouldn’t volunteer this information in the interview phase, particularly early on when the interviewer says, “Tell me about yourself.” Other legal situations like lawsuits should not be mentioned either.
If you’re a person of faith, you should feel absolutely safe to express that in the workplace. If you require accommodations for your religion (prayer room, certain dates off, etc.), you would bring this up in the final interview stage. Otherwise, keep the conversation focused on professional achievements.
Being politically engaged is very important. Unless you’re in politics or your primary volunteer experience is related, stay away from discussing your beliefs or affiliations. If you do have professional or volunteer experience, be sure to focus on the outcomes and lessons you learned that can be applied in the role you’re interviewing for, rather than advocating for a politician, party or issue.
Time-consuming hobbies or side-hustles
You may have the best time management skills and/or have completely automated your side hustle. However, bringing up a hobby or gig that sounds like it takes up your time (and your attention) can turn off potential employers. Your response to, “Tell me about yourself,” should highlight past entrepreneurial efforts and/or your entrepreneurial mindset without stealing the spotlight.
While pregnancy or parenthood discrimination is illegal and interviewers can’t ask if you’re in a relationship or have kids, you may still find yourself weaving these personal details into a story or talking about your future. Unfortunately, expressing future family plans can still create red flags, especially for women.
Keep it positive and polite
You look the part and they obviously loved your resume and application, but are you inadvertently making the wrong impression? From negative comments to accidentally-offputting language, stay away from these common mistakes:
Complaints about former workplaces
This includes any gripes about personnel and policies. If you’re asked about why you left a role and it was disagreeable, avoid any negative language or complaining. Answer briefly and pivot by expressing what you hope to get out of your next role.
Also note, any complaining is a bad look — the weather, traffic, etc. You’ll appear to be someone who brings down the energy by focusing on the negative.
“As you can see on my resume.”
You will be asked to talk about things on your resume in greater detail. Saying, “It’s on my resume,” gives the impression that you’re arrogant and don’t know how to articulate your value. When the interviewer says, “Tell me about yourself,” it’s your chance to advocate for yourself where your resume may have failed to get the point across.
“I don’t know…”
If you’re asked for a fact that you truly don’t know, this may be acceptable. However, most questions are going to be about your performance, skills and goals — all things you should have thought about quite a bit before an interview. If you’re not sure because the question is unclear or it’s a scenario-based question, don’t be afraid to ask for clarity.
“I’m open to anything.”
Surely, you’ve got ambition and goals for your career. Even if you feel like you’d do whatever for a paycheck right now, do not express this in an interview. Be clear about what you’re looking for in your next role and your career, in general. You can end up being underpaid or in a position you hate.
After you’ve thoroughly answered, “Tell me about yourself,” you’ll have an opportunity to ask questions about what’s important to you. While these details may influence your ultimate decision, the first interview is not the time to ask these questions. As with any new relationship, you don’t want to come on too strong. The first meeting is about each party checking off certain qualifiers and getting to test the chemistry.
How much vacation and sick leave do you offer?
Your first conversation shouldn’t be about the days you won’t be working! Save this for a second-round interview or email follow-up. Generally, any benefits or compensation details should be discussed much later in the interview process. Many companies are also adding these details to their websites, so be sure to check there first.
Understanding your opportunity for growth is vital, but this is the time to focus on highlighting your achievements. If you have ambitions of rising in the company quickly, you can express that without putting the cart before the horse and asking about how quickly they promote employees.
Would you like to see my references?
You wouldn’t introduce your friends and family on a first date, so don’t offer up your references in the first interview. Let them request your references later on in the process.
Clichés and buzzwords
“Tell me about yourself.” This is your chance to stand out! Don’t get lost in the crowd by stringing together buzzwords or using clichés that aren’t part of your regular vocabulary.
My greatest weakness is actually a strength
Another version of this is, “My greatest weakness is perfectionism.” The question about your greatest weakness is your opportunity to talk about an area of growth you’ve honed in on. Try telling a short anecdote about how you identified the weakness, steps you’ve taken to improve it, and progress you’ve made so far.
I think outside of the box
Buzzwords like “innovative” and “new spin” should also be avoided. Describe your fresh approach and the unique impact it had without using these terms.
Drop this buzzword and talk about how you used data to drive your decision-making. Give them something tangible that paints the picture of you being data-driven without saying it outright.
Jargon and acronyms
Unless you’re 100% sure it’s an industry standard (i.e. marketers know what SEO means), skip the jargon and acronyms. Another exception would be if any of these are part of the company’s mission statement or core values. Just don’t overdo it. The resume is where you plug keywords. Now’s your chance to use storytelling and details to paint the complete picture of what you have to offer.
Other common mistakes
Not asking questions
At the end of the meeting, the interviewer should ask if you have any questions. Unless you want to seem uninterested and unprepared, have a couple of queries at the ready.
Asking questions you should know the answers to
In the information age, this is a big no-no! Make sure your questions aren’t easily answered by reading through the company’s website or news mentions.
Getting off topic or telling irrelevant stories
Sometimes an interview is going so well you may find yourself conversing like you would in a casual conversation — letting ideas go unfinished and making way for tangents. Reign yourself back in and keep it professional!
Like, so, yeah, um… Remember that taking a long pause to gather your thoughts is way better than stumbling through and inserting filler words. Overusing “like” can be especially harmful, as it comes off as immature.
Randomly placed achievements
You may feel the urge to tack on various achievements or certifications when answering a question. Be sure the examples you provide are relevant.
What if I let something slip?
If you catch yourself oversharing or a personal detail slips in, don’t sweat it! Don’t add to your nerves by obsessing over something you said. Notice it, learn from it, and move on. Also, don’t go into the interview focused on what you should avoid. Use this article as a guide while prepping. Then, focus your energy and attention on all the things you do want to include and show off during the interview. You’ll blow them away when they say, “Tell me about yourself.”
Christina Brennan is a Seattle-based comms strategist and presentation coach. She has coached and/or consulted over 200 entrepreneurs on communication strategy and presentation skills through 1:1 sessions, workshops, and online content, and also organizes with the WA Poor People’s Campaign.