Job interviews can be intimidating, whether you’re aiming for an internship or your first job. Prior to your interview, ideally, you’ve already done your research on the company, made note of questions you have about your future role, and now, you’re ready to put your best foot forward. But no matter how prepared and qualified you are, imposter syndrome can easily kick in. What interview questions will the hiring manager ask? What if you get caught off guard, and can’t come up with an answer? Fortunately, there are many ways to prepare for interviews, and there is one popular question you’re almost guaranteed to be asked. You guessed it: The dreaded “tell me about yourself” interview question is back.
Picture this: You’re interviewing on Zoom for your dream job, and almost immediately, the hiring manager asks, “Why don’t you start by telling me a bit about yourself?” Suddenly, you’ve forgotten how language works. Do you give them your entire life story? What skills and experiences do you highlight, and which do you keep to yourself? How long can you talk without sounding like Andy in The Devil Wears Prada when she meets Miranda Priestly for the first time? First thing’s first: Take a deep breath. There are a few things to know about this question before you start chattering about the summer camp you attended at age five. Here’s how to approach the “tell me about yourself” interview question, according to hiring managers.
If you’re interviewing for your first job, don’t panic.
Usually, this popular interview question is simply a test. Your interviewer genuinely wants to get to know you, so although it certainly matters what you say, it’s equally important how you handle the question! Do you instantly start rambling about yourself until everyone’s eyes glaze over, or are you communicating your career story concisely with confidence? If HR asks this question right off the bat, it’s a surefire way for them to get an initial impression of you, so make it count.
Dr. Jennifer McCluskey, the Vice President for Student Success at Maryville University, tells Her Campus that it’s important to answer confidently. “The ‘tell me about yourself’ question is extremely common and is often asked multiple times throughout the recruitment process,” she says. “If prepared appropriately, answering this question can set the stage for the flow of the rest of the interview, so coming in confident with this answer can be instrumental.”
Dr. McCluskey also reminds students that hiring managers are interviewing a variety of candidates, so standing out is key. “Keep in mind that your interviewer likely reviewed your resume; however, they might be interviewing individuals back-to-back and they likely have lots going on in their world,” she says. “So, this is an opportunity to clarify who you are, and a chance to shine!”
Share your career “origin story.”
Katherine Demby, J.D., a career coach and the Head of Higher Education at Wanderlust Careers, says that the “tell me about yourself” interview question can set the tone for the rest of your interview.
“When an interviewer asks you this question, it’s often an ice breaker,” she says. “They have your resume but they want to hear from you, so they know where to lead off when it comes to questions. They also want to see the person behind the resume, so this is an opportunity to allow aspects of your personality to shine through as you talk about what makes you right for this position.”
Demby recommends identifying your career “story” to give HR a clear picture of who you are. “Consider building an ‘origin story,’” she says. “What sparked your interest in this field and how did that interest develop over time? How has it shaped your career?” Demby says that if you’ve had a winding path to your current industry, or if you changed jobs frequently, you can still weave your story together in a cohesive way. “For instance, let’s say you went to college to study psychology, got into social work, and realized that you could have a greater impact by working in public health,” she says. “Talk about what shifted your interests, and what’s always been the common driver of your interest.”
Follow the “past, present, future” rule.
When a hiring manager says “tell me about yourself,” Demby adds that sticking to a general “past, present, future” rule can help you craft your answer. In other words, share a past experience, describe how it got you to where you are now, and use it as a launch point to talk about your future career goals.
“Research the organization so that you can connect aspects of your experience to their mission or to the particular position,” she says. “Talk about how you got to where you are, what you’re doing now, and what your goals are for the future — this is a great opportunity to talk about why this particular job is such a great fit for your goals.”
Jen Ngozi, MPS, a former Fortune 500 recruiter and the founder of NetWerk®, recommends following a similar three-step formula. “For step one, introduce yourself and your skills confidently,” she says. “Briefly mention your industry of interest, your past experiences, school projects, or campus involvement related to the job.”
Next, Ngozi highlights the value of defining your “why” — AKA your main reason for pursuing the job. “Share an interesting story, epiphany, or what led to your interest in the industry you’re interviewing for,” she says. Finally, she recommends sharing your immediate career goals. “Be sure to end on a positive note!” she reminds students.
If you’re feeling stumped, try this sample answer.
Ngozi recommends using the three-part approach to map out an “answer” before your interview so that you aren’t caught off-guard. She shares her sample answer below:
Recruiter: “So, tell me about yourself, Jen.”
Me: (Step 1) “Absolutely! I’m currently the student body president where I lead initiatives to improve the student experience on campus.
(Step 2) Over the summer, I interned in Management Consulting and became fascinated with helping clients solve their “people” problems. By the end of the internship, I helped two clients get to the bottom of their high turnover and create an actionable plan to fix it.
(Step 3) My internship and role as campus president showed me how much I can make a difference through consulting, and I want to continue doing that after graduation.
This simple, three-part approach can help you feel less overwhelmed in the moment and tackle the “tell me about yourself” prompt with grace.
This internship sample answer can help, too.
If you’re early in your career and don’t have much experience yet, try this sample answer for applying to internships:
“Hi! I’m [name] and I’m applying to the [internship role] to gain more experience in [industry]. I’m currently taking classes about [list relevant coursework], and have always wanted to learn more about [topic]. I’m excited to potentially work at [company] where I can grow my knowledge and skills in [topic area].”
With this answer, you’ll sound confident, professional, and clear on your career goals — even if you’re still exploring what you want to do!
Keep your answer short and sweet.
Maura Quinn, the Assistant Vice President of Campus Recruiting and DEI Programs at Liberty Mutual, recommends keeping your response brief. “Open-ended questions like ‘tell me about yourself’ can throw a candidate off their A-game if they’re not prepared with a brief — no more than 90-second — response,” she says. “Plan to keep information clear, concise, relevant, and to let your personality shine. Your energy and enthusiasm can be just as valuable as your experience in this situation.”
Demby agrees. “You don’t want your answer to be too long — try to answer in less than two minutes, this way you’ll leave room for questions and clarifications,” she says. “Anecdotes only need to be one to two sentences long.”
Don’t be afraid to add a personal touch.
Diane Cook, an HR and Recruiting Specialist at Resume Seed, recommends adding a personal note to your response after you’ve shared your professional goals. “Part of the interview is to ensure you’re a good culture fit for the role and company as well as relatable, on some level,” she tells Her Campus. “Your next [response] should be about you as an individual — this could be about hobbies, sports, or fun facts.” In Cook’s experiences, some of the best interviews have occurred when the candidate shared something personal — whether it was about their dog, favorite football team, or something unique about their hometown.
As a college student, it’s crucial to highlight your strengths & mention what sets you apart.
If you’re a student interviewing for your first internship or job, it can feel daunting to talk about your past experiences – especially if you don’t have a ton of them (yet)! Luckily, there are many things you can focus on to highlight your strengths and make yourself memorable.
“As a current student or recent grad, you can focus on why you chose your major or the skills you’ve developed which will help you be successful in the role you’re interviewing for,” says Quinn. “Highlight a few key accomplishments like an internship, a second language, or a part-time role that’s helping you pay tuition. You can also use this as an opportunity to share more about personal interests or hobbies that a recruiter wouldn’t know from looking at your resume and that might relate to the culture of the company.”
Remember, you don’t have to have it all figured out.
Whether you’re early in your career and simply need a summer internship or you’re applying for your first job after graduation, the “tell me about yourself” question will likely set the tone for your interview experience. Be sure to take a deep breath and be confident in yourself — hiring managers know that you’re growing, learning, and figuring out your path! You don’t have to have everything perfectly figured out right away. Use the above tips the next time you’re prepping for an interview, and remember: any job or internship will be lucky to have you! You got this.
Dr. Jennifer McCluskey, Vice President for Student Success at Maryville University
Katherine Demby, J.D., Head of Higher Education at Wanderlust Careers
Maura Quinn, Assistant Vice President of Campus Recruiting & DEI Programs at Liberty Mutual
Diane Cook, HR & Recruiting Specialist, ResumeSeed