“Tell me about yourself” is the most important interview question and the one that strikes the greatest fear into the hearts of jobseekers. When I coach my clients on interviewing, I start each session by asking which interview questions they need help with. Almost everyone answers, “Tell me about yourself.”

What is the purpose of “Tell me about yourself”?

The purpose of “Tell me about yourself” is to understand who you are professionally, to learn whether you’re qualified for the job, and to get a sense of how interested you are in the position.

How should you respond?

Here’s the secret to responding: Answer as if your entire interview is one or two minutes long.

Imagine that you’re invited for a job interview that will be no more than two minutes long. How are you going to convince the employer in this short time to hire you? You can do this by discussing the most important things about you as related to the position. These are:

1. How you meet the core job requirements (such as number of years of experience, critical technical skills, and education)
2. One or two key accomplishments
3. Why you’re interested in this position and/or how you may be able to contribute to the department or company

An example

Let’s say you’re interviewing for a position as a content writer at a healthcare startup. Here is the job description:

Responsibilities and Requirements
* You’ll develop content for our website, blog, press releases, advertising, and social media.
* You’ll ensure that our brand style and voice are consistently communicated across all channels.
* You have 3-5 years of writing experience, with some expertise in healthcare.
* You have a bachelor’s degree in journalism, English, or creative writing.
* You have a passion for working in a startup environment.

Here’s an example of how you can respond to “Tell me about yourself.”

“I’m excited to be here because this position seems like a great fit with my background, skills, and career goals.

I graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s in English and a minor in journalism. Since then, I’ve worked as a content writer for four years. Two of those years I worked in the marketing department of a hospital and two of those years I worked for a tech startup. I have extensive experience writing blogs, press releases, ads, and social media content.

One of the accomplishments I’m most proud of is developing a 75-page style guide for the hospital. This style guide was implemented by all communications departments in the hospital and resulted in a uniform style and voice across our media. The VP of Communications was so pleased with the improvements in our marketing materials that she recognized me in our hospitalwide newsletter.

I’ve really enjoyed both working in healthcare and working for a startup, so this position would be an exciting opportunity to do both! I also look forward to applying my writing expertise to create content that brings awareness of your products to thousands of potential customers.”

Ace your answer

When you’re preparing for your next interview, jot down how you meet the core job requirements, one or two relevant accomplishments, and why you’re interested in this position or how you hope to contribute. Practice your response a few times, until it feels smooth and natural. Then you’ll feel well prepared and confident the next time an interviewer says, “Tell me about yourself”!

Debra Rosenfeld, MA, LMFT, is a career coach who helps you get the job you want quickly. One two-hour interview coaching session (in person or by phone) will help you ace your next interview.