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There are some questions we expect to be asked in a job interview, such as why we want the job. We might also be asked to go into detail about our past work experience and what we would bring to the new role, as well as our plans for the future.
In addition, potential employers often want to find out more about our hobbies and interests too. This can mean revealing more about ourselves and giving interviewers a small snapshot into our personal lives, which can be a little unnerving.
So how should you answer the dreaded "tell me about yourself" question — and why do employers want to know? And perhaps most importantly, how much personal information should you provide?
“In today’s job market, it isn’t just about recruiting a professional with the right skill set. More companies are using chemistry-style interviewing to ensure they find professionals who share the company’s values,” says Emma Louise O'Brien, head of career coaching at Renovo, an outplacement provider supporting employers and employees through redundancy.
“Employers are using these interview formats as a way of matching employees to a role to maximise strengths and to ensure there is a fit with the company culture.”
This style of interview may form part of a pre-screen interview or final stage of the decision-making process, O’Brien explains. “The hiring manager or recruiter is trying to get a sense of who you are in a short space of time. The questions are open and may also be non-work related. For example, what do you like to do in your spare time? Do you prefer to start or finish a project? How do you motivate yourself?” she says.
Jane Ferré, an executive career coach, says the "tell me about yourself" question is a popular way to open an interview and to get the candidate relaxed and talking. “Poor interviewers will arrive in a fluster and asking this question will give them a chance to catch their breath,” she says. “This is a useful question for the interviewer to ask as they are able to pick up on points that can be explored further in the interview.”
However, it’s not simply a time to focus on your hobbies and interests but a chance to position yourself as an ideal candidate for the role from the start, Ferré says.
“My advice would be to always keep it professional,” she adds. “There is a fine line between finding some commonality on which interviewer and candidate can bond, but don't feel that you have to reveal too much personal information which may impact on you being offered the job. You should amend your answer to focus on what you know the interviewer is looking for and select your most relevant examples to match these needs.”
When asked about yourself and your interests, it’s easy for the nerves to kick in. Even the most confident candidates can feel anxious in a job interview, which can lead people to babble. However, it’s important not to divulge too much information or to go off on a tangent.
“Choose two or three interests that energise you and expect follow up questions,” says O’Brien. “We are seeing more interview questions about how you used your time during lockdown.”
Honesty is usually a good policy, but rather than talking about cocktails and Zoom quizzes, it might be better to think about any skills you developed during lockdown.
“Think about how you would respond to that in advance,” O’Brien says. “Were you home-schooling? If so, did you improve your communication skills? Were you doing some DIY that improved your project management skills? Or did you improve your technical skills through the use of remote technology?”
However, you will still need to give an authentic response. An employer should also appreciate that lockdown was a difficult time for many and that not everyone was able to learn a new language or earn a qualification.
“Thinking about your response in advance will ensure you are confident in your delivery. No more than four or five minutes and clarify whether they want you to talk about your professional experience or more about you and your interests,” says O’Brien. “Some companies ask that question and are looking for a five-minute summary of your career to date and how that matches the role they are recruiting for.”
And remember, it’s important to avoid giving any information that could lead to discrimination. Although it is illegal, unscrupulous employers may still use some information against you.
“You don’t need to state if you are married, your religion, how old you are, or if you have children,” says O’Brien. “It shouldn’t happen but some companies may have preconceived ideas about the ‘ideal’ candidate and shouldn’t ask these questions in an interview. It is a two-way process, it has to be the right fit for you as the candidate, too.”