The one job interview question you can't afford to get wrong

Stumbling over the answer to this interview question is not a good look on a job candidate.

If there's one interview question you don't want to stumble on in a job interview, this is the one.

Updated 19 December 2018.

By Jarrod Cardy

“Can you tell us a little about yourself?” might seem like an easy question to answer. Yet your reply to it could set the tone for the rest of the job interview.

According to recruitment consultancy group Michael Page, this eight-word question is one of the most asked by employers in a job interview. Other top performers include “Why do you want to work here?” and “What are your key strengths?”

Preparation is key to answering the “tell us” question. Usually posed at the start of an interview, stumbling over the answer is not a good look for a candidate. So practice your response. Then practice some more.

Below are 5 tips on how to prepare for the question.

What they really want to know in the job interview

There are two main reasons an interviewer will ask the question – the first is to try and lighten the mood and the second is to get a sense of the person being interviewed.

The employer will be looking for a confident answer that shows why the applicant is interested in the position and what skills they can bring to the organisation.

“If you can prove yourself, no matter what the job, you will end up getting the job you want by being flexible, having the right attitude and showing an employer what you’re made of,” says Andrew Morris, director of recruitment company Robert Half.

What to say in response

Give a brief summary of how your career has progressed so far and highlight anything that stands out. Use the question as an opportunity to show off any key career achievements, particularly those that relate to the position. Avoid running through your resume from start to finish as the interviewer is likely to have a copy in front of them.

When answering the question, remain engaged with the interviewer, maintain eye contact and remember to smile. If the hirer likes what is being said, it could set the tone for a successful interview. 

“It’s important to remember that employment is a two-way street. Job seekers need to think about what they are going to contribute to the organisation, not just what they are going to get out of it,” Justin Naylor CPA, Finance and Operations Manager at Melbourne-based METIER3, told

Keep your answer limited to business

Avoid answering the question too personally; instead, focus on business achievements. If the hirer wants to know anything more, they’ll ask later in the interview. 

When responding, don’t try to be someone you’re not and don’t overthink the answer.

The shorter the response, the better

For many job positions, there will be at least two interviews that last around half an hour each, so keep the answer short. There will be plenty of time to expand on anything the interviewer would like to hear more about. 

Also keep the answer friendly because the last thing any potential employee will want to do is come across as defensive or negative. Leave the employer wanting to know more, not less.

Be confident, not arrogant

A job interview is one of the few times a person is given the chance to sell themselves. Be confident but remember to do it in a way that doesn’t come across as arrogant or obnoxious. 

Confidence and arrogance are very different (one is inspiring, the other off-putting), so focus on key strengths but avoid sounding as if you think you walk on water.

Read next: 5 ways to cut through the online job market

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