"Tell me about yourself." It's a question that most interviewers use and most interviewees dread.
How do you respond? Do you sum up your essence in a few pity comments? Run down the high points of your resume? Talk about how much you want to work for that company, or how you're a "real team player"?
In short, is there a right answer to this question?
To find it, go back to why employers ask this question in the first place. They're not looking for a recitation of your resume - they've already got that sitting in front of them.
What do they want? Try asking them.
CLARIFY THE QUESTION
"I would want to hear a clarifying question back from the candidate asking me what it is that I'm specifically interested in knowing, so that they can respond with a relevant answer," says Jamie Cirrito, Director - National Recruiting Center at Kforce Professional Staffing.
Different firms could be looking for different information. Someone interviewing you for a more technical position might want to hear about your specific skill set. If you're angling for a sales job, they may be looking for your success stories or positive attitude.
"The answer should be geared toward the unique value you have for the position you are interviewing for," says C.A. "Buzz" Smith, Vice President - Consulting Services at Outsourcing Partners Inc. "Avoid reading it from your resume, but expand on those values not in your resume. Keep it under 30 seconds."
Ra'sha Harris, Owner of Lady Aya Productions, agrees. "I would be more interested in hearing their personal goals as well as what experiences have shaped them as a person. There is much more to an employee than just giving the 'right answers'. With the job market becoming increasingly slim, the character of the employee matters even more."
And what's the best way to briefly convey your character or unique value? A well-chosen story.
CHOOSE THE STORY
The right story at the right time can tell an employer so much more than a resume can. It lets them see not only who you are, but also how well you communicate.
"I want to know the level of communication skills of the candidate - how he can present himself, how creative he can be describing himself, and how he can formulate sentences," says Zuzana Chomistekova, Recruitment Account Manager for IBM.
How do you pick the story that shows you off at your best? Start with the requirements of the job. If it calls for initiative, think of a time in your life (preferably your work life) when you solved a problem by taking initiative. If it calls for teamwork, recount a teamwork anecdote.
Stories have the advantage of demonstrating, rather than describing your character. They show your values in action. It's much more impactful to tell a story about a time you came through for a coworker than it is to say, "I'm a trustworthy guy who...blah blah blah."
The best stories to tell at a job interview are ones that highlight your problem-solving ability. After all, that's why you're being considered - to solve a problem, to fill a need that the company has.
"I will be listening (and noticing body language, eye contact, etc.) to see if you can relate what you have done in your past experiences to the position you are interviewing for - essentially stating why you are more qualified for this position than any other applicant," says PJ Kiernan, Recruiter at Kforce Professional Staffing. "[It's about] setting yourself apart from the rest of the group and making you the right match for the job."
To accomplish this goal, keep your story short and sweet. Make sure your anecdote follows the basic form of situation-problem-resolution.
If your story has a strong emotion at the heart of it, so much the better. You'll come off as being more engaged when you connect to that emotion in the retelling, and the recruiter will find their own emotions touched by the story.
And that, ultimately, will give your job hunt saga a happy ending.