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Whether you are interviewing for your dream job, or as part of your application to get into graduate school, you will likely hear the question, “Tell me about yourself.” Amazingly this is one of the questions people struggle with most. There is no excuse for hesitation when answering this question — it is usually the first question asked, and it can make or break the meeting. Fortunately this is an easy question to prepare for.

Why is it so hard to think of a good answer? Because it can feel uncomfortable to put ourselves in the spotlight, brag, or call attention to ourselves. But in this instance, it is all about YOU.

Take the time to practice an elevator pitch, and practice it with people who will give you feedback. It shouldn’t sound overly rehearsed. Have a list of bullet points so you don’t memorize paragraphs.

When someone says, “Tell me about yourself”, hemming and hawing should not be included in the response. Yes, it is a vague and broad question, but do not respond with, “What would you like to know?” You should expect this question and you need to answer with confidence. This is the best way to kick off the interview in the right direction.

Talk about yourself in terms of your skills, experiences, leadership roles and why you are a good fit for their program or job. You also want to convey that you are a team player and a hard worker – someone they would be happy to work with, teach or supervise. Your answer should be clear and succinct and no more than 20-30 seconds. If they want more information, they will ask.

One of the biggest mistakes candidates make is to focus on a topic they feel they need to explain away. For example, a bad grade in a class, a poor test score, or a gap in the educational or work history. Remember this: no one would waste their time bringing you in for an interview if they felt you didn’t have potential. If you call attention to something they weren’t worried about, you may inadvertently make them worry, and you will not exude confidence. Stay positive and focus on your past accomplishments and the positive contributions you will make, and your interview will go smoothly. Your goal is to keep the conversation going in a positive manner.

About the author
Marc Zawel

As author of Untangling the Ivy League, Marc literally wrote the book on gaining admission to highly selective colleges. He earned a BA from Cornell University – where he met AcceptU’s co-founder – and an MBA from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Marc chaired the admissions advisory board; he has also conducted alumni interviews for Cornell for more than fifteen years.

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