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The most vital interview question - and how to answer it

Young woman doing a job interview in the office and talking with client
The most difficult interview questions are often open ended. (Source: Getty) (Kerkez via Getty Images)

If the predictions of many are correct and Australia is about to witness ‘The Great Resignation’, which would involve a significant percentage of the population changing jobs in the coming months, then job interviews will be a major focus for many in 2022.

There are many words of advice out there on how to ace your interview, like this article from leading global recruitment specialists Robert Walters, but often the most difficult questions to answer are those that are open ended and potentially non-work related.


One such question is: “Tell me about yourself”.

In the 20 years I spent working in the recruitment industry prior to journalism, this question stumped more people I found jobs for than any other.

It’s very difficult to know what the interviewer is trying to ascertain in this question. Do they want to know about your employment achievements or your life outside of work? If it’s the latter, what’s OK to mention and what isn’t?

Keep it Professional

The best way to approach this question is to see it as coming with an unspoken addendum: “... as it’s relevant to this role and company”.

If you treat it this way, you’ll keep it professional and focus your answer on your work history and achievements, which is the safest bet.

It’s possible the person sat across from you wants to know more about you outside of work – Australians are a social bunch after all – but it’s best not to go there initially.

If the interviewer wants to know about your outside interests, they will follow up with an additional question.

A man gestures while speaking to a woman in what appears to be an interview setting.
Try to be confident but succinct in your answers. (Source: Getty) (fizkes via Getty Images)

Be Succinct

There are no set guidelines on how long an answer to an interview question should be (it depends on the question really).

However, keeping your answers under two minutes in length would be our advice, even with open-ended questions such as the one above.

One thing you definitely should not do when answering this question is regurgitate every single detail of your career. The company has your resume already at this point, so stick to highlighting key achievements from the past few years.

Another good tip is to try to read the room. If the person or people interviewing you look distracted or bored during your answer (it happens), bring the answer to a close gently.

Know your audience

One tip that will help you understand your audience is doing your research on the person before you meet with them.

Most people who are at a level requiring them to interview or manage staff will have a Linkedin profile these days. By spending a few minutes reviewing your interviewer’s profile prior to meeting them, you’ll gain an understanding of their background.

The sort of things to take note of are how long they have been with the company, what role they perform and possibly even where they went to school.

You may find you have some mutual contacts or things in common, which will make small talk easier in the interview.

Bear all this in mind when answering the question, crafting your response around what the person opposite might like to hear.

Make your answer relevant to the role

The final thing to consider when answering the question, “Tell me about yourself” is to tailor your response around the role you are interviewing for.

If you are applying for an accounting position for instance, emphasise your recent experience in this area, as well as any achievements you have accomplished in that field.

Using the accounting example, one response may include that you produced profit and loss statements for a previous employer and, as a result, management were better informed of the financial position of their organisation.

Every role is different and you will instinctively know what to emphasise about your background once you have this mindset. Remember, you are an expert in your field.

Finally, try to make your answer relevant, not just for the role but also the company. If the organisation is a retailer, for example, ensure that you mention any experience you have in this sector.

If you haven’t worked in the sector before, you could drop in that you are aware of their brand, or have purchased their products in the past (but only if that’s true).

With a little forethought and preparation, answering open-ended questions about yourself doesn’t have to be the nerve-wracking experience it might have been.

If you are looking for that new job in 2022, these sorts of questions are likely to be asked of you, often as an ice-breaker at the start of the interview. Knowing how to answer them will give you the confidence to excel.

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