There are a couple questions that everyone dreads in an interview.
“What is your greatest weakness?” “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and “Tell me about yourself.” It’s the default question (and the first) in most interviews, and to many candidates, it can feel like a trap.
So we spoke with executive headhunters and career coaches about how best to answer this question. “They want to gauge how the person thinks,” says Eileen Finn, president of executive search firm Eileen Finn & Associates in New York.
Even though there is no one right answer, focusing on the past, the negative, or the too personal can hurt your chances of making it through.
Starting in the present might make you seem like you're not reflective, and starting in the past might seem like you're not really focused on what's happening right now, says Finn, whose firm has a human resources specialty.
A good option, she says, would be to ask your interviewer: 'Where would you like me to start off?'
If they don't tell you, or let you decide, then talk about your previous work experiences and tell them why you've chosen the career you're in.
'It's the most annoying answer,' says Nancy Fox, founder of The Business Fox, which helps entrepreneurs and professionals attract top-tier executives. 'You're retaliating and it shows you're not prepared for the interview.
'You also don't want to tell an interviewer you're divorced; you want to tell them something positive, like you're a big believer in giving back to the community.'
'Forget about being a candidate…totally,' says executive headhunter Mark Jaffe of Wyatt & Jaffe.
'Imagine instead that you're a consultant, and that you've already been paid a non-refundable $20,000 consulting fee to attend this meeting. How does that change things?'
Jaffe says this way, you won't worry about selling yourself: 'No posing, no posturing, no tap dancing of any kind.'
'It's a fine line, if you're too wordy you're going to lose them, but if you just give them bullet points without any narrative or conversation then they're going to think you're not self-reflective or self-aware,' says Finn.
Some things Finn says you need to include: Brief details about who you are, things you're passionate about and areas you focus on, and past positive work experiences.
The answer should be short and succinct, never more than five minutes.
A good option, Fox says, is to tell your interviewer you're going to answer the question in three parts: Past career opportunities, positive personal details about yourself (like interests), and strategic details (like what you can offer the company).
'Do a little prep on who's going to interview you,' says Fox. 'What charities are they involved with? What school did they go to?'
'The answer can be different depending on who's going to interview you,' she says.
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