Describe yourself

Interviews can be a nerve-racking experience for candidates of all ages and experience levels. After all, there can be a lot riding on the outcome, so it’s important to get it right and be prepared.

One recurring problem area is how to describe yourself at a job interview. This is a task that comes up time after time and can throw candidates off track just as frequently.

Luckily, we’ve put together this handy step-by-step guide to help you handle the pressure and ensure your CV remains at the top of the pile. 


The “tell me about yourself” interview question


One of the standard-issue questions any candidate can expect to hear from their interviewer is the seemingly ever-present line, “tell me about yourself”. Open-ended and deliberately vague, this single utterance can stop any momentum dead in its tracks, crippling any caffeinated confidence you may have gained from that pre-interview coffee. 

However, if you do stumble at this early hurdle, this isn’t a cue for you to exit stage left, abandon ship or drive off the edge of a cliff “Thelma & Louise” style – get a hold of yourself! This is the perfect opportunity to get your interview off to a flying start – if you know how to handle it.


Keep it professional


“So, tell me about yourself…”

While it might be tempting to unleash a verbal recitation of your Tinder profile, it’s important to remember that your interviewer is, in all likelihood, referring to your professional history – so keep the weekend references and pub tales to a minimum.

This does, however, provide the perfect window to shed some light on your previous employment and career achievements thus far. Sell yourself, don’t be modest and be proud of your professional accomplishments: this is the ideal opportunity to tell your would-be employer exactly why YOU are the one for job.


A strong opening


Knowing where to begin can make or break an interview; start off on the wrong path and you could quickly wind up off the beaten track, in the middle of nowhere. Irrelevant ramblings have no place here.

To get the ball rolling, try opening with a notable fact about your work ethic. This is a fool-proof way to get this verbal personal statement off the ground, while it’s also a great line to segue seamlessly into your work history.


Relating your experience to the role


When recounting your previous roles, be sure to include career details that will impress, such as notable achievements and positions of responsibility you may have earned. Facts and figures can provide helpful support, so don’t be afraid to include a stat or two to back up your claims.

Give examples of how you have contributed and made a difference, relating these experiences back to the job you are pursuing. This shows that you understand the role being offered and have the proven ability to excel in that position.


Putting it all together


So, you have the blueprint in mind, now to put it into practice. Luckily, this process can be a lot easier than you may think.

For a salesperson, this could sound something like:

“I truly excel when I’m selling a product I believe in. During my three years as Head of Sales at Chocolate Teapots Ltd, sales of chocolate teapots increased by 40%. Prior to that, I was consistently top salesperson in my team at Inflatable Dartboards Inc, regularly outselling my peers by as much as 180%. I’m really impressed by the products you have and your new ice fireguard is an exciting concept. I’m confident I could use my skills and experience to significantly boost sales of such a great product.”

While the products in that example may have a few minor design flaws, the fact remains: a solid opening line, backed by career facts/stats that are related back to the job at hand can make a great first impression, setting you up for a positive dialogue to follow.


What makes you unique

The “what makes you unique” interview question


Another hallmark of many interviews is the equally bewildering query of “what makes you unique?” An ace up the sleeve for any employer looking to weed out the unsuitable, this question is a common stumbling block for many candidates and can cause even the coolest of heads to feel hot under the collar.

Nevertheless, as the old saying goes, the best defence is a good offence, so be prepared to come out fighting with a great response. “How so?” we hear you ask – read on…

While, on the surface, this very statement can seem somewhat belittling (particularly depending on the tone it’s said/read in), it’s actually a very valid question. Among all the other candidates being considered for the role, just what does make you stand out from the crowd?

Now, to be clear, this isn’t an opportunity to break out a party trick or unveil an ill-advised tattoo (although both of those options would surely qualify as memorable); it’s actually the point of the interview where you can explain, in no uncertain terms, why you’re the top prospect.

Digest the job description and reacquaint yourself with exactly why you applied for the role in the first place. Pinpoint what you bring to the table and why your skills match the task at hand. Again, this is another great point to revisit your past achievements and back up your claims with real-life examples.

Try to highlight your overall compatibility with the role and how your talents can help benefit the company. Simply put, let your interviewer know that, not only are you worth employing, they can’t afford to let you go elsewhere.


The “describe yourself” interview question


As we’ve seen above, interviewers love to hear their interviewees present a verbal personal profile. Not only is it a good way to gauge confidence, it’s also an effective method of testing inaccuracies on a CV. Best of all, it allows the employer a chance to hear a candidate’s own self-assessment, straight from the source.

Another variation on this is the “describe yourself” task. Depending on the industry and the job you are applying for, this is a great opportunity to insert a few choice buzzwords that fit the bill. It may be worth revisiting the original job ad for inspiration; from there you can easily hone in on standout phrases that are integral to the position and relate them back to your own experiences.

Words like “reliable”, “productive” and “flexible” can be music to the ears of an interviewer, conveying a candidate that isn’t afraid of work and can be trusted to get a job done when it needs doing.

Similarly, terms like “professional” and “conscientious” imply that you conduct yourself in a positive manner befitting the workplace, while also painting you as someone that takes pride in their work and will represent a company well.

Additional terms, such as “co-operative”, “friendly” and “sociable” can also serve you well, indicating that you are a team player who can transition well into a team environment. Naturally, these phrases can be particularly useful if you’re applying for a job that involves working closely with others.

However you choose to label yourself, it’s important to remember that there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance; tripping over that line could land you in hot water and quickly turn your interview into a damp squib. Hyperbole and superlatives can backfire dramatically, so use sparingly and only when you can back it up.


Writing

Interview mistakes


Many of the questions and answers above are widely interchangeable, so you should never be at a loss for words. Whichever question your interviewer throws your way, nothing screams “indifference” quite like “I don’t know”, so avoid these fatal three words at all costs. Think of it as the professional equivalent of calling a first date by your ex’s name – it’s an instant turn-off and the chances of a call-back are slim to none.

On the other end of the scale, dishonesty is another interview faux-pas that’s high up on the list. Confidently selling your skills is one thing – fraudulently exaggerating your ability to the point of fiction is another entirely. Lying to your interviewer is inevitably setting yourself up for failure and embarrassment, whether it’s later on in that conversation or further on down the line. 

Finally, it’s also widely agreed that cliché answers are an instant eye-roller at interview. Even if you really are a “team player” that “thinks outside the box”, it may be worth keeping idioms and worn-out phrases at arm’s length. 

That being said, if it means avoiding the dreaded “I don’t know”, don’t be afraid to grab the low-hanging fruit and push the envelope with the odd phrase, if it helps your cause.

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You're Hired

There are lots of questions that put you on the spot in an interview, but ‘tell me about a time’ interview questions can be particularly challenging because they’re behavioural questions. This means that the interviewer is trying to gauge how you behave when faced with a particular type of situation.

Some examples of common ‘tell me about a time’ interview questions include:

  • Tell me about a time you were faced with a difficult situation. How did you overcome it?
  • Tell me about a time you made a mistake. How did you learn from it?
  • Tell me about a time you had to work outside of your comfort zone.

There are three easy steps to follow to make sure you provide a well-rounded answer to a ‘tell me about a time when’ interview question. More than likely, you will need to answer this question with a brief story - a story that should loosely follow this format:

  • Explain the context of the story – Explain the difficult situation, mistake or task that you were faced with. This should be highly relevant to the question. You should think carefully about what is and isn’t appropriate to tell the interviewer before you go into the interview.

  • Explain what you did – Your response to the difficult situation, mistake or task is what the interviewer is most interested in. Make sure you have thought carefully about how you word this portion of your answer, and take your time while relaying it in the interview.

  • Explain why you did it – Explaining why you responded in the way you did gives the interviewer an insight into your thought process.

Here's an example:

Question: Tell me about a time when you were behind schedule. Why were you behind schedule, and what did you do to catch up?

Answer: When I was at university, I was behind schedule for one of my assignments because I had been off sick for a week. This meant that I had missed a couple of my lectures and needed to catch up to make sure I knew all the relevant information to complete the assignment.

I decided to spend a few extra hours at the library when I started to feel better - luckily all of the lecture materials I needed were available online. I decided to do this rather than pestering my course mates because I knew they would all be busy getting their own assignments finished!

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So you've applied for a job and secured an interview - congratulations! Now it's time to prepare for the interview process that will determine whether or not you actually get the job.

Though that may sound a little intimidating, if you can avoid these common job interview mistakes, it should all be plain sailing:

1) Forgetting to research the company

This mistake is the mark of an amateur interviewee. You know the job description off by heart, you know you're the perfect match for the role, but you don't know a thing about the company itself.

It may not matter to you what kind of organisation it is, but it'll matter to your employer. If you don't know the company values or their aim, how can they know whether you'll work to achieve their vision?

Be sure to conduct plenty of research prior to your interview. Learn about the company history, what they're working to achieve, and how you will fit into their team.

2) Not dressing appropriately

Even if your interview invitation said to dress casual, this does not mean wearing your favourite hoodie and torn jeans. Not making a good first impression may be a mistake that you cannot rectify no matter how well you actually perform in the interview.

Apparently, 6 minutes and 25 seconds is how long it takes for an interviewer to make up their mind about a candidate. So if you wear somewhat questionable clothing, you don't want the employer to spend those six minutes wondering about your dress sense instead of listening to your responses to their questions.

3) Failing to make yourself available during work hours

If you are in the process of leaving your current job, it can undoubtedly be difficult to find time for interviews. However, it's important to keep in mind that your potential new employer probably also works during usual office hours. Suggesting they stay late to interview you or do it on the weekend can be a major faux pas.

The best way to avoid this is to try and take your annual leave on the days you've been asked to an interview. If this is not possible, ask the potential employer if they would be happy to conduct a phone interview during your lunch break instead.

It's important to show your potential employer that you're willing to go out of your way for them.

4) Speaking negatively about a previous employer

Even if you didn't have the best time at your last company, a job interview is not the time to discuss this.

Though you may want to be honest when asked 'why are you leaving your current job?' or 'why did you leave your last job?', you should always try to stay positive. For example, if you left due to personal reasons, just say 'I did not feel like it was the right company for me' rather than airing your personal views.

5) Showing off

Yes, the employer wants to know about your experience but they don't need to hear that you single-handedly saved the company from almost certain doom. Egotistical remarks will do nothing but leave a bad taste in your interviewer's mouth. Remember, they already have a lot of information about you thanks to your CV.

If you did achieve something notable at your last job then by all means mention it, but only do so if it comes up naturally. Randomly interjecting a brag into a normal question is a job interview mistake that's best avoided.

To see more things that could put off a potential employer, check out this Buzzfeed article:

10 Things That Turn Employers Off

Are you looking for a new job? We specialise in recruitment here at HRS, specifically in science/technology sectors. View our latest vacancies here.

See also: Why Didn't I Get the Job?