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It's the single most common interview question there is--and yet it really isn't a question. It's also a phrase that can come at you unexpectedly, most often when you are thinking about something else. Perhaps you've just shared a cab ride with another conference attendee who happens to be a company CEO--or, you've given the best seminar of your life when one of the attending directors of research turns out to have a significant interest in considering you for a position.

And suddenly, the "question" hits you: "Tell me a little about yourself."

Why It Is a Critical Point in an Interview

This request is an icebreaker. It is an opportunity for the person on the other side of the desk to take a few minutes off--to sit back, listen, and silently determine where to take the interview questioning next. In short, it's an easy out for him or her. But it can be subtly dangerous for you.

That is because there are emotional decisions made in the early part of the interviewing process that are hard to overcome later. A recent article from a Human Resources trade journal pointed out that many hiring managers make up their minds on interviewees in as little as 5 or 10 minutes. This being the case, any opportunity you have in the first few minutes to expound on your strengths or state your case is a good thing. But it can also be a trap, because if you aren't ready for this one, you could shoot yourself in the foot. Your answer plays a crucial role in the successful outcome of your day.

It has always shocked me how many scientists are taken by surprise--instead of considering this request a certainty on interview day and thus preparing for it. Although I've never believed it to be a great way to start an interview, I've requested this of many people because it offers a glimpse into how prepared my candidates really are. Some candidates misinterpret that to mean, "Tell me about your thesis work." Even more scientists misunderstand and believe that I have asked them to "Tell me a considerable amount about yourself."

What the Interviewer Is Really Looking For

When an interviewer asks you to tell her a little about yourself, you are being asked to provide a general framework for discussion. You will set the stage for later questions that will address various aspects of your academic and work life. If you plan properly, this will give you the opportunity to steer the critical opening portion of the interview into an area in which you will do well.

How do you plan for this? I am normally not a great supporter of overpreparation for an interviews. In other words, if you've read anything I've written on the subject, you know that there are no recommendations of books packed full of "Snappy Answers to Tough Interview Questions," etc. My belief is that you need to be aware of what happens during interview day, and that means knowing the direction of probable questions. But it is self-knowledge and confidence that you require, not rehearsed and memorized answers to interview questions.

Except in one area-- this one.

Your Preparation

You need to have with you a 2-minute, 5-minute, and 10-minute response to the request "Tell me about yourself." And those versions need to be ingrained into your presentation skills as well as you know your e-mail address.

As mentioned earlier, this "T.M.A.Y." request will come up often if you even if you aren't formally looking for a job. It certainly isn't relegated only to the interview process. That's why multiple versions are important. In an interview, the hiring manager or H/R person may have a full 10 minutes for you to start the ball rolling. But if you are in the cab with the aforementioned CEO, 2 minutes is tops. (I have found over my career that there are many situations where coincidence will give you a chance to think on your feet--and having already done this thinking in advance comes in very handy.)

A good framework for a T.M.A.Y. response:

1. A brief statement of what you consider yourself to have become at this stage of your life. This is much like the "Qualifications" statement that many people use at the top of a résumé.

2. Detail about your progression to this point with the focus on three elements: A statement of a problem you were given, the approach you took to solving the problem, and the results you achieved. Hit the high points only, and you can go back into more details later. In a 2-minute response, you'll have a chance to touch briefly on only one of these accomplishments. (Choose the most appropriate one for the circumstances, not the one you are most enamored with.)

3. Add a closure, unique to each situation, where you state one solid reason that you'd be a good fit for the company you are meeting with. What is there about the background you've described that makes you uniquely qualified to solve problems for this company?

Brevity is a given in an article about presentations that last precisely 2, 5, or 10 minutes. I didn't think I needed to address this at all until I heard one scientist's 10-minute T.M.A.Y. presentation go on for more than 20 minutes.

Writing and speaking succinctly is more difficult than many people think. That's why I fully expect the 2-minute version to be your most difficult. Abe Lincoln, a master orator, once told an interviewer that he could "write a 20-minute speech in about 2 weeks," but that he would only need 1 week to write a good 40-minute speech. In fact, he said, "I can give a 2-hour talk on almost any subject right now."

Points to Remember

- Always ask the interviewer how much time you have to answer.

- This is the one opportunity you will have to dominate the interview conversation. Use it wisely. Step right up and clearly identify what you consider to be your personal strengths. Don't let that fear of self-promotion zap your chances in these important few minutes!

- When relating an accomplishment, dissect it into its three pieces, the challenge (the problem you faced), approach (your critical thinking skills), and results. Perhaps it will help you to remember the acronym CAR.

In Conclusion

Remember, it is important to write a script and read it (out loud, please!) a number of times. Get comfortable with it, and change the wording after you've read it aloud and have found the rough edges. (What looks good on paper may sound unnatural when it is spoken--rewrite as necessary. The average spoken sentence contains only nine words--but the written one contains 23.)

Your personal answer to the request of "Tell me about yourself" is something that you'll take with you wherever you go. Having a 2-minute, 5-minute, and 10-minute version of this information already prepared can be one of the smartest tools in your career portfolio.

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.