by Grossnickle Career Services Center

There are plenty of articles that tell you how to answer the most common interview question, but this one is all about answering a very specific one, often thought of as a throwaway: “Tell me about yourself.”

It seems easy – after all, who knows you better than you?! – yet the open-ended nature of the question can sometimes become complicated.

Man wearing glasses, coat and tie gestures toward his interviewer while answering a question

A Simple Formula

One method to attack the question is to divide it into your present (what you’re doing now, with perhaps a recent accomplishment), your past (how you got to that role), and your future (why you’re interested in this job, and why you’re a great fit for it).

You want to be absolutely certain your interviewer is left with the impression that it “makes sense that [you’re] sitting here talking to me about this role,” says CareerSchooled founder Al Dea.

Tailor Your Answer to the Organization

Muse career coach Tina Wascovich says that “tell me about yourself” is really code for “tell me how you’re relevant to this position.”

“I think they’re giving you an opportunity to articulate succinctly why you have the right qualifications,” she says. In order to do that, you’ll want to spend some time going through the specific job description, and see how their needs match up with your abilities.

Be Concise (and Don’t Recite!)

However you answer the question, don’t spend valuable time recounting every moment of your career (or resume), unless you want to immediately tank your chances by boring your potential boss. This answer isn’t just about being entertaining or engaging; it also gives your future co-workers a door into what kind of employee you’ll be. Will you always be this droning with every open-ended question you’re asked on your new job?

Keep your response between 30 and 90 seconds, and also read the room while you’re answering. If your interviewer looks bored or distracted, you might consider wrapping up; if they perk up at one part of your answer, think about elaborating on your point.

Practice, But Don’t Memorize

Just like the rest of your interview prep, you don’t want to wait until you get this question to try out your answer. Think what you want to say and practice it out loud. Consider recording your answer or leaving yourself a voicemail, then wait an hour or more before you play it back to give yourself some perspective on what you’ve said.

Practice will surely make your answer stronger and help you become more confident giving it. Dea warns, however, against memorizing and reciting your spiel word-for-word. “There’s a fine balance between practicing and memorizing. It needs to come off as very authentic,” he says.

This is Your First Impression, and It Matters

A first impression can definitely shape the tone of the rest of the interview, both positively and negatively. Be prepared for the question, and show your interviewers you prepared for it. A succinct, confident and relevant answer to lead off of your interview will likely pay dividends in the end.