When it comes to first-round job interviews, you’ll probably answer some version of the question, “So, tell me about yourself.” Experienced hiring managers love asking this question. After all, it allows them to assess your communication skills, hear your narrative about the highlights of your career, and lay the foundation for follow-up questions. Your answers will ultimately shape their judgment on whether or not they will hire you.
I recently crossed paths with an “experienced” career coach who insisted that the best response length to the ‘Tell me about yourself’” question is a short 30-second to the one-minute response. She advises her clients to keep their answers “short and sweet because hiring managers lose interest after one minute.”
I couldn’t disagree more. One minute isn’t enough time to deliver a meaningful response that benefits you as a candidate.
The problem with short answers
Some career “experts” often suggest shorter answers because the longer your response, the more likely you are to ramble and lose someone’s attention. Now, I agree that a rambling response won’t serve you well as a candidate in an interview. However, I’ve consistently found that experienced hiring managers are looking for more information than you can feasibly verbalize in under a minute.
“It may be difficult to understand the depth of a candidate’s experience related to the role if his response is shorter than three minutes,” says Brenda Kurz, chief administrative officer at Toptal. Pete Sosnowski, head of HR and cofounder of the tech startup Zety, agrees. “You want to give an impression that you really thought this through. If your answer is too short, the recruiter might think you simply don’t care or have much to say.”
Giving yourself room to deliver a longer answer allows you to do four things you can’t do with a one-minute response. Here’s why:
1. It allows you to provide a useful narrative beyond the résumé
Managers ask this question because they want to understand whether your professional skills and accomplishments align with the role you’re interviewing for. They want to understand how well you did your job, because they see that as a proxy for the potential impact you could have within their organization. “The ideal response duration is three to four minutes, along the lines of a longer elevator pitch with a more personal touch,” says Harsha Reddy, cofounder and editor-in-chief of SmallBizGenius.net.
The clearest way to communicate how well you did your job is to take the time to verbalize at least one key accomplishment for each of your roles that conveys a relevant skill. This is very difficult to do in under a minute.
2. A longer answer lets you reveal motivations that drove your career decisions
Hiring managers want to understand not only what you’ve done in your career but also why you’ve done these things. Your résumé outlines what you did. Now you have the opportunity to explain why. “A shorter, one-minute response does not allow time for candidates to speak about their past experiences,” according to Terrie Nathan, HR Director of Dollar Tree. “It’s not enough time to understand a candidate’s motivational drivers connecting their past experiences and the role they’re interviewing for.”
For each chapter of your career, you’ll need time to highlight your goals and reasons behind job choices and major transitions along the way. You want the hiring manager to understand your motivations for considering this latest move.
3. You can shape the arc of the interview
Part of the reason why interviewers start with this question is that frankly, they need a reminder of who you are. In the ideal world, the hiring managers would have thoroughly reviewed your résumé and prepared a full list of questions in advance of the interview. But on average, hiring managers usually spend just seven seconds looking at your résumé.
When you answer this question, take the time to share a clear narrative of your experiences, roles, and achievements you want the interviewer to remember from the start. This helps shape follow-up questions focused on those exact experiences you want them to remember.
4. It’s an opportunity to stand out from other candidates
Most candidates, even with minimal preparation, can rattle off a consistent one-minute snapshot of their past in response to the “tell me about yourself” question. Experienced hiring managers know this. They know that most candidates can’t deliver a longer response that holds a listener’s attention, which is why many candidates opt for a shorter reply. But hiring managers also know only the most prepared candidates will choose the harder approach and do it well.
Remember, you have a choice when answering the “tell me about yourself” question. You can treat this question as an ice-breaker and settle with a short one-minute response, but you also have the opportunity to stand out. That requires you to opt for a longer but more thoughtful response. It’s the same reason why the best divers in the world choose more challenging dives. While a lot can go wrong, they know nailing the hardest dive imaginable is what ultimately wins gold medals.