An almost universal interview question is some version of “tell me about yourself” or “walk me through your resume”. Despite this being entirely predictable and a softball question, I see way too many interviewees butcher it or at least under-deliver on it. An earlier post on interviewing basics outlines how to handle the overall interview. I want to dig into how to handle what is likely the first question.
Build a Framework
Always remember that you are trying to convey several main ideas to your interviewer. Every story or example you offer should re-enforce these themes. In the Consulting Enterprise program we discuss storyboarding and building your logic “pyramid”. This is simply a specific application of the concept. Note: Barbara Minto has written a detailed methodology on building effective communication frameworks (pyramids) that I’ll describe in a future post.
I tend to recommend breaking your communication goals into 3-4 categories. Two things you are absolutely, always trying to get across are 1) you can do the job and 2) you are a good fit. The other categories (leadership, teamwork, etc.) will vary by firm and position and require you to do a little research.
- General capability. Convince me you are a “do-er”, that you have overcome obstacles, are smart and have progressed in your activities etc.
- Specific capabilities. This relates to the position in question. For a financial analyst job, can you describe relevant coursework or experience? Do you respond well to probes about your thought process?
- Fundamentally, this is an “am I impressed with you?” category.
- Cultural fit. Are you one of us? Do you seem to understand our culture? Are your goals aligned with what our organization can deliver?
- This is the “airport test”. Are you someone I want to be on a team with? Did we build rapport? It sounds like “cultural fit” but is subtly different. There may be people you really like who are a bad cultural fit and vice versa.
- Likelihood to accept. Given the competitiveness of recruiting in many situations, recruiters have to gauge actual interest. Have you convinced me that this is really what you want?
- What other major themes do you need to hit. Decide and break down into sub messages.
When launching into your self-description, you need to focus on a few key things.
- Keep it concise. Depending on your career stage, this should be 2-5 minutes. For students, 3 minutes is a decent guideline. Also, always remember Mark Twain’s quote to the effect that he apologized for writing a long letter, but he didn’t have the time to write a short one.
Don’t hit on every thing you have done. BORING. Only touch on one or two key things from each position or phase of your experience that relates to your bigger themes. Part of the test is showing that you know what’s important.
Also, save the detail on your good examples for later. Just give the “takeaway” at this stage. You don’t want to distract from the flow of your story.
At a certain level, you simply need to get through it…
- Tell a story. Stories have a beginning, middle and end. You need to bring the listener along with you. Develop a story “through line” that logically connects your experiences and development and leads to you sitting where you are, very much wanting the job the interviewer is evaluating you for.
- Anticipate concerns. We can often predict the gaps people see in our experience. Take time to subtly rebut them with your examples and story. Example, you are interviewing for a job requiring quantitative skills, but are a history major (I faced this). Then emphasize examples of success dealing with quantitative problems. Could be A’s in Finance or a project etc. But get out in front of it.
- Ask for the job. Make clear to me from the beginning that you are excited about the position. You need to be strong on this. I see a lot of people visibly waffle and show their uncertainty. That is deadly. Your competition isn’t wavering (at least the smart ones).
Example (Abbreviated for space and annotated for commentary…and imagine it’s 1996)
I often try to model an answer back for people. I’ll try to do a simulation here in print. Imagine me interviewing for a management consulting job coming out of MBA. I had a graduate degree in history and no direct work experience.
Question: “So Phil, why don’t you walk me through your resume…”
Answer: “Thanks so much for the opportunity to interview. I’m really excited about Ernst & Young and consulting.”
“I think I’ve always been interested in business and problem solving. My grandfather was a corporate senior exec and we always talked business and politics. He even gave me a subscription to Kiplinger’s when I was in middle school.” (Connecting interest to my past, explaining logic of transition from academia to business).
“I grew up out east, but decided to take a chance and go to school a long way from home at Rice in Houston, TX to study history. I think I was curious about how events unfolded and created our world.” (Demonstrating independence and willingness to take risks and willingness to move for opportunities)
“In school, I was convinced that I wanted to be a history professor. I took a heavy load in Poli Sci and History, while also holding a lot of leadership positions. Probably the most significant was being one of the founding justices of my school’s University Court. We had to figure out a lot of internal process and develop institutional credibility. I was fortunate enough to be elected Chief Justice my senior year.” (Leadership, work ethic, process orientation. Limited examples to one. More data is on resume and remains to be used for questions and probing.)
“I decided to pursue my PhD in History and followed that path to grad school. Along the way I realized what I liked was the debate and intellectual interaction of the classes and seminars, as well as the teaching. What I didn’t particularly enjoy was writing books and that is ultimately how you are evaluated and promoted. I also better understood the economics and determined business school was a better fit for me. “(Explains transition in terms consultant will probably understand, connects interests to consulting relevant skills like rigorous debate and explaining concepts.)
“Here at Carlson, I have really focused on developing more tangible experience and skills. I have taken a broad course load and done well with it. In addition, I have held internships during school at 3M in strategy, last summer at Malt-O-Meal and currently am taking the New Product Development class which requires 15-20 hours a week of my time to develop a business plan and working prototype of a piece of microprocessor test equipment for a local company. In particular, I’d note my summer internship. My boss had not had an intern before, so I was assigned a broadly defined goal and was forced to scope the project and get it done while also doing detailed market analytics on a daily basis in support of the business. It really forced me to get efficient and clear.” (Showing hard work, ability to sustain effort, ability to take on technical tasks)
“And now I’m looking for a management consulting job. I think it’s the most challenging and interesting opportunity out there for me. I’ve consistently sought bigger challenges wherever I’ve been and this is the best path for me. My wife and I have discussed the lifestyle and demands of the position and we are committed to the requirements. She has a demanding job that requires travel and so understands. What else I can I tell you?” (Hit on desire for job, understanding of demands and thoughtful decision that it was a good fit)
What did I hit on?
- Capability: multiple examples of skills required in consulting, teaching/team work, regular engagement in extra-curricular activities, several clear examples of quant work etc. I gave them plenty to probe on while (hopefully) instilling initial confidence.
- Fit: Likeable? I don’t know…But I hit on the rest. Lifestyle, travel and work demands are all at least partially addressed.
Is this perfect? Of course not, but it’s not bad. I encourage everyone to practice your story. If nothing else, it forces you to figure your story out!
You also never know when you’ll need to deliver it. It may not be just in an interview. Or better stated, remember that you are ALWAYS interviewing. You never know where your next opportunity will come from.