Submitted by ub on Sat, 09/22/2012 - 09:26

Tell me about yourself? If you've ever been on a job interview, you are going to have this question asked. Besides being one of the first questions you are likely to receive in an interview, it is also one of the most difficult. What is the employer looking for?

As with any open-ended question, there are many correct ways to answer "Tell me about yourself," and just as many ways to go wrong. Some of the ways people can veer off-track with this question include:

Taking too long. Kiss them as keep it short and sweet. I've interviewed many job-seekers who took more than five, or ten minutes answering this question. Employers and many busy listeners lose interest quickly, and you risk seeming self-involved if you take too long on this or any other interview question.

Being too personal. The employer isn't looking for your life story. They most likely don't care where you were born, where you went to high school, or how many brothers or sisters you have, unless these items are specifically relevant to the job.

Being too negative. The parts of your professional story where you chose an easier major in college because you flunked chemistry, or where you got fired from a job. If you are a career-changer, don't emphasize why you dislike your current career, but focus instead on why you are excited about the new career and what you bring to the table that's relevant.

Not customizing to the job. Don't continue saying how you are a trained lawyer when the job is for a fundraiser; don't emphasize you are an engineer when you want to become an accountant.

How to give a winning answer, then? Perhaps one of the best strategies is to briefly-in 2 or 3 minutes-give an overview of your professional history, from the point of view of how everything you've done as a professional has led you to being the perfect candidate for the job you are interviewing for. Because you only have a short time, this is one of the answers you might consider memorizing, not word-for-word, but at least as a set of bullet points. A brief structure that works for this question is:

Start with a "headline": "I've worked in this sector for several years in a variety of increasingly responsible positions." Or, "For the past years, I've served as a board member for nonprofits. All that time, I have been a very successful volunteer, while also working in corporate. Now I want to dedicate my career to fundraising for youth nonprofits full-time."

When you are interviewing in a mission-driven organization, consider starting with why you care about the mission. Without necessarily going back to high school, and without getting too personal, what originally inspired you to devote your career to this particular mission?

Then, talk them through your resume, without going into too much detail. Just focus on organizations and job title. Don't get into the weeds about why you left each job.

End with how excited you are to be interviewing with them today, and highlight how this is the culmination of your years of experience and training.

With enough practice, your "tell me about yourself" answer will sound smooth, structured, compelling, and enthusiastic-and pave the way for the success of the rest of your interview.