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How To Answer: Tell Me About Yourself

Written By Rachelle Enns on April 13th, 2020
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Rachelle Enns
Rachelle is a job search expert, career coach, and headhunter who helps everyone from students to fortune 500 executives find success in their career.
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In this guide, MockQuestions walks you through everything you need to know about using the Past, Present, Future framework for answering interview questions like 'Tell me about yourself.' We break down the Past, Present, Future method using specific examples and give you tips for responding to open-ended interview questions under a variety of circumstances.

THE PURPOSE BEHIND THE QUESTION

Many interviews begin with the question, 'Tell me about yourself.' This question can turn any well-prepared candidate inside out. Why? Because it's open-ended.

Where do you begin, and where do you end?

A great place to start is to understand the reasoning behind the question. Primarily, the interviewer will use this question as an icebreaker. However, to the candidate, it feels like being put in the hot-seat.

In response, many candidates accidentally go too in-depth into their personal lives. Other candidates freeze up and give an answer that is far too brief.

If you are one of those candidates, don't beat yourself up! There's help, and it comes in a simple, easy to learn 3-part framework.

THE PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE FRAMEWORK

We will provide more in-depth detail on each section of the Past, Present, Future framework, but first, here are the basics:

Past: Provide a brief overview of your career journey.

Present: Discuss your current career situation, as it relates to the job opportunity.

Future: Talk about your career aspirations and how this future opportunity is a fit.

When you frame your response using the Past, Present, Future method, it helps you to keep your thoughts on track, allowing you to deliver a well-organized answer with impact. If it feels more natural to you, you can also frame your answer as Present, Past, Future.

WHEN TO USE PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE

An interviewer may not always ask 'Tell me about yourself' using this exact wording.

Other ways your interviewer may ask this question:

  • Tell me about your career journey.

  • Can you expand on your resume?

  • Talk to me about your career.

  • Walk me through your professional background.

  • What brings you here today?


PREPARING TO USE PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE

Now that you understand the purpose of 'Tell me about a time' questions, and the best framework to use for forming an answer, let's dive into the details behind each portion of the Past, Present, Future framework.

PART 1: PAST

PURPOSE OF PAST: To discuss how you got to where you are today.

When setting up the PAST portion of your response, choose which aspect of your previous experience is most relevant to the job.

If you are not sure which factors are most relevant, take the time to dissect the job posting and highlight which points seem to be the most important to the hiring company. Do they repeatedly mention any skills or phrases? What do they list first in their bullet points of responsibilities and experience?

You can begin the PAST portion of your response in a variety of ways. Here are some ideas:

  • Recently, I...

  • I pursued...

  • I have...

  • My background is in...

  • For # years...


Example: I have worked as a [X] for [X] years, primarily working in [discuss your responsibilities/skills]. I have always enjoyed [discuss the duties/tasks that align best with the new job opportunity].

PART 2: PRESENT

PURPOSE OF PRESENT: To paint a picture of what you are currently doing.

To sum the PRESENT portion of your response, bring up the factors of your current situation that are most relevant to the new job opportunity. To effectively do this, you will want to study the job posting to discover which tasks and responsibilities should be in the spotlight. Again, do they repeatedly mention any skills or phrases in the job posting? What do they list first in their bullet points of responsibilities and experience?

You can begin the PRESENT portion of your response in a variety of ways. Here are some ideas:

  • Currently, I am...

  • Since working for...

  • After completing my...

  • While working with...

  • I've been working in...


Example: Currently, I work for [X], where I [discuss your primary responsibilities as they relate to this new opportunity]. This role has helped me to [qualify yourself by highlighting the ways your current job has prepared you for this future opportunity].

PART 3: FUTURE

PURPOSE OF FUTURE: To discuss what you are seeking for your future, and qualify how this company can help you to get there.

You have set the stage of PAST and PRESENT. Now, it's time to tie this information together, making sense of your FUTURE goals. Talk to the interviewer about what you envision for yourself, should you be hired with their company. Discuss what interests you the most about their career opportunity.

The more you have researched the potential employer, the stronger your response will be. Check out the company's website for information on their vision, mission, goals, and accomplishments. Tie in these details as much as possible.

You can begin the FUTURE portion of your response in a variety of ways. Here are some ideas:

  • I plan to...

  • I am eager to...

  • Now, I...

  • I've discovered...

  • After realizing that...


Example: I plan to grow my career specifically in the areas of [list 1-3 topics of interest]. Your company focuses on [discuss the ways that the company's activities align with your career goals]. Your mission aligns with my core passions by [give specifics on where these passions align]. It would be an honor to grow my career with [company name].

THINGS TO CONSIDER

Keep your answer work relevant. Keep your points job related as much as possible. If you are new to your career, you can discuss competitive sports, educational achievements, or volunteer work.

Avoid overly personal statements. You can add in a splash of personal information; however, choose 'I love to read science fiction books,' versus 'I was recently diagnosed with...'

Be sure to qualify yourself. To qualify yourself means to add in a sentence or two regarding your strengths and why you are a good match for the role. Generally speaking, you can fit this into the 'Future' portion of your response.

Remember to talk about your goals. It is essential to discuss what you want to achieve in your career, and how the interviewing company fits into those goals.

Sprinkle in some achievements. Interviewers love to hear quantifiable statements that include numbers, percentages, and measurable accomplishments. For instance, rather than saying, 'I am the best salesperson,' you could say, 'I was awarded Top Sales Rep for three consecutive months.'

Show your passion for the company's mission. Try bringing in words from the company's job description, vision statement, or core values. Show the interviewer that your goals align with the company.

Keep your answer brief. Just like you would at a cocktail party, avoid dominating the conversation. Your answer should be no more than a minute in delivery.

Practice your response. You will want to avoid sounding robotic or too rehearsed; however, the more you practice the Past, Present, Future framework, the easier it will become to develop a natural-sounding response.

EXAMPLES OF PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE

Here are some examples of using Past, Present, Future for a variety of career situations:

NEW TO YOUR CAREER:

(Past) I recently completed high school, where I was valedictorian thanks to my high grades and dedication to the Students' Association.

(Present) Currently, I am seeking out an opportunity to strengthen my leadership skills and learn more about the business world before selecting my post-secondary educational path.

(Future) I am eager to start my career on the right foot, and I believe that this internship with Company ABC will help to guide and shape me for the future.

Note: If you do not have any work experience, you can use examples from school, church, volunteer work, sports, music, or any other activity that has required commitment and dedication from you.

RECENT UNIVERSITY GRADUATE:

(Past) I pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology at UCLA, where I became fascinated with children's mental health, specifically the rise of anxiety, depression, and ADHD in North America. Upon graduation, I interned in the children's mental health department at Organization ABC, where I was responsible for new patient intake and file documentation.

(Present) Since completing this 3-month internship, I have gained considerable confidence in my knowledge in the areas of children's mental health, emotions, and behaviors. I am now ready to move forward into the next phase of my career.

(Future) I plan to grow my career, specifically in family outreach programs. I understand that your organization focuses on the launch of outreach programs for families in this community. Your mission aligns perfectly with my core passions, and it would be an honor to grow my career with this esteemed organization.

EXPERIENCED:

(Past) I have worked as a Patient Care Coordinator for over five years, consulting with patients and determining their needs. I have always enjoyed delivering patient care with compassion and empathy.

(Present) Currently, I work for a private functional medicine clinic developing care plans and coordinating patient-care services. This role helped me to expand my knowledge of program development while meeting unique patient needs.

(Future) Now, I am looking to broaden my experience to include actively educating patients and working with an established care team to evaluate interventions. Your organizations' focus on care plans is one reason why I was thrilled to apply for this career opportunity.

CHANGING INDUSTRIES:

(Past) I have worked in the consumer product industry for over fifteen years, focused on key accounts and business development within commerce and e-commerce environments.

(Present) Right now, I work as the VP of Business Development for a large toy manufacturer. My primary responsibilities include initiating and setting up meetings to sell multi-million-dollar contracts to large-size retailers and big-box stores.

(Future) Over the past few months, I've discovered my excitement for SaaS and Fintech industries, which is where I see a significant amount of opportunity. I wish to expand my business development experiences across sectors, which is why I am interested in growing my career with your company.

QUIT YOUR JOB:

(Past) My background is in the hospitality industry. I spent many years as a Customer Service Manager, where I hired and trained service staff and resolved customer complaints.

(Present) Most recently, I left my job as the Service Desk Manager at Hotel ABC, where I was responsible for a team of fifteen, including front desk agents and room service attendants. After two years with Hotel ABC, I realized that my skills and interests are best suited for the fast pace of the restaurant sector.

(Future) After realizing my true passion is within restaurant environments, I set up job alerts for roles such as your Restaurant Service Manager position. I've dined with your restaurant group many times before and jumped at the chance to apply.

LAID OFF OR TERMINATED:

(Past) For eight years, I worked as a Warehouse Manager for Logistics ABC, where I led a team of forklift operators, pickers, packers, and delivery drivers. I learned a great deal about problem-solving since every day I was facing significant logistics challenges.

(Present) Unfortunately, I recently lost my job as the company went through a merger with its largest competitor. The company phased out my role and provided me with a severance package. This package included outplacement services and access to a career coach.

(Future) After working with this career coach for the past six weeks, I discovered my passion for leadership and training. Through this coaching, I learned that I work best in supportive environments where employees are valued and trained to succeed. When I saw this Technical Trainer job opportunity, I was excited. I am eager to grow my career to include the design and development of professional training workshops within logistics.

RE-ENTERING THE WORKFORCE:

(Past) I am thrilled to have had the privilege to raise my children for the past ten years. Although being a stay-at-home parent took me out of the traditional workforce, I kept myself busy and relevant in a multitude of ways.

(Present) Currently, I volunteer on the Parent-Teacher Association, where I facilitate the building of healthy relationships between parents, teachers, and schools. However, as my kids are getting older and more independent, I find myself seeking more.

(Future) I have developed exceptional skills in recruiting volunteers, giving presentations, problem-solving on the fly, and persuading others to collaborate. These skills align very well with the qualities your agency seeks for this generalist recruiter opportunity. I am ready to step into the next phase of my career and would be happy to apply these skills with your recruitment agency.

IN CONCLUSION

Remember that you are not alone! The majority of candidates panic over 'Tell me about yourself' and similar open-ended questions. The more you prepare and practice your Past, Present, Future framework, the better you will deliver your response.

Keep your reply light, and work relevant. Questions of this sort offer an excellent opportunity to describe yourself by discussing the strengths and qualities that you bring.

If you want further practice, MockQuestions has a variety of resources available to you, including our set on the most commonly asked interview questions.