Veterans get a lot of things right about the job interview. You never really have to tell a veteran (or spouse) what to wear, how to be on time or that brushing their teeth is a good idea. Just don't ask them the most common interview inquiry in the history of the world: Tell me about yourself.
If you do, stand back. Because those four little words can unleash the most in-depth list of career problems, perceived flaws, promotion nightmares, sordid explanations, near sins and bad luck that the most inquisitive hiring manager ever imagined. Which is a lot in an interview.
As the transition master coach for Military.com's Veteran Employment Project, I've helped more than 14,000 veterans and spouses prepare for their next high-impact job. I am always surprised that job hunters do not prepare at all for this question when they know it is coming.
If they do prepare, they go too long. They lay out their answer, Herman Melville style, with, "Call me Ishmael," and keep talking through their whole sea story until they get to, "And I only escaped alone to tell thee." It is a wonder anyone is left alive in the interview to ask another question.
Flubbing this answer is an honest mistake. The big problem is that because so many veterans and spouses have never interviewed other people as part of their own job, they don't know the purpose of: Tell me about yourself.
To a normal person, the question sounds like the hiring manager wants you to tell them about yourself. Duh. Surely, you can wing it. You know yourself better than anyone. Surely, they want to hear your complete personal bio and a recitation of your resume. Or they want to hear something interesting about your background, such as you were raised as a foundling by a Mandalorian or you have committed all but one of the seven deadly sins.
So many veterans who do not prepare for the interview feel compelled to take this moment to explain any tiny flaw in their "sordid" past, including -- but not limited to -- why you did not get picked up for command. Or finish your degree in the allotted four years. Or had a break in your career while raising a Baby Yoda from a seed.
While I salute the openness and commitment to the full, complete and untruncated truth these answers represent, these confessions are still the wrong answer. At no time in the interview does the hiring manager want to hear about what they perceive as minor blips in your career history.
These flaws may still seem huge to you, but the hiring manager either did not notice or does not care. Trust me, if there is something wrong with your career history, the recruiter would have already screened you out.
How to Answer the Inquiry: Tell Me About Yourself
When the hiring manager asks you to introduce yourself at the beginning of an interview, they expect you to know what that statement is meant to do. It is so important to get this right, because your reply sets the stage for the entire interview and answers these three unspoken questions:
1. What Exactly Are You?
The reason this question gets asked first is because it's not a verbally important question. The interviewer hardly ever remembers exactly what you said.
Interviewers ask this kind of question, because we know from the research that people who just met each other need this time to size each other up. This gives everyone a chance to take in all kinds of biological markers, such as your height, age, sound of your voice and accent.
They wonder whether they know you already from somewhere. They guess that your voice is shaking because you might be a little nervous. They note how great your tie is and how they wish they had one like it.
2. Do You Know How to Play the Game?
The length of your response tells the other people in the room if you can understand social cues or whether you are entirely clueless. Hint: The amount of time each interviewer takes to introduce themselves is often an indicator of how long your response should be.
3. Why Are You in This Room?
In about four sentences, your reply should tell the interviewer why you are interested in interviewing for this particular job. It should be an aha moment for the interviewer, suddenly making sense of your presence in the room. A good template to use is:
Hello, I am (first name last name). I am a (job title) who can do (X, Y and Z skills mentioned in the job listing). I have a reputation for (soft skill mentioned in the job listing). When I heard from (networking contact) that you were looking for a (job title), I thought I would be a great fit, so I am really looking forward to talking with you today.
Hello, I am Jacey Eckhart. I am a career coach who works directly with senior leaders, develops engaging training events and creates online content and graphics every week. I have a reputation for endless creativity. When I heard from John Esposito that you were looking for an insightful career coach for veteran executives who can also put together off-site trainings, I thought I would be a great fit. So I am looking forward to talking with all of you today.
Hello, I am Din Djarin. I am a bounty hunter with exemplary flight qualifications on 13 spacecrafts, including the ST-70 class Razor Crest, 15 years of experience in the galaxy rooting out criminals and full certification by the Bounty Hunters Guild. I have a reputation for having a strong sense of dedication and a soft heart for the cute, but helpless. So when I heard from Greef Karga that you were looking for someone to rescue a Force-sensitive alien and return them to safety, I thought I would be a great fit.
If you have time to prepare for your next interview, check out our complete guide to interview questions for veterans and spouses. If you have time to prepare for only one question, make sure it's: Can you tell me about yourself? The right response not only will get the interview off to a great start but also propel you on the quest to your next high-impact job.
Jacey Eckhart is Military.com's transition master coach. She is a certified professional career coach and military sociologist who helps military members get their first civilian job by offering career-level Master Classes through our Veteran Employment Project and on her website SeniorMilitaryTransition.com. Reach her at Jacey.Eckhart@Monster.com.
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