"Tell me about yourself" is one of the most common openers to a job interview, yet job-seekers are often unsure what employers really want to hear in response. Should your answer include personal information? Should it focus on selling yourself, or just give the facts? What is the employer really asking?
Let's translate it: "Tell me about yourself" in a job interview means "give me an overview of who you are, professionally speaking." There's a reason this is asked at the very beginning of an interview; it's a way of saying, "Give me some broad background before we dive into specifics."
You should be ready with a one-minute answer that summarizes where you are in your career, generally with an emphasis on your most recent job and the strengths of your approach.
For instance, here's an example of a good response:
"I got into technical writing because I found that I have an unusual mixture of technical aptitude with writing skills. I'd worked as a programmer for the first few years of my career, but when I saw how rare it was to find people with that kind of background who could also write, I started moving into technical writing. I've found that I love translating complicated technical information into language that non-technical people can easily understand, and the fact that I come from a programming background means that I can communicate well both with the tech folks and non-tech people. My last boss told me that I was the only employee she'd ever had who was so comfortable with both audiences. Being able to bridge those two worlds is the reason I was especially interested in the position here."
If you're more entry-level and don't really have a career to describe yet, a good answer would be more forward-looking. For instance:
"I've always been a news junkie and I spent my last two years in school preparing myself to work in communications when I graduated. I looked for internships and extracurricular opportunities that would expose me to media relations, and I'm excited to continue on that path. I've been told that I'm particularly good at coming up with creative story angles, and I love pitching those stories, but I really want to learn every aspect of this business from the ground up. I'd like to work in-house rather than in an agency, and I'm especially interested in political work, so I'm particularly excited about this opportunity."
As these two examples show, you want to keep the focus on your professional persona. Don't bring your kids into it, or your spouse, or where you grew up. That isn't to say that you can't say anything personal, but make sure there's a relevant reason for raising it. For instance, you could add something like, "I grew up in this area and still have family here, so I'm really excited about the prospect of moving back." (This is relevant because it signals to the interviewer that you're not going to be flighty about relocation.)
Whatever your answer is, practice it out loud over and over so it flows right out of your mouth in the interview. Don't try to wing it, since that's how people end up stumbling and making mistakes. Figure out your answer ahead of time and practice it, and you'll have no problem fielding this question.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.