Welcome to the very first post in a new Idealist Careers series we're calling Interview Q&A!
In this series, we'll help you piece together the perfect response to some common (and not-so-common) interview questions you'll encounter in the social-impact sector. For many questions, there is a bit of a formula you can follow to ensure that you answer your interviewer in a succinct and professional way while still being sure to paint a positive picture and showcase all the reasons why you're a perfect fit for the job.
If you remember to take a breath and take your time, you'll be in good shape. And when you add our interview response tips and guidance to the mix, you'll be a superstar. Is there a particular interview question that leaves you feeling frazzled? Share it with us here or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll do our best to walk you through the right way to respond.
So, without further ado, the first question we'll tackle in this series ...
"Tell me about yourself"
It's important to remember that this question is not an invitation to share your life story. Instead, follow this format to give the interviewer a good picture of your skills and experience, but remember to keep it relatively brief.
Begin with where you are
Beginning with the present is probably the most critical moment in your response. If, instead, you decide you're going to go back and start there, it can be tricky to determine how far back you can go and still remain relevant to the position. Plus, if you go back too far, you're more likely to include everything in between and this can make for an extra long and winding response.
Simply begin with where you are:
I currently work at [X ORGANIZATION] and am a [TITLE] where I do [DESCRIBE WHAT YOU DO BRIEFLY].
If you’re not currently working you can reference your most recent position and how long you were in that role. If you feel that your most recent position isn't something you'd like to talk about right off the bat, you may generalize a bit by stating the field in which your role existed along with how long you worked in that particular field.
Pro Tip: If you're far enough out of college where you no longer list it at the top of your resume, you don't need to get into the weeds of your undergraduate degree when responding to this question. Mention your school and your major, but then move on. If your interviewer wants to hear more about this part of your academic career, they'll ask.
Relate it back to your interest and experience over time
This is your opportunity to pull all of your favorite details from your cover letter and offer your interviewer additional context. This is also where you can choose which past experience you'd like to mention at this point in the interview.
I have always had an interest in [TYPE OF WORK] because I’m [DESCRIBE YOUR SKILL SET, E.G. SOMEONE WHO LOVES POLICY, ENJOYS FUNDRAISING, ETC.]. My previous positions have also given me a lot of experience in [SKILL SET, AREA OF EXPERTISE, INTEREST AREA].
Pro Tip: Just because you don't say it now doesn't mean there won't be time to include it later! You shouldn't feel like this question (which usually comes at the very beginning of an interview) is your cue to "speak now or forever hold your peace." Think of your response to this question as a higher-level introduction to things that you'll very likely dig deeper into later on during your interview, if all goes well.
Wrap up with what brought you here
Now is the time to mention (in general terms) why you're looking for employment. Keep the details to a minimum, but share a bit of why you're on the hunt and remember to allude to how this particular position is a fit (you'll have a chance to elaborate on that later in the interview).
I feel like I've had some really great opportunities at my current organization, but I'm ready for a next step and I don't see it happening if I stay at [CURRENT EMPLOYER]. I'm looking for an opportunity to use my [SKILL LISTED IN JOB POSTING] skills and also, to grow professionally.
What interview question stumps you every time? Tweet at us or email us at email@example.com and we'll do our best to walk you through the perfect format for a killer response!
As the Associate Director of Marketing and Communications at Idealist and a lifelong nonprofit professional, Alexis offers job seekers, game changers, and do gooders actionable tips, career resources, and social-impact advice.