While a job interview should be a lively, interesting conversation between two professionals exchanging experiences and ideas, all too often it can turn into something resembling an interrogation of the jobseeker by the employer.
This may be especially true in the case of a foreign applicant, whose nervousness about speaking their second language often spikes to new heights in such a pressure-filled atmosphere. If an interview is being run in a traditional manner, the first time this becomes evident is after introductions have been made and the interviewer has given a brief description of the organization and available position. They then throw the ball over to the interviewee by asking the apparently easy question: “So, could you tell me a bit about yourself?”
When I brought this topic up at a recent job interview course, it seemed to cause quite a stir among the students there. Hands were quickly raised and questions thrown out: Where do you start? Where do you stop? Should you just talk about your educational and work background, or should you include personal information as well? How personal? What is personal, anyway?
After reminding them that there were no completely right or wrong answers here – the world of interview technique can be at times a frustratingly relative one – I went on to answer them through drawing on my own experience as a foreign applicant as well as points made in conversations I’ve had with other non-Norwegians, dividing them into the following:
Where to start:
People are naturally curious to learn where you come from. They are also curious about when and why you came to their country. So make that your starting point, explaining clearly and concisely how you ended up where you are today in a physical sense. (We’ll talk about details below.)
This seems to be the easiest area to talk about; at the same time, you quite possibly have a degree, certificates, etc. from your ‘country of origin’ as it is often called. You need to clearly and consistently (again, those words) explain your education in terms your listener will understand. So do your homework to find out how what you’ve completed at school translates into this country’s educational system. Your work experience is usually easier to talk about, but again you need to explain where you’ve been employed in an understandable way, highlighting the most important positions you’ve had in their relevance to the job for which you’re interviewing. (We’ll talk about details below.)
I feel comfortable talking about my immediate family from my home country (how many siblings, where they work, where they and my parents live, etc.). I also feel comfortable talking about my family here in that I give my marital status and my motherhood status, as it were, saying that I have two sons who are such and such ages and are going to such and such schools. I also have had a tendency to mention having owned a little dog for several years. I then briefly mention my hobbies (a women’s networking group and singing in a local chamber choir) before rounding off with how I enjoy traveling, have done a fair share but would like to do a great deal more.
Where to stop?
This question is actually about when to stop, as we obviously stop at the present time – more specifically, we stop because at this moment we’re sitting in the ‘hot seat’ being interviewed for a new position. So it goes back to when, or how long, you should have been talking (in terms of minutes) before getting to the point of stopping. This is where it got interesting, as I asked my students their opinion on this point: How long should one speak when telling the interviewer a bit about oneself?
The answers ranged from 1 (!) to 5 minutes. One woman said she was so young with so little experience that she just didn’t have a lot to tell; therefore she was a fan of the 1-minute mark. A man said that he felt like it was stretching it to sit there talking about himself for 5 whole minutes, who could do that? So we tested everyone by having their partner time them when they were giving their oral autobiographies, and the results seemed to correspond with their initial projections. Granted, this was a trial run and therefore not practiced beforehand, but it was still interesting that they seemed to have so little to say about themselves. They gave the impression of being afraid that they would bore the interviewer with too many details.
Another point that students seemed uncertain about was giving personal information. We never did come to agreement on this point, as some people felt that they would only be comfortable talking about their work/education, while others seemed very concerned with the legal issues surrounding personal info. I returned to my own experience described above – couldn’t they just consider doing the same at their next interview? And although I repeated several times that while we all know that there are many questions employers aren’t allowed to ask an applicant (and for good reason), wasn’t it positive to give their interviewer a more complete picture of themselves? Are we not more than our work and educational backgrounds? Wouldn’t this type of sharing make a great impression on the listener and, more importantly, perhaps distinguish them from the other candidates being interviewed and therefore be to their advantage?
Yes, but… my crowd remained unconvinced.
And yet, I maintained that evening (and still maintain) that being so brief is not necessarily seen as good in this situation. Finding a balance between going on indefinitely with no clear purpose and shutting down almost as quickly as you start is the key to providing an impressive answer to the question of how you tell someone else about how you came to be who you are today in that chair. A key that you will find with practice – and more practice – so that you will sit down in that chair completely prepared to talk for just the right amount of time when first telling your interviewer ‘a bit about yourself’ and then going on to win the final hand.
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