Open-ended questions are not meant to be answered in an interview situation

When an interviewer asks you a question that doesn’t have a clear answer, that interviewer is not asking the question to hear your answer. Your only correct response is to make the question clearer.

The most infamous open-ended interview question, “So, can you tell me about yourself?” is the ultimate trap. To be clear, you must ask qualifying questions. Trying to answer this question without qualifying it leads you into a rambling labyrinth of what the kids call TMI: Too Much Information. There is too much information required to answer a question that open-ended. It’s not a matter of how quickly you can outline your career history and detail your personal interests and hobbies before moving on to the next question. As soon as you start to answer the question without asking for qualification, you have provided the interviewer with too much information.

No one really wants to hear your life story in an interview. The purpose of the interview is to allow an applicant and a representative of the employer to meet and discuss an opportunity that could benefit both parties. It is a narrowly focused discussion and it is the responsibility of both parties to keep the discussion focused. The basic information needed to answer the “Can you tell me about yourself” question is already provided on your c.v. If you choose to expand on the information provided and fail to qualify which aspects are most relevant, you have failed on your side of the mandate. You have lost focus.

Failing to qualify also sends the interviewer a negative message about your ego. The interviewer is prompting for an impartial qualifier, a response that shows you are focused on the task at hand. In a work situation this quality will be of critical importance. If there is a high-pressure decision to make, the employer wants to feel comfortable that you are going to make the decision without being influenced by ego. Responding to the interview prompt “Tell me about yourself” by actually going ahead and telling the interviewer about yourself, demonstrates you have an unrealistic view about the relative interest of yourself. This may be the result of nervousness on your part, but even the most sympathetic of interviewers can’t help but assume you have an oversized ego.

Not to say that an interviewer doesn’t have an interest in the size of your ego. On the contrary, self confidence and self awareness are key criterion for an attractive candidate. An interviewer who demonstrates an awareness of their strengths and weaknesses is clearly well-acquainted with the merits and flaws of the product they are selling, namely themselves. Confidence and assertiveness are attractive qualities for an employer, however the tendency for those traits to tip over the line into aggressiveness and arrogance is a primary concern in the workplace. Potential employers are extremely aware of how you carry yourself, how you present your ideas and how you communicate, watching carefully for telltale signs of an ego out of control. Taking the invitation to talk about yourself too seriously is waving a big, red warning flag for the potential employer.

Testing how your mind works is often the motive behind some of the more awkward interview questions. If an interviewer from an engineering company wants to test an interviewee’s ability to analyze a situation quickly, the interviewer might ask, “How many stainless steel ball bearings measuring 6 inches in diameter would it take to fill up this room that we are sitting in?” The interviewer who starts to mentally calculate without asking any qualifying questions has lost the interview. The candidate who asks “With or without us in the room?” is on the right track.
Some of the more obscure questions asked by interviewers simply have no answer and are an attempt to see how you think. Beyond the usual queries about your work experience, education, career progression and salary expectations, questions designed to catch you off guard are part of the interviewer’s repertoire. Some of the more famous ones are; “What three items would you bring to a desert island?” “What three historical figures would you most like to invite to dinner?” “If you were a superhero, what superpowers would you have?” and “What kind of animal best represents you and why?” are questions that you can’t prepare for. Your answer offers fresh insight into your character and provides evidence of your ability to reason out a plausible response on your feet. There is no right or wrong answer; it’s how you answer the question that counts.

The same cannot be said for the infamous “Can you tell me about yourself?” interview question. The only correct answer is “Where would you like me to start?”

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