The world’s most common — and seemingly most innocuous — job interview question is the one that asks you to describe your background.
I know, I know. It’s your least favorite question as a candidate.
“Ugh really?” you’re thinking, “Can’t you just look at my resume? I spent hours on it! Asking me to tell you about my background is a total throwaway question. It’s a waste of precious interview time.”
But is it really?
Not in the slightest. If you want to nail your interview, preparing the perfect description of your background will take some serious time and thought. In fact, if you only have time to prepare one thing before an interview, it should be your answer to this question. It sets the stage for the rest of the interview.
As you start to think about your answer to “Walk me through your background,” first assume the hiring manager knows absolutely nothing about you. Never ever start by saying, “Well, you’ve seen my resume, so I’ll keep this brief.”
Second, make sure you hook the hiring manager’s attention right off the bat to make sure he or she is giving you their full attention.
What does a hiring manager look for when you describe your past experience?
Why do hiring managers ask candidates to describe their backgrounds, anyway?
They might be lazy.
(Why look at a resume when I can ask the candidate?)
They might be insanely busy.
(No time to review this resume!)
They might be distracted.
Or they might be all of those things.
But there’s actually a lot a hiring manager can learn from your answer to “Can you walk me through your experience?”
Personally, I look for two things.
Excellent communication will be critical for us to work together productively in a fast-paced startup where there isn’t time to spell everything out in detail.
I want to know that you’re a structured communicator — that you organize your thoughts into a framework or logical sequence. This could mean starting with a high level summary to frame the conversation before sharing detail. I shouldn’t wonder where you’re going.
Similarly, please get to the point quickly and share only what’s important. I’m detail oriented but, if you’re joining my team, I don’t want to worry about all the details. So, be succinct without leaving out essential information. It’s a tricky balance!
If you can’t communicate your own background clearly and in a compelling way, that’s a big red flag for me. After all, you lived it.
Skills and areas of expertise
The other checkbox I’m looking to tick off as you describe your background is “fit.” Are your skills and past experience a good match for the role and company?
Take this opportunity to use buzzwords and keywords relevant to both your background and the role; show that you’re a good fit. But don’t be too obvious about it.
When I was interviewing to fill a marketing operations role, for example, I wanted to hear candidates reference specific technologies and tools, metrics, data cleanliness, and process.
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that nailing the description of your experience is critical. So where do you start?
Start with an executive summary
One candidate I spoke with recently started her answer with, “I graduated from Rice University in 2008 with a degree in economics” and I knew immediately that the conversation was doomed.
Don’t start at the beginning. Instead, start with an summary of your background and experience. Tell me the highlights.
What are you an expert in?
What themes tie your background together?
What do you want me take away or learn about you?
Do you have a core philosophy that governs how you work in your role?
Starting with a summary gives me the conclusion first. It’s a huge opportunity because you can significantly influence the hiring manager’s perception of you. And the more you can tailor your answer to the specific role and company, the better.
Here’s what I mean:
“I have 10 years of experience in marketing, most of which has been building compelling brands for mid-sized tech companies. In the early days of my career, I was in the trenches and created a lot of content and visual brand assets. Now I have a team of people who do those things and I focus mostly on content and brand strategy.”
This is awesome. It tells me your area of expertise, the kind of companies you’ve worked at (which is important for context), and prevents me from doing math.
“My background has been entirely in start ups, anywhere from four employees to 250 employees. I’ve worked in a variety of functional areas from marketing and sales to product and operations. So, I’m an operational generalist and mostly an expert in learning new things and getting things done.”
This also works well — at least as a starting point. Again, it gives me context and a sense for what you’ve done in the past at a high level as well as what you think you’re good at.
“I’m extremely passionate about making things work better. For me, it’s all about people, process, and tools — in that order. Making sure that I have the right people on board and then improving processes creates the first layer of efficiency. And then leveraging automation tools takes that efficiency to the next level. Oh, and I always measure my success quantitatively with metrics.”
What I like about this description is that it tells me a little bit about how you operate — your core philosophy for how you approach work. It doesn’t tell me your core expertise, but that might be OK if you highlight various skills as you dig into the details of your background.
There’s no one right answer for how best to describe your past experience or background to a recruiter or hiring manager. But, start with a summary to provide a framework before you slot in everything else. After all, you can’t build a home without a solid foundation.
The Distracted Goldfish