“Tell me about yourself.” This seemingly innocuous question is – in one form or another – a common question that you will be asked at the start of an informational meeting. You may also get asked some version of this question at networking events or when attending professional conferences. Though it sounds like an easy question to answer, if you’re not prepared for it, this question can be challenging.
When having an informational meeting, the professor or professional you’re speaking with is hoping to gain insight into your background, what sparked your interest in their field or research, what you already know about the field and/or their work, and what you’re hoping to gain from your conversation with them.
Answering this question is like telling a story, albeit a concise one. The story you tell will set the tone for your interaction and will help the person you’re speaking with guide the conversation.
Structuring Your Story
There are three parts to your story: your background, your research interests or interest in the field, and what you’re hoping to learn from your conversation.
- Start by considering what key pieces of information you want the person to know about you. What pieces of your background do you want to highlight? Consider your coursework, internship experiences, on-campus activities or jobs, and your goals and aspirations. These set the stage for discussing why you’re interested in speaking with them.
- It’s not enough to simply mention courses, internships, or other experiences; you need to articulate what you learned from those, the impact or influence they had on you, and how they have led you to your current interests and feed into your future goals. Put the pieces together in a coherent way that gives your audience a picture of who you are.
- After you’ve discussed your background and interests, conclude your story by stating what you’re hoping to learn from the conversation. Why did you want to speak with them specifically? What about their background and work motivated you to want to speak with them? What assistance or guidance are you seeking?
Always keep the conversation professional and tactful. “Can I work in your lab?” or “How can I get research experience?” is not the most diplomatic approach to take when seeking opportunities to get involved. Instead try the following:
“As I mentioned, my goal is to _________________________. I want to develop my _____________ skills/gain exposure to _____________________, and I know that getting involved with research is a great way to do that. I’ve been looking into labs/research settings on campus and have identified a few that I’m drawn to. I would appreciate your thoughts on which of these areas might be a good fit for my background and goals, and advice you may have on getting involved with these labs/research projects.”
You will need to do your homework prior to the conversation to demonstrate that you are serious and that you’re not expecting them to do your work for you. Take time to reflect on your goals. Review the information in our Goal Setting section for questions to guide your reflection.
Keep it Concise
There’s no firm rule on how long your story should be, though a general guideline is to keep it around a minute long, and no more than two minutes. Though the question is open-ended, keep focused on key information. Avoid going into too much depth on your personal history and focus on conveying information relevant to the relationship you’re looking to build.
Finally, as important as it is to structure your story, it’s equally important to practice it. Your story needs to sound natural, not scripted. Each time you tell your story it may be different, which is OK as long as you’re hitting the key points. Avoid writing out every word and memorizing it; this will make your story sound rehearsed and overworked. First impressions are made quickly; make sure the impression you make is a positive one.