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Photo illustration by Lixia Guo; Getty Images (2)

“Tell me about yourself.”

It’s hard to find a more stressful question during a job interview. The funny thing is, this is usually the interviewer’s “opener.” Maybe it’s their attempt to get you to relax; maybe it’s their way of discovering your priorities, or perhaps they just want to see how well you can communicate verbally.

But when you’re sitting across the table from someone who is deciding whether you get a job, you don’t really care about the purpose of the question – you just know that you hate it. It’s too open-ended, and you never know quite what to cover – after all, at this point, your life experiences could be worthy of a really bad novel.

As an HR manager for several brick-and-mortar businesses and online startups, I’ve seen many different kinds of responses — and some answers were more effective than others.

There is no single right way to answer this question, but you can be prepared. Here is exactly what you should cover when the question comes your way.

Speak to Who You Are Professionally

They have already read your resume, so barfing that back up is a big “no-no.” It is far better to begin with a quick statement about your profession and then move into a strength or quality you believe you have developed during your “time served” — one that you think is valuable to the company or organization.

Mention Your Past Experience Through a Story

Your interviewer doesn’t need to hear a laundry list of job titles. Here is where you can tell a story that demonstrates the strength or quality that you just spoke to. Prepare your story ahead of time by thinking about positive experiences at your previous jobs: When were you praised? When did you succeed?

State Why You Are There

Why do you want this particular job? Remember, it’s not all about you. You’re there because you think you can be of value to them, not them to you. How do your background and strengths meet a need they have?

Add Some Humor – Sparingly

A fun real-life event is a good opportunity to lighten the mood without looking fake. When Veronica Wright, a career counselor at Resumes Centre, was faced with this question, she responded in a brilliant way — with a dose of humor.

Breaking the ice is a nice way to get the interviewers on your side and show a bit more of your personality. But if you’re going to attempt this, it doesn’t hurt to try out a few attempts at home.

A Real-Life Example to Follow

Susan has been a high school teacher for the past six years. She has returned to school and taken courses in training and development and is now looking to get into the corporate world as a trainer. The money’s better and she is ready to work with adults instead of grading papers and dealing with upset and angry parents. Obviously, she isn’t going to talk about this in the interview — it’s never a great idea to trend toward the negative — but you get the idea.

When Susan gets the “tell me about yourself” question, here is how her answer might sound:

Susan nailed it. She led with her strengths, told a story, and explained why she was there. And she did it in about 90 seconds. That’s another crucial point – KISS – not keep is simple, but keep it short. You don’t need to run down your entire life story.

Go Forth and Practice

“Tell me about yourself” isn’t a question you should fear. In fact, with the right preparation, it can be a valuable way to kick off an interview and share details you actually want your future employers to know.