Interview question - Tell me something about yourself that you would not want me to know

When you are not prepared, this question can stump the very best of thinkers, achievers and stars. At first pass this question almost sounds like: tell me if there is something you are trying to hide. I - for one - have a lot to hide from an interviewer; things that are inappropriate for a first time conversation with anyone at all - let alone a prospective employer.

This question sounds like a trick and feels like the straw that will finally break the camel's (your) back. The question is definitely designed to make you nervous, wide eyed and stressed. It is also one of the classic questions that is frequently asked at interviews.

Take a deep breath, a little bit of home work will prepare you well. Remember, the interviewer is definitely trying to weed out applicants, but their primary goal still is to find the best candidate for the job.

There are multiple parts to this question. Number one of course is the question itself, and then there are some abstract observations which are hidden behind the question.

Thinking comes naturally to humans. That is what we are programmed to do at all times. If we did not think we would not know how to accomplish tasks, even simple everyday tasks.

When the above question is posed to us, we will all think and come up with an answer. Some will come up with answers that sound smart & well thought out, and some - not so much. The answers that sound smart and well thought out are usually a product of structured thinking:

a) Analyze the question from the interviewer's perspective - what is s/he really asking. Hint: they are not trying to make your life miserable; as previously stated, they are just looking for the right candidate. In all likelihood the finally chosen candidate will have answered this question as well.

Keep calm and give your brain the opportunity to think. If you panic your brain will not be able to process the question - it will be dealing with the panic. Like it or not, the panic will also show in your body language.

b) Think of a significant event in your past that you struggled with and then overcame. That should be the headline of your answer: 'Example: I had a very hard time completing my MBA, and started out with extremely poor grades'.

c) Immediately after you have stated your headline, elaborate on it by providing relevant well grouped and summarized supporting arguments: 'Example: I took up MBA as an evening course during my first job as a logistics coordinator with XYZ Company. I had just stepped out of college and did not quite comprehend how much a logistics coordinator's job would demand of me in terms of time. As life would have it, we were also blessed with our first born that same year. Between the job and the infant at home I started out with straight D and D- in my moonlighting commitment'.

d) Finally - the meat of your answer: How did you overcome this struggle: 'Example: Upon receiving my first set of grades I knew that this was not going to work out for me. I also did not want to give up on my dream. I set up an appointment with the course counselor at the university and conveyed my situation to her. I was convinced that if there was a way for me to slow down the pace of my course, I would be able to process better and thus perform better as well. After much deliberation the counselor agreed to and was able to put me on a slower paced executive MBA program. It took me an additional year to finish, but my grades turned around. I not only earned my MBA, I also learned a terrific lesson that is mine to keep and follow for the rest of my life.'

Now you have successfully turned around a seemingly daunting negative question to a positive response that is bound to get you the points you were looking for and deserve.

Structured thinking does not come naturally to everyone, the good news is - you can easily train yourself to think in a structured manner. Not just for the interview, but for the rest of your life. If you are interested in learning more, look up Barbara Minto's expertly written book on the subject: The Pyramid Principle .

The following is my interpretation of what the interviewer may be looking for when they ask you the question in discussion:

1. How do you react to a seemingly uncomfortable question?
2. Are you able to think in a structured manner?
3. Are you succinct in your communication?
4. Do you think back and plan ahead?
5. How genuine and convincing are you in your answer?

Author:  Rajiv Banerjee           
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