"Tell me about yourself!" is quite possibly the most frequently used question in interviews. It is most often asked at the very start of the interview, right after you've been seated. It can be a great way to set the stage for a positive, engaging interview. Or… not.

Why interviewers like this question

First, it's supposed to be easy. Many interviewers like to put you at ease at the start of the interview, and favor a "soft" question at the start.

Second, it's open-ended. You must organize a lot of information and present just the most important and relevant facts. And hopefully you will be engaging and interesting along the way. Try to relate your answer like you would a good story. It should have a beginning, a dramatic middle and a satisfying end. If you can't articulate an interesting story, you may be difficult to remember.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

This is an interview "chestnut" question, and you should never be surprised by it.

Before your interview, spend some time outlining a solid answer, using the tips below. Draft up an outline, and then practice it. Practice it in front of a mirror, then practice it with someone you know. There's no reason you should be answering this question for the first time in an interview!

What do I include? What do I leave out?

There are no absolutes, but here are some guidelines you may want to consider as you prepare:

DO: Tell a story … your career story. Begin with how you came to be interested in this field/position:

"My interest in engineering began when I was a kid. I was always interested in how things worked."

DO: Mention your natural as well as learned strengths, and how you have applied them in your education and work experience:

"I'm strong at solving complex problems with math. I had a scholarship at Drexel, and always enjoyed my higher math courses and did very well. In my work, I like the challenge of solving problems using those skills."

DO: Give a quick overview of your career thus far, with emphasis on your most recent job. Mention one or two top accomplishments from that job:

"I've been working in engineering for six years. For the last two years I have… (fill in). I enjoyed my work there, and had some successes which I'm proud of. In particular, I was recognized for some work I did on a very visible project, involving… (fill in)"

DO: Wrap up with "What I'm interested in doing next is…" and be sure your answer points to the job you are interviewing for, as well as desired next steps for your own learning, and longer-term career growth. Finish with: "And that's why I'm interested in this position."

DON'T: Give your life story. Interviewers don't need to know you are one of six children, raised on a farm and that you love puppies and long walks in the rain… unless any of those facts are directly relevant to the job.

DON'T: Give too much detail. This entire answer should be kept to about a minute-and-a-half. After 90 seconds or so, you should come to a stop, and ask: "Is there anything you would like to know more about?" You can always continue, if asked.

Quick tip: If you're talking for 10 minutes non-stop, you're probably losing your audience, and quite possibly that job.

Ed Hunter is a Career and Executive Coach, and principal of Life in Progress Coaching. Contact him at ed@lifeinprogress.com, or at lifeinprogress.com.