(CareerBuilder.com) -- To a painter, an untouched canvas holds unlimited possibility for a bold new creation. But for each artist, the potential for something great is counterweighed by the potential for unparalleled failure.
Similarly, excitement and anxiety loom over job interviews. When you present yourself to an employer, you hope all the right words come out and you woo them. You only practice the perfect responses to questions, never the wrong answers. But in the back of your mind you know that you might end up sounding like a terrible candidate who no employer will ever hire, even if you're actually the perfect person for the job.
For a job seeker, the blank canvas is the open-ended question. When the right answer requires more than a yes or a no, job seekers need to take advantage of the freedom they have with their responses, not fear it. But perhaps no question intimidates job seekers more than "So, tell me a little about yourself."
You have many ways to answer, and the best response might depend on the stage of your career.
"David Copperfield" you are not
When Charles Dickens begins the tale of "David Copperfield," the novel's namesake ruminates on his life. Where and when he was born and what he's to become. Leave that specificity and personal information to classic literature or your personal ads. Employers don't want to know about your childhood. They're concerned with your professional qualifications and any history that's relevant to the position.
Here is some information you don't want to blurt out when asked to tell a little about yourself:
• A brief summary of your childhood
• Your dislike of your current boss and your desire to get a new job ASAP
• The details of your current divorce proceedings
• Your passionate religious and political beliefs
• The fact that you're probably moving in six months and are just look for a temporary job
Employers don't care that you're the youngest of three children and played the bassoon in junior high. This personal information might naturally come out during conversation, but it's not what you want to lead with. Wherever you are in your career, remember that employers want to know what skills you bring and how you will help their businesses.
If you're in college...
College jobs can vary from part-time positions you take to earn extra cash or they can be entry-level positions you use as the basis for your desired career. Either way, you're at a stage where education is your most significant qualification. And if you have work experience, mention it as an example that you're responsible and have a track record as a good employee.
Your answer shouldn't sound like: "I don't have any 8 a.m. classes because I usually stay out late. And I'll need weekends off."
Your answer should sound like: "I'm a full-time student studying education. I worked as a barista for two years and then as a sales clerk for the past two summers, so I have plenty of experience working with customers."
If you're just out of school...
When employers hire new graduates, they know they're not getting seasoned workers with decades of experience. They also know they're getting workers who might not stick around for very long but who are current on the latest technology and trends.
Your answer shouldn't sound like: "I just graduated last week and have a list of ideas on how to improve your operations. You're doing a lot of things wrong."
Your answer should sound like: "I just received my B.A. in marketing with a 3.9 GPA. My courses in account management give me a strong foundation to begin my career with XYZ company, and I'm excited to learn from the industry leaders here."
If you're mid-career and looking to switch industries...
Many workers who specialize in one field for several years begin to think about exploring other industries. Either they grow tired of their jobs or they realize their skills can be put to better use elsewhere. Whatever the reason, their focus should be repackaging their experience for the new industry they want.
Your answer shouldn't sound like: "Well, I've been a manufacturing supervisor for 15 years. I don't have any experience as a sales supervisor or in sales at all."
Your answer should sound like: "For the past 15 years I was a supervisor at ABC Manufacturing. You might wonder why I want to move into sales at this stage in my career, but much of my time has been spent negotiating with vendors and meeting with CEOs. Although the industries might be different, the skills are the same."
If you're easing into retirement...
Seasoned workers might not want to devote the majority of their week to working, but they aren't ready to leave the workforce entirely. When interviewing for part-time or contract work, these workers want to play up their experience and commitment to the job.
Your answer shouldn't sound like: "I've had enough 50-hour weeks. Let the young workers try to keep up with that pace. I'm ready to finally relax and earn some extra money so I can finally quit for good."
Your answer should sound like: "I've seen the industry change over the past 40 years and am eager to see where it goes in the future. As consultant, I'm eager to share my vast knowledge with clients in order to help their business grow.
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