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A good friend of mine had an interview for a psychology Masters degree. The interviewer asked my friend: "Tell me about yourself".

  • How should one approach such a question?
  • What do the admission committee expect to hear?
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@scaaahu Actually, there are some expectations from the candidates. I've found that candidate should not tell about the past events: the committee already know them. So, the story is more complicated and for sure not "opinion based" as you suppose. –  Ilan May 2 at 5:39
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@Davidmh in "The Rules of Work" bestseller... I suppose it is related –  Ilan May 2 at 20:57
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@Ilan I think the question is ultimately worth answering. I thought the edit might make it slightly more appealing to people. I tried to make the title a little more self-contained and generally easier to consume and read. –  Jeromy Anglim May 3 at 10:07
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@JeromyAnglim Thanks for that. Actually, millions of people asked this question and don't really know what to answer. I don't understand why in this community it is not not welcomed.... –  Ilan May 3 at 10:11
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I dont think we should downvote the question, it is very common and valid. –  Kogesho May 3 at 22:17

4 Answers 4

In this occasion, the interviewers want to know your background and your motivation of further study in this particular subject. They want to give the opportunity to the right person.

For example, I was once involved in the admission interview (although I didn't have the final say in the decision making). Based on my observation, those who had strong motivation but average GPA won over those with weak motivation and high GPA.

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I would recommend approaching it as your opportunity to guide the interview in the direction you want it to go. As a professional psychologist, you would often have to introduce yourself and your work to others. What any given committee expects to hear is anyone's guess, but maybe the average committee would at least be happy to see you present a clear, succinct, professional summary of your interests and experiences.

Contrary to some implications that are starting to appear between the lines of responses here, psychologists are not necessarily more conscious of or trained in interviewing than others. Some of us specialize in interviewing, self-report, projective assessment methodology, psychoanalysis, and other forms of open-ended, qualitative research, but many (maybe most) of us do not. In defense of the extremely general, almost meaningless prompt, "Tell me about yourself," it is useful as a way of forcing the interviewee to initiate conversation on the topics of personal relevance, and may elicit those topics that an interviewee identifies with most strongly in a more direct way than other questions. Even if one were to ask questions based on prominent items from an applicant's CV, one could not be certain that those items weren't placed there after strategic deliberation or in capitulation to hiring committees' expectations. Asking a question like this that might easily be answered by glancing at an applicant's CV may catch an interviewee off-guard, forcing some on-the-spot self-reassessment in the underprepared, or giving hints of a person's true identity and interests without all the dressing and polish people usually apply to their CV entries.

Still, psychologists aren't necessarily more aware of these uses of the question than hirers of different backgrounds, and expecting these tactics to be deliberate may give too much credit to some interviewers who engage in them unwittingly. In some cases, it may just be a way of forcing the interviewee to guide the interview for lack of personal will to do so, or for lack of having had the time or desire to review an applicant's credentials directly beforehand. Either way, consider it a challenge, and come prepared to rise to the occasion on any open-ended question. Can you introduce yourself in a way that's impressive, professional, interesting, and not overwrought or revealing of personal weaknesses? Can you handle ill-formulated questions and vague statements of interest in a constructive manner when put on the spot and given an opportunity to demonstrate your expertise? The answer to these questions had better be "yes", because you'd certainly have to perform these functions as a psychologist.

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I am answering your comment here. The last sentence "because you'd certainly have to perform these functions as a psychologist." seems to imply that this answer is more applicable to psychologists rather than academics in general. –  scaaahu May 5 at 6:28
    
@scaaahu: touché, but that implication is not intended very strongly. I'm speaking with more certainty about psychology because I happen to be a psychologist, but again, I would be very surprised if people in other fields didn't also have to perform those functions. Again, they are no more unique to psychology than the question in question and its ilk. –  Nick Stauner May 5 at 6:54

How should one approach such a question?

By telling them about yourself.

What do the admission committee expect to hear?

Something about yourself.

Relax. It's not a trick question. (Or if it is a trick question, you don't want to go there.)

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Actually, you gave a superficial answer. Searching the web and collecting pieces of information I should say that this question has a solid background and the candidate should prepare to answer it. –  Ilan May 3 at 16:01
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No, my answer is neither superficial nor easy. If they want something more specific, they can bloody well ask you something more specific. Playing mind games with candidates is unacceptable, even (especially?) in a psychology department. –  JeffE May 3 at 18:02
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You might be amazed at the mind games that go on even (and maybe sometimes especially) in psychology departments...and yes, your answer is superficial. –  Nick Stauner May 3 at 22:46
    
Don't walk, etc. –  JeffE May 4 at 4:02
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@scaaahu: there is nothing about this question that is unique to psychology departmental interviews. Surely it's not unfamiliar to people in other fields. Regardless, this answer is nearly as useless as, "I am a cat person," would be in an interview when asked this question. At best one could hope for the same amused reaction this answer received through glib dismissal. (Nothing personal implied JeffE; strictly referring to the answer). I've offered my own answer to argue that there is a trick to answering this question. It's a wild card; be prepared to take the lead and make the most of it. –  Nick Stauner May 5 at 6:00

I remember seeing this question on interview preparation articles or most asked question lists, and I must say this question makes no sense. The question seems so simple yet very hard to answer. I don't recommend replying with "Could you be more specific?" because it may seem like you are incapable of answering a simple! question. This is more likely to be the first question if you ever face it, sort of to break the ice, and you can simply introduce yourself and mention your professional interests and your purpose, very briefly. After this question, they will move to the specific questions that actually make sense.

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