If academic failure is an early part of my "tell me about yourself" answer, how do I keep that from casting a long shadow over me in an interview?

Mark's examples in the "Tell Me About Yourself" podcast (part of the Interviewing Series) started with where he grew up, so my parallel would include the fact that I moved to Houston for college -- but I never finished that degree. Instead, I failed out more than once.

That was the late 1980s, so it's not necessarily relevant to what I can do for someone today (I have completed a bachelor's degree and an MBA since then), but I'm worried that a negative "he failed out of school" impression will linger over me, no matter what lessons I learned from it.

Should I just leave it at "I didn't finish" for other reasons, like lack of money (all my scholarships went away), should I tell the failure story, or should I present this some other way?

jhack's picture

Have you also listened to this two-part podcast:

which goes into much more detail on how you deal with questions about your past (particularly the not-so-good parts). 

The key isn't to "explain away" but to indicate what you learned and how you grew. You don't need to go into details:  School wasn't a good fit, you chose to work, you grew, you chose to go back, and you did get a degree.  If you don't dwell on it or make it a big deal, the recruiter won't either. 

John Hack

flexiblefine's picture

I don't think I've gotten to that one -- I have about 100 podcasts left before I'm caught up. :) I'm not surprised that Mark and Mike have presented advice on that sort of thing.

At 25 years' distance, there isn't a real need for details. Treating the situation as an unmet goal and learning experience is better than using the f-word. I think you make an excellent point that the recruiter won't make a big deal of it if I don't.

I'll track those podcasts down on purpose and make sure to listen to them soon. Anything to ease my mind and help me prepare...

Houston, Texas, USA
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PhilipR's picture

I've got a feeling I may not be understanding the question in light of John's answer.

I haven't listened to the podcasts mentioned but generally, I advise people to walk into an interview with a 30-second and 2-minute summary* of their professional identity. "Tell me about yourself" is a pretty bad interview question IMO, in part because it gives the interviewee control of the conversation. However, for you that's wonderful!

Why on earth would you voluntarily include failing in your first attempt as part of your summary? If they want to know they'll ask, and you should have a response prepared.



*I kind of hate that buzzword that refers to a mode of transportation that moves you between floors in a building.

RichRuh's picture
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Philip, I agree completely!

Lest someone get the wrong idea, I'm not advocating lying in any form, but your "tell me about yourself" answer does not have to start with your birth.

Personally, I love asking the "tell me about yourself" question, because it shows me:
1. Are they prepared for a boilerplate interview question?
2. Are they focused on the value they can bring to my company, and not on themselves?

(Hint: talk about your career, not your kids!)


jkuntz's picture

I agree with the above comments. Either don't mention it or use it as an example of your "stick-to-it-iveness" (yes that's not a real word!). I think it's a fabulous chance to speak about what you learned and that you followed up to get your degrees later in life when (perhaps) you were more motivated to learn. Don't dwell on the failing out part but the following up and getting degrees later part.

jhack's picture

"Tell me about yourself" is a great question.  I've interviewed hundreds and hundreds of candidates over the years.  It doesn't give the interviewee control of the situation any more than any other question; it only gives them the floor (until the first interruption!). 

Questions that require a candidate to simultaneously demonstrate self-awareness, self-confidence, broad perspective, ability to structure an answer, and to articulate clearly all those things, is a great question.  This is an easy question to answer, and a difficult one to answer well. 

This question disqualifies more candidates than any other single question I ask.  I am always amazed at how little thought candidates have given to their own careers. If all you want is a job, you won't work for me. 

PhilipR:  Why would one voluntariy mention failure?  To highlight a trait, like resilience or resourcefulness, that you think would be valuable in the job for which you're interviewing.  This can be very powerful.  You might want to listen again to Mark's answer in the interview series; this is not simply offering up a failure. 

John Hack

flexiblefine's picture

I don't know whether I'll face the actual "tell me about yourself" question, but I figured I should be prepared for it if Mark and Mike are offering advice on how to prepare. :)

As I mentioned, Mark's example answers start with things like "I'm the youngest of three sons, my mom and dad did these kinds of work," etc. Based on that part of the examples (which he used even in the longer-career example), you can see why I thought about that part of my life.

I wondered whether mentioning the academic failure part would be useful as a lead-in to lessons learned, as John suggests, or whether leaving out the actual "failure" part and simply saying I didn't finish would work just as well. I don't know how strongly "failed out of college" would stick in the mind of a recruiter, and I don't want to mess things up by being too detailed in my answers.

I can invoke the same kinds of lessons without talking about painfully low GPAs, and that looks like the best way to handle it overall.

Houston, Texas, USA
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goofy's picture

Agree to @philipr @richruh.

I have come to learn that the 'Tell Me about yourself' question should get in response *your* elevator pitch. It has to be a quick summary of the past, what you have done and core expertise you have and importantly what you look forward to do. My learning is not to go chronological but keep it pithy.

------------------- x ----------------


I have built my expertise in industrial pipe design in over 25yrs of my experience.

In my recent position, I designed the plant layout for Alpha drilling company in Balzac, and also oversaw the execution of the plan. In this position and before, I have done design, bid formulation, negotiation and providing an oversight into the project execution. I see myself work well in a culturally diverse work force and in a globally distributed location. I am deeply invested in people and have built successful teams. People have seen me as a mentor and coach.

I gained strong experience over the years both in engineering and commercial. I can add value by designing layouts that bring-in long term benefit to capital invested; and I look forward to talk more about that during the interview. I know that Alpha drilling company is seeking to explore in Andromeda, which has a challenging terrain; a thing that I have immense expertise in.I am seeking for a plant architect role in your company.
------------------- x ----------------

The elevator pitch preparation should be part of your resume making exercise, and could go in your cover letter as you send out to recruiters. It should bring in softer elements that the resume otherwise cannot hold.

flexiblefine's picture

Perhaps I'm trying to adhere to the examples too closely as models for my own answer. Yes, I came to Houston for college, but that was over 25 years ago -- that's close enough to "forever" for most situations that I don't need to explain how I got here in detail.

An interview is about the work/career/professional stuff, as Philip, Rich, and Goofy point out, so that's where my real effort should go.

Houston, Texas, USA
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Mark's picture
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to give specific advice about someone else's TMAY answer without understanding the whats and whys of the decisions you made.  We're shooting in the dark.

It's completely reasonable to mention failures in a TMAY answer.  I do.  One of my goals at West Point was getting into Med School - I failed.

The TMAY answer is NOT an elevator pitch.  The 1-minute concept is flawed, pre-supposing interjections by an interviewer, and leaving the candidate unprepared for those interjections.  Recruiters want more.


flexiblefine's picture

I'm listening to the podcasts John Hack suggested, and it sounds like the podcasts may suit my situation pretty well. As Mark says early in the first cast, I should worry less about playing defense and spend more time on my positives.

That failure is older than some of my co-workers. The more I worry about it, the more attention I draw to it.

[added the next day:] I've finished those podcasts now, and Mark hits the nail right on the head for me. It happened a long time ago, I've learned from it, and I've moved on.

Houston, Texas, USA
DiSC: 1476