The number one mistake candidates make when answering this question is translating the question to something akin to, "Tell me everything you've done in your professional career in chronological order."
You can approach the question this way, and—if you've got a tight, coherent articulation of it—it can even work. Most of the time though, it results in a bloated, rambling, uncompelling picture of your accomplishments even if you've done a lot of impressive things.
There is a better way: the key to nailing this question is to dig deeper and understand the question behind the question. Ultimately, the interviewer wants to know why your past experiences, skills and accomplishments make you the ideal candidate for the hiring company. That's the "so what" implication of this question.
Once you understand the true question, answering it becomes a whole lot easier. We've got three concrete, tactical steps you can take to make sure you nail it every time:
- Focus on your career arc, not the strict chronological order
- Distill your experiences into key lessons learned and skills gained
- Connect the dots: show how this job is the inevitable next step in the arc
Let's understand each recommendation and how they fit together to create a great answer.
1. Focus on your career arc
If you walk through each item on your resume in a, "First I did this, then I did this, then that, etc." format, you will bore yourself and, even worse, your interviewer. The end result is that the interviewer will get lost in details, forget key points, and ultimately come away with a muddled understanding of your unique skills and experiences.
Fortunately, there's a simple solution to that: curate your experiences and articulate your career arc and experiences at a higher level. Tactically, you can accomplish this by running through a mental exercise of picking out the three or four experiences that are most relevant to the job you're interviewing for. Look for ones that helped you build skills applicable to the job at hand, or that taught you a lesson that is relevant to the type of work you'd be doing.
For example, when applying for my first full-time job at Google, I highlighted my experience selling knives door-to-door and the lessons I learned about the benefit of selling a solution rather than a specific product. Furthermore, I highlighted a relevant lesson I learned about myself: I liked showcasing the true product value to customers, but didn't love the confines of only doing direct sales. This led me to my marketing internship at Electronic Arts, the gaming company, where I continued to build my skills in articulating product value to customers, but outside of a direct sales context. This is how I created the beginning of my career arc story.
2. Distill your experiences
Now that you've got a narrative arc in place, the goal is to highlight experiences with a high signal to noise ratio. This means that you want to cut out the fluff and filler and make sure you hit the key points you want the interviewer to remember about you.
To do this, go through each key experience in your arc, whether it's a club leadership experience, a summer internship, a prior job, a study abroad program, etc, and answer three questions for yourself:
1) Why did you pursue it?
2) What key skills / lessons came out of it?
3) How did it influence your next steps?
This process will leave you with a high impact distillation of that experience.
For example, when I was graduating from UVA and interviewing for a full-time role at Google, here is how I framed my prior summer internship at EA: "I interned at EA because I grew up playing many EA games like SimCity and the FIFA series and, given my prior sales experience, was interested in marketing a product that I had a strong connection to. I learned two key things there: first, that I loved the vibrancy and pace of the Silicon Valley tech scene, and second, that an ideal fit would be marketing on a product that I was deeply engaged in. Those lessons ultimately led me to Google, whose products I already use daily, and consistently recommend to my friends and family."
This distillation works because it provides the interviewer only with the key pieces of information. Remember, this is just a "resume walkthrough," so each experience you highlight should be a succinct teaser of all of the valuable lessons you've learned. If the interviewer wants to learn more, they can always ask.
Connect the dots
If you've been reading carefully, you likely noticed that we secretly slipped the beginning of this last tip in the prior example. Where? When we finished the last distillation of the EA experience, I noted that it was what led me to apply to Google.
This is a great conclusion to your narrative arc. You've now painted a curated, distilled version of your resume which naturally ends by connecting the final dot: showing how the job you're currently applying for is the natural extension of this arc. It's hard to overstate the benefits of this approach: not only did you nail the question the interviewer asked, but you've already proactively stated how you fit into the company. Given that "walk me through your resume" is often an opening question, this is a great way to set yourself up for success for the rest of the interview.
A resume walkthrough is a tricky question to nail because it's open ended and broad. As a result, candidates often get caught rambling through their resumes and highlighting everything in an uninspired chronological walkthrough. It's easy, but it's ineffective. A little bit of structure and preparation for the narrative arc you want to paint will pay massive dividends.
One final piece of advice: if you find yourself struggling to curate just a few experiences to highlight out of fear that you'll leave out great details, remember that this is just the start of the conversation. If the interviewer finds those resume items intriguing, they'll proactively ask, and that's a good thing.
Kenton Kivestu is the Founder and CEO of RocketBlocks, an online platform that helps students prepare for case interviews. Prior to RocketBlocks, he worked as a strategy consultant in BCG's San Francisco Office, launched online ad platforms at Google and led the Zynga mobile poker franchise. He has successfully navigated hundreds of case interviews himself and believes that the case interview is an important recruiting tool that helps simulate the on the job experience. He started RocketBlocks to help candidates hone their analytical skills so they can put their best foot forward on interview day. Kenton graduated as an Echols Scholar with distinction from the University of Virginia and holds an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
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