Updated: Jun 29, 2020
I was an avid reader of IIM interviewers before I appeared for one (actually, eight in total). Based on a sample size of 200+ interviews that I have read or heard of, it can be safely deduced that 98% of them begin with this question - "Tell us something about yourself".
There can be a variety of formats in which this question is asked. Some of them include:
Who is (insert your name)?
How would your friends/family members introduce you?
Tell us something about yourself that is not there in the form.
and many more..
It makes no difference what way this question is put because the format that I'm going to share answers all the forms in which this question can be asked. Before we move to the format, let me tell you the intent with which this question is asked to the interviewee:
Why is this question asked?
I've noticed the interviewers during my IIM interviews. There are generally 2-3 panelists. Each one of them has an individual copy of the interview form that you would have submitted beforehand.
When a candidate is asked to leave, the panelists note the performance of the candidate. But, the moment that's done, they immediately call the next one. The gap is too little for them to go through the form of the next candidate in detail. So, while they're reading the form, this acts as a standard question for them.
However, don't doubt their attention. In fact, most often, at least one of them is not reading the form and is looking at you while you're answering this question. The panelist who is reading your interview form tends to ask most follow-up questions in the first-half of your interview.
So, the first objective of this question is to be able to build a follow-up queue of questions from the interview form - it has nothing to do with your answer, but with the time you buy the interviewer. Surprising, isn't it?
The second objective of this question is the more commonly known one - to know more about you. This solves three purposes:
It allows you to say what's you couldn't put in the form.
It helps the interviewers form a first impression.
It offers more follow-up questions to the interviewers.
The list of follow-up questions that the interviewers develop using your interview form and your introduction sets the ground of who is going to drive your interview.
The objective should be to drive the interview as per your direction.
If the interview goes in the interviewer's comfort zone, you might get in trouble. Hence, the follow-up questions should be, what you want them to be. Now, how can this be done?
How to drive the interview using this question?
Your introduction offers you an excellent opportunity to help the interviewer with the follow-up questions he/she may ask. See, the interviewers glance at your form to do a basic sanitary check - how are your academic scores, what was your graduation major, are you a fresher or not, etc. While they're doing this, they definitely create a mental log of the follow-up questions that they're going to ask.
Your objective should be to distract them from reading the interview form by making your introduction:
When your introduction is story-like, it flows - there is coherence in different elements. What I mean by this is, there is a reasoning behind every decision you took and each decision connects well with the others.
For example, if you're saying you studied commerce in class 12th because you liked business, it makes sense to connect it with B Com (H) as the graduation major by saying that I wished to get a more holistic perspective of business and that's why I opted for B Com (H).
When I used this line during IIM-A interview, the interviewer cross-questioned by asking me how B Com (H) gave me a holistic view of the business (I had prepared an answer to this because I planted this follow-up).
Since it is a story, it's better to begin with a chronological order. It's always suggested to talk more about the most recent information i.e. your graduation if you're a fresher or your work-ex if you're a professional.
The second characteristic of the introduction was curiosity-building. The intention behind this has already been shared. By the end of your introduction, you want to leave the interviewers with some 5-6 good areas of your life on which they can quiz you. That'll be you driving the interview!
This also means that you should have prepared those areas well, otherwise this may backfire. When you're choosing the topics you'd like to speak of, remember that you cannot ignore the basic ones - where you were born, what is your academic candidature, hobbies, etc. In these, what you choose to reveal is up to you.
The last element was attention-grabbing. This is the trickiest one. There is a challenge involved in this because at least one interviewer will try his/her level best not to look at you and would be busy digging up the interview form to find out that one flaw in you.
Your ideal state is when you are able to indulge all the interviewers to listen to you attentively so that the only follow-up questions they have are what you have set in store to offer them. For that, you need your introduction to be eye-catching.
It's tricky because candidates often mistake attention-grabbing with out-of-the-box. You don't have to start with a famous saying or narrate a poem, that'd only make the answer look very rehearsed (and trust me, they don't like over-prepped answers). You need something that's engaging - in which they're involved too.
How to structure this answer?
The best way to go about structuring this answer is by taking a pen and paper and writing down the major parts of your life - just write them broadly. For example:
Family and Values
Now, think about each one of them individually and note down the reason behind any decision you took in that part. For example, think through why you chose to do B Com (H) and not Economics (H), why you worked as a Research Analyst after your graduation? These reasons will provide solid ground to your introduction.
Then, think through what role each part played in helping you reach the other part - did your family had any influence on your hobby? Did the values you imbibed as a child influence your career goal? This will help you knit the story better.
Now, reflect on each of the parts again and note down the interesting things that happened during the course of events in that part. For example, what was your biggest achievement in 12th/Graduation? Which all internships did you take up? What activities did you volunteer for in your job?
These interesting points will provide that eye-catching element to your story. And finally, you'll be left with curiosity which will automatically follow when you provide so many parts for them to question you on.
What should you keep in mind?
While answering this question, remember that:
Interviewers love genuine conversations. So, don't feel bad if they have a follow-up in between. Try engaging them in a conversation and take them back to your life-story.
Your objective remains to drive the interview, so keep the follow-up questions in your mind while you're framing your answer - definitely include what you want them to quiz you on.
Flow is everything - it's a story - the story of your life. So, narrate it as if you're re-living it. Tell them why you did what you did and how it panned out for you.
Show the most amount of enthusiasm when you mention what triggered you to pursue MBA. This one should not be a common answer like peer-learning or growth, it has to be creative!
End it on a note which is your comfort zone. Because of the recency effect, the interviewers are most likely to ask you a question on the last bit of your introduction.
Here is how I introduced myself:
I was born and brought up in (Jalandhar). During my childhood, I developed a strong inclination towards business by helping my (maternal uncle with his general store) and in order to understand how businesses work, I decided to study commerce after class 10th. I was fortunate to be a student of Police DAV, which provided me with opportunities to participate in (national and international competitions). After class 12th, I decided to pursue B Com (H) from (Kirori Mal College) in order to get a more holistic view of the business world. I was a member of the (Placement Cell) of my college for 2 years and was also the (sponsorship head) for Levitate – our PC's annual fest. I (interned) with start-ups, private companies and govt. initiatives, performing a different function each time to sharpen my business acumen. Along with these co-curricular activities, I also tried to maintain a (decent GPA) in college, in fact I ended up creating a soft corner for (marketing and advertising). This inclination towards marketing is the biggest reason I wish to (pursue MBA). In fact, I also write about (marketing and advertising on Quora) and have been listed as the most viewed writer for quite a while.
Now, let's evaluate what I did:
The words you see marked in (bold and bracketed) were the areas I planted for my panelists to quiz me on. This is what I meant by curiosity-building. You provide them enough material to ask you about.
Notice how my introduction had a flow - it started from an inclination towards business which got developed due to a childhood incident, then my educational choice got determined by it.
Also see that I always gave a rationale for what I did - pursued commerce to understand business better. Fell in love with marketing and that's why want to do MBA, etc.
I also tried to grab their attention by mentioning interesting stuff - maternal uncle's general store incident, national & international competitions, internships in various roles, etc.
But, while I did that, I never gave them the details. If you leave them curious, only then you're going to get follow-ups. If you reveal it all, it'll make your introduction too lengthy.
I ended the introduction on marketing and advertising, which was my comfort zone. At this point, I could peacefully stop talking knowing that they may (and should) quiz me on it.
I also tried to keep it very genuine and simple - no quotes used, no fancy lines. Because that's just what happened in my life and I'm trying to share it with them in words they'd understand the best.
What was the result of this introduction?
Most of my interviews, especially IIM Ahmedabad and IIM Calcutta were based on my introduction. In fact, in the IIM Ahmedabad interview, almost 5-7 minutes were spent by me talking about marketing (the last bit of my introduction and also my comfort zone). To date, I feel, that sealed my fate.
So, use these techniques to draft your introduction in a manner that leaves the interviewers interested and curious to know more about you. This will save you from the much dreaded academic and GK questions.
A bonus tip will be to also prepare answers for these two questions:
How will you describe yourself in one line?
Which three words describe you the best?
This will help you understand what is that one thing you'd definitely want them to remember about you. Your eyes should sparkle when you talk about that thing.
In order to prepare better for such questions, refer to this repository of IIM questions.