Summarizing your life in only three minutes can be a daunting challenge unless you are well-prepared for it.

At a job interview, interviewers often open the conversation with: “Tell me about yourself.” Why are these four words so ubiquitous in interviews? A company wants to know whether you can meet its needs and whether you are a good fit for the company’s culture. On a deeper level, the company may want to discern whether you are a serious candidate; whether you have figured out how to “play the game.”

To convince a company that you are the right candidate, you need to be very selective about what you say. For example, they are not interested in where you were born, which clubs you joined in high school, and what your favorite Italian restaurant is. Instead, they care very much about your education (especially if you are relatively new to the workforce), accomplishments, career path, and aspirations.

The process offered by Scott Barlow, founder of Happen to Your Career, can help you develop an effective response to those four words.

Barlow advises his clients to use what he calls “the ‘Present/Past/Future’ framework.”

Interviewer: “So, tell me about yourself.”

You (smiling internally):
“Well, currently I ____________. (present)

Before that I ___________________. (past)

In the future I _______________. (future)”

In constructing your present/past/future answer in advance of an interview, carefully analyze the vacancy announcement to determine the target job’s requirements. Next, determine how your education, experience, and accomplishments match up against their needs. Finally, choose concrete and easy-to-understand examples, preferably with quantified results, that demonstrate what you’ve done and accomplished.

Finally, try to define what makes you better than the others interviewing for that job. Imagine that a hiring manager is interviewing you and four other people whose resumes look like yours. If you were asked why you and not the others should be hired, what would you answer?

Answering this question for yourself should take time and introspection. Perhaps your contribution was internal to an employer (for example, you recognized a problem and came up with a solution that saved money or processing time). Perhaps your contribution was external to an employer (for example, you smoothed over a problem with an important client, which helped the company retain that client).

Bottom line: You know it’s coming, so prepare for it carefully. Combine Scott Barlow’s three-step approach with your experience and accomplishments that most directly relate to the target position, and make sure you stand out from the crowd.

A true story: Earlier this year, I was working with a recent and highly-qualified college graduate (good degree — engineering; good school; good grades). She was selective about where she wanted to work, and was finally invited to a full day of interviews with a great employer. Before her interview, we discussed how she might answer “tell me about yourself.” Seven people interviewed her, one after the other, and each one of them began with: “Tell me about yourself.” Later, she was told that she had made an excellent impression on the interviewers. I’d like to think that her well-prepared answer helped her.