How to answer the job interview question: ‘Tell me one thing about yourself you wouldn't want me to know’

Remember, when this job interview question about secrets comes up: You’re not talking to a friend, you’re talking to a potential boss.

How to answer the job interview question: ‘Tell me one thing about yourself you wouldn't want me to know’

You thought your job interview was going very well—until your interviewer and dropped a bomb and asks: “What is one thing about yourself that you wouldn’t want me to know?”

All sorts of inappropriate—no, really inappropriate—answers may pop into your ahead.

Do not blurt them out! Take a moment, inhale slowly and then smile, because you’ve done your research and you know what this question is really about.

“Interviewers are looking to hear how something in your past has changed you for the better,” says Lynda McKay, vice president of human resource consulting at Bagnall, an employee benefits and HR consulting firm based in Phoenix. A good answer to this question “demonstrates your adaptability to learn, grow and possibly be flexible.”

One thing is certain: You have to give a response. Here’s how to pick the right one.

Bring up your younger years

Start out by outlining a problem you faced in your past work life—or even something interesting from your high school or college years, McKay says. Those are prime mistake-making years—and you’ve come a long way since then. Just make sure you pick an example that you’ve learned something from. Don’t overdo it with sordid details; simply describe the challenge you were facing and what was at stake.

You say: “I was an overachiever in college and there were a couple of semesters when I tried to do it all with classes and tons of extracurriculars. My grades were slipping and I was burning out quickly.”

Describe your reaction

Then, follow up with how you overcame the problem, says Joseph Wessner, who had a long history of hiring in the restaurant industry before becoming assistant general manager at Coughlin Printing Group in Lowville, New York.  

A spotless career is rare, and as long as you can show you aren’t afraid of dealing with adversity, even talking about a challenge that puts you in a bad light shouldn’t hurt your chances. “Answering the question humanizes you to the interviewer,” Wessner says.

You say: “So, I took a semester off to clear my mind, did some traveling—mostly some soul searching—and came back ready to finish my degree, which I did, with honors.”

Share the lesson

Finally, talk about the key takeaways from your experience. This may be something you learned about yourself, such as how you prefer to work or your career interests. If you can include information about ensuing successes or how it brought you to the current interview, add that as well.

You say: "Coming so close to burning out and giving up entirely helped me understand my own limits while also strengthening my resolve to succeed. Traveling also made me realize that any career I took would have to have international opportunities, which is why I’m interested in this position."

Get more wisdom under your belt

Hiring managers are going to throw some curveballs in your direction—after all, it's their job to be sure you can take a little heat and come out without getting completely burned. Prepare your answers in advance and you'll feel more equipped to step up to the plate. Could you use some help? Join Monster today. As a member, you'll get interview insights, career advice, and other useful job search tips sent directly to your inbox. Don't white-knuckle it through the job search process. Let Monster help you through the rough patches.