taking notes in an interview

by Ask a Manager on October 26, 2009

A reader writes:

I have an interview next Friday. Is it weird or considered rude to take notes?

When I’m interviewing, I am desperately trying to stay alert, listen, take mental notes, and think of my response to the dreaded behavioral questions (I HATE those!) at the same time. I am pretty darn organized — I love my notes, calendars, and lists. I always come prepared to any interview with a physical list of questions, I’ve just never actually written down notes because I didn’t want to seem like I was too stuffy or wasn’t flexible, which I definitely am. Most people seem to like that I come with a little notebook, but still being unemployed for so long, you start to wonder if even little things like that might hinder you getting a job you’re well qualified for!

I think taking notes is great, as long as you’re not doing it at the expense of the natural flow of the conversation or causing long pauses while you write. (Presumably you don’t want to write down every single thing, though, but rather just those things that you want to use in some way later.)

I suppose it’s possible that some interviewer out there might not like this, but that would get into the realm of interviewers who are going to penalize you for other perfectly reasonable behavior, and you don’t want to work for them anyway.

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{ 16 comments }

Mary October 26, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Thanks!

Yes, no feverish writing word-by-word. If the questions aren't answered in the natural course of convo, then I just wait until the end and pull out my notebook (nerd alert) and ask away. They're all legitimate questions I have, not ones to ask for the sake of asking.

I am well aware that it's pretty nerdy, and I'm OK with that! I just don't want to take it to the next "Oh..Oh gosh. I don't think I want to work with that!" level.

But, you're right- if I'm going to be penalized for having my own organizational method, then I probably don't want to work there.

fridayprofgroup October 26, 2009 at 4:03 pm

When an interviewee doesn't have any questions for me during the interview, that raises a flag for me. There is no way that anyone can understand any job/company 100% before they start to work there. When they show up with a notebook, have questions prepared and jot down the occasional note, that lets me know that they are engaged and interested.

Steve October 26, 2009 at 7:48 pm

You can always ask the interviewer if they mind if you take notes, although i would default to not taking notes because some people find it offensive. When there is a break between interviewers you can write down a few things, and after the interviews you can write/type anything you missed. I find it nice to keep notes about questions i was asked in interviews since its amazing how much the same questions keep being asked, even between companies in different cities. The next time the question comes up you can ace it. I like to listen to the interviewer and taking notes can distract me from that i find.

Steve October 26, 2009 at 7:52 pm

oh yeah, and the phrase "you don't want to work for them anyway" is overly cliche and dosen't really apply when you are competing with dozens or more candidates for a single money paying job.

Ask a Manager October 26, 2009 at 7:53 pm

Well, if people are interested in just getting any job, even if it's the wrong fit, they're reading the wrong blog.

Vicki September 29, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Amen.

I’ve taken two “I’m desperate. I “can” do this even if it’s not a great fit” jobs and both failed Very Fast.

Maybe some people can be motivated to keep going in something mind-killing because it brings in a check, but stress is bad for your physical and mental well-being over time.

Anonymous October 26, 2009 at 9:33 pm

Taking notes makes it look like you're actively listening. Writing down some salient points, especially the names of the people in the room (nothing quite like calling Marie 'Marty' the whole interview or in the thank-you note) can save you later. I just noted some things like hours, dates, department names, etc. – most of the time I was totally focused on the interviewer and engaged in the discussion. And when it came time for questions, I could flip right to the page with my questions, cross out the covered ones, and pick the one or two remaining. It also helps with the crazy intense eye contact you get from some interviewers. I've always gotten good feedback on the notebook.

Anonymous October 28, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Fine as long as you ask if you can take notes, and explain why (notes on benefits, work environment, names, the job, etc. are fine, anything else is questionable). Bringing your own list of questions is great in my book, it means that the candidate is interested and thought about the position beforehand.

I used to work in a very small, close-knit industry, and interview questions often got passed on to candidates by their friends. We once had someone who was clearly writing down every single question we asked them. He was not taking notes on anything we said on the company, the job, or anything else, but was only writing down our questions. We cut it off halfway through and ended the interview. Was he trying to just pass the questions on? Who knew, but it was questionable actions for us and he became a no.

Anonymous October 29, 2009 at 3:06 pm

I'm a habitual note taker. I have a slight issue with auditory processing and have found taking notes to help, not just to remember what was said, but to understand questions – it's like my hand has a direct link to my brain that my ears don't have.

I have found, at times, that some people find note taking threatening. I haven't noticed it in interviews, but in day to day work. I have one manager who gets downright pissy about it. He likes to make racist and misogynous remarks, and someone writing things down makes him jumpy and aggressive.

So yes, certainly there are people who don't like someone who takes notes. They'r d***s though.

Regards,
Jessica

Anonymous October 29, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Best practice… ask the interviewer. Different companies may have different policies. As an interviewer I certainly encourage individuals to take notes. If it allows the individual to keep their attention and ease their nerves what is the harm. A note to interviewees you should not be taking more notes than the interviewer… remember you should be doing most of the talking the interviewer should be doing most of the listening.

thefunctionalweirdo June 13, 2010 at 4:10 am

I always have a notebook on me for interviews, a small steno pad safely tucked away. If the interviewer is throwing a lot of dense information at me, I always wait for a pause and ask if they mind if I take notes. Otherwise, I wait until it's my turn to ask questions and jot down the answers (job duties, pay scale, etc…). I've never had anyone mind in the slightest, but I ALWAYS make sure to ask first.

Jennifer January 17, 2011 at 1:25 pm

I worked for a company where you weren’t allowed to bring any notes, paper or pen into the interview (including a copy of your resume). The interview panel each had a copy of the resume and would ask questions about it during the intervew – and they expected interviewees to have their resume memorised.

When I asked about this (post-interview), they said that too many people “wrote everything in their resume and kept referring to it in interviews.” They thought that if we really had done what was on our resumes, we wouldn’t need any reminder during the interview. This also meant we had to memorise the questions we had for the interview panel.

Unfortunately, they didn’t tell interviewees about it until the interview had started (at which point they would tell the interviewee to put away all paper notes). Everyone I know who interviewed there (especially at first) felt as though they had been chastised like a child right at the beginning of the interview. Interestingly, I enjoyed working for the company itself: I just thought the HR policies were atrocious.

Ask a Manager January 17, 2011 at 1:29 pm

This is really interesting! How did they explain their request to the interviewees themselves??

Jennifer January 17, 2011 at 2:50 pm

They really seemed to be erring on the side of caution and trying to be equitable amongst all applicants. They would say something to the effect of “I’m sorry, but we’ll have to ask you to put away all paper and pens.” And they would repeat it if you still had out your resume/cover letter/ copy of the job posting. If questioned about this, interviewees were told that they should have come to the interview prepared and that included knowing their own resume and the complete job posting.

I was also told that not everyone brings these kind of things to the interview (e.g., their resume, cover letter, copy of the posting, list of questions to ask the interview panel). They felt that if they allowed some people to bring this in, it would disadvantage those who hadn’t done so. That part didn’t make any sense to me: to put everyone on a “level playing field” – including those who hadn’t fully prepared. You’d think they would be interested in people who had questions to ask, who could cite company policies and procedures, etc. (Which you could do if you memorised it all, I guess.)

I should add that the company’s interview process seemed flawed in another way as well. HR established the list of interview questions for each job posting (so far so good) and also had a list of what acceptable answers were (which seems okay to use as a guideline). But here’s where it gets weird: interviewees only got “points” for talking specifically about these points/acceptable answers. If they mentioned something else that might be relevant, the interview panel couldn’t take it into consideration. Everyone knew that if they stop writing, just stop talking. Literally, some of us were told by HR that it was better to stop mid-sentence in order to “get on the right track.”

I had a friend who applied for an assistant manager position. She was asked something to the effect of “What do you think your biggest challenge would be with X?” She considered the question and answered based on her own strengths/weaknesses – only to find out later that, even for this question (evaluating oneself), she was supposed to have answered in a specific way!

When questioned about any of this, the answer was always that they were trying to be fair to all applicants and make sure everyone had a “level playing field.” Have you ever heard of anything like this?

(Part of me would love to work for the company again: I love the work and the people. I just don’t want to deal with HR.)

Ask a Manager January 17, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Oooh, I don’t like this at all!

First, as an applicant, I’d be really annoyed if I asked why I couldn’t use/take notes and was told that I should have come prepared. To the point that I’d be very unlikely to take the job if offered, because I would assume the company had a really crazy culture. So I have to think that they’re risking losing great people for bad reasons.

The rest of this — the trying to be equitable in misapplied ways, the limited range of acceptable answers and not allowing interviewers to use their own judgment whenever a good answer wasn’t on the approved list — sounds a lot like (some) government hiring, where they’ve so misapplied concepts that started out rooted in something good (equitable treatment) that they’ve completely messed up their hiring.

Normally in hearing something like this, I’d say that it says something bad about the rest of the company too. You sound like you had a good experience there though, aside from their HR practices. Any insight into why someone in a different part of the company isn’t reining in HR?

Jennifer January 17, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Management is a bit … odd (weak?). Some of the executive management team are great, but many aren’t as great (preferring to avoid conflict, etc.). And HR is a pretty forceful department that pretty much gets its way.

For the most part, HR isn’t involved in day-to-day operation of the company. (As I say, most of my colleagues were great.) But HR do consider the hiring process to be their realm. I’ve talked to people in different departments in the company who have been on the interview selection teams who have been quite dumbfounded at what they have to ask/accept. (For example, HR will overrule the IT staff with respect to what technical requirements are required vs. desired and how to screen candidates for these skills. This may not be unusual – someone was talking about it in the comments on the weekend – but it’s still frustrating.)

I’ve never understood why they weren’t reigned in. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t seem to be a specific person/people within the department. From the time I started there until now, there has been almost a complete turnover of staff in HR (e.g., three directors). But each HR director has had a part in hiring his/her successor so maybe it’s an HR thing?

When I think about their hiring practices, it does make me glad I’m not there anymore. It makes it very tough to move up internally (which is why I left the company, actually).

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