when you forget the interview question mid-answer

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A reader writes:

I’ve been very selectively job hunting for the last year and have had a few interviews. I have found it difficult to get into the interviewing groove because I only have one about every four months due to the low number of applications I’ve submitted. I have a “big” interview coming up that I’m preparing for, and after an awkward impromptu interview for a club tonight, I was reminded about a problem I’ve been having during interviews.

When asked a multi-part question during an interview, I often find myself forgetting the question while I start giving the answer. This results in mild panic as I scramble to coherently try to finish my thoughts, and either ends up in an awkward situation where I have to ask the interviewers to repeat the question or they have to prompt me to continue or I worry that if I don’t ask and they don’t prompt me, I gave an incomplete answer which I will be penalized for. I already try to give myself a brief pause to collect my thoughts before I start answering a question, but between being nervous and then having my mind flood with ideas, I keep ending up lost mid-answer. Do you have any suggestions?

One trick to better lodge all the pieces of the question in your brain is to repeat it before you start answering. For instance: “I’ll answer the last part of that about X first, and then I’ll come back to Y.”  Or, “Sure. I’ll tell you about X first, and then explain how Y has fit into that.” Sometimes just saying it out loud can help you remember it.

But if that doesn’t work, it’s also completely fine to say, “And you had a second part to that question too — you wanted to also know….?” in a tone that says “Please prompt me; I’ve forgotten the next part of your question.”  It’s even fine to just come out and say, “And I’ve forgotten the second part of your question — can you remind me?”  This is normal, and unless you’re applying for a job that requires remembering multi-part questions without writing them down, it’s unlikely to be held against you.

Speaking of writing things down, some people find it helpful to jot notes in situations like this. You don’t want to take lengthy notes that require you to pause the conversation or break eye contact for more than a few seconds, of course, but just really quick notes to keep you focused. For instance, let’s say that your interviewer said, “Tell me about the work you did at ABC Corporation and what your biggest accomplishment was there. And what led you to leave?”  You might jot down these notes: “ABC, accomplishment, why left.” And if you feel weird about doing that, you can just say, “It’s ingrained in me to write everything down so I make sure I address everything.” In other words, you’ll convey, “I’m super organized!” not “I can’t remember anything you say.”

But really, I suspect a big part of what’s happening here is that you’re freaking yourself out by worrying that you won’t remember everything and that it will be a Horrible Disaster if you don’t, and so you panic, and panic is really effective at wiping our brains clean. So I’d also try just relaxing about it a little, and realizing that it’s completely fine to just say, “What was the second part of your question again?”

What other advice do people have?

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. MoniqueC

    One thing I find helpful is to repeat the question in the form of a sentence. For example, if the interviewer asks “what would you do differently if you ran your current workplace,” you could respond: “If I ran my current workplace, I would ______.”

    Reply
  2. Jubilance

    My two tricks were already posted – restating the question before I give my answer & also jotting down notes. I try to jot down 1 or 2 key words for each part of the question. Restating the question also helps with making sure that I completely understand the question before I begin to answer, and to get clarification if I need to from the interviewer.

    Reply
  3. EG

    My advice is not to worry. If you are comfortable, write things down so you don’t forget parts. But if you skip over an important part of the question, the interviewer is likely to remind you of it.

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  4. Runon

    Jotting it down has always been helpful for me. The other thing for me has been to practice. Practice interviewing certainly. Even if the person is asking silly questions put on a suit and sit across from someone and try answering it. (Or do it over the phone. My mother’s husband is extremely nervous so when he has an interview I’ve been calling him and doing phone practice interviews which have helped a lot.)
    The other way to practice is in day to day conversation. There are a lot of times when someone rattles 3 or 4 thoughts or questions together. Work thru holding them all in your head at once and just trying to do it in day to day conversation will make it much easier when you get to the pressure situation.

    Reply
    1. Ash

      That’s not necessarily helpful advice for all questions. If the interviewer asks you to describe a situation where you did X, it might take longer than two or three sentences to discuss, especially if they want concrete example with specifics.

      Reply
      1. fposte

        Very much so. And sure, you get the occasional candidate who rambles, but when I’m interviewing I much prefer a fuller answer to an overly terse one. I’m not asking questions where you can just fill in the blank–otherwise I wouldn’t need to be there.

        Reply
  5. Lynn

    I recently posted and interviewed for an internal position, and received a promotion. I practiced interviewing for hours and learned that it IS ok to jot quick notes during interviews. It saved me, because I have the same problem with multipart questions.

    Reply
  6. Nicole

    I recently had an interview where the search committee provided me with a printed list of their questions when we sat down. That was totally unexpected, but incredibly helpful! I tend to be a visual person, so it was nice to have something to look at. It immediately relieved the pressure of trying to offer an intelligent answer while simultaneously remembering all of the parts of the questions. And by quickly glancing down the list, I was able to more strategically decide which stories to use for which questions, etc. I’m certain our conversation was better because of this.

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    1. BW

      I have craptacular auditory memory (yes, I’ve been tested). Getting a list of questions that I could look at would be a huge help for me and would make the conversation go more smoothly for sure.

      Reply
  7. BW

    I do the jotting things down. I bring a notepad and pen with me to an interview not just to make notes about multipart questions, but because I also find it helpful to note down important information about the position and people I am interviewed with and to remind me of questions I want to ask.

    I find it helpful to rehearse potential questions in my head before hand. That way you can refine your answers so they are more concise as Elle suggests and less likely to derail your train of thought about the other parts of the question.

    It’s better to ask the interviewer to restate the question if you totally forget. The alternative is looking like a fool trying to guess at what you should be saying and give an unsatisfactory answer. Asking is definitely the lesser of the two evils when all else fails.

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    1. businesslady

      haha, yes–& if you’re like me, who will compulsively click a retractable pen without even realizing it until your boss physically removes it from your hand during a meeting, don’t bring that kind of pen to a job interview. :)

      Reply
      1. Anonymous

        I once was fidgeting with a pen during an interview and I accidentally launched a small part of the pen across the room. I’m not sure if they noticed or not (they didn’t seem to) but it did distract me a bit as I unsuccessfully scanned the floor looking for it.

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  8. Anon

    I always do my best to remember that these people will be my coworkers if I get the position. Why would or should I be intimidated by my coworkers?

    It helps to remember that they’re normal every day people with the same worries as you. Walking in to an interview and feeling as if you’re having a conversation with a friend or well known co-worker helps a lot. I think getting lot’s of practice with friends could help here – but they should act like friends – not like random strangers you don’t know. That way, you can picture the interviewer as someone you know when the time comes.

    I have awful auditory skills because of my ADHD and as long as I remember I’m talking to my future co-worker – it’s really no big deal to ask them to repeat the question. :) In fact if you do it with a small laugh and smile, it can make you seem more relaxed and personable.

    Reply
  9. Rosalita

    I think Alison gives great advice, though I disagree slightly with one point:
    “This is normal, and unless you’re applying for a job that requires remembering multi-part questions without writing them down, it’s unlikely to be held against you.”
    When my organization interviews, we are assessing communication and listening skills. Can the candidate break down more complex ideas and questions, including multi-part questions? If we’re going to put this candidate in front of clients, will s/he be able to actively listen and respond? Does the candidate answer the question or go off on tangents?
    I’m not trying to be discouraging, and this is only one piece of what we assess. That said, I think the suggestion of restating the question is a very good one. I think that signals that you are actively listening. It’s also fine to answer part of the question and then to say, “I believe that the other part of your question was about xxx?”
    Another suggestion is to practice your answers aloud before your interviews. You can do it yourself in front of the mirror. You won’t be able to predict every question you’ll be asked, but you can think of the types of stories and accomplishments you’ll want to share. For instance, if project management is one of your strengths, practice talking about a specific project you managed successfully. While you won’t be saying the exact same thing verbatim during an interview (you don’t want to sound too rehearsed), it might help to have those examples in your mind so that you can call on them easily and remember the main points you’re trying to get across.

    Reply
    1. Runon

      I think Alison was saying that jotting it down wouldn’t be held against you. I agree that not remembering and not being able to answer all of those parts might create issues. (I don’t think either that if it is important it will always get reasked, if it is important they think you’ll answer it.) There are actually a lot of jobs that require answering multi-part questions or complex ones. The first one that jumps into my head is working in a call center. Customer will ask a really long complex call. But scratching a couple notes so you can answer all the parts isn’t something that would be held against you. (At least from what I’ve seen.)

      Reply
      1. BW

        I keep a notepad by the phone just for this purpose. People don’t call me with the simple straight forward problems!

        Reply
  10. Dizzy

    Yes, the same thing happened to me. I wanted the job really badly so I was already stressing myself out. On top of that, I was shvitzing like crazy as it was almost 100 degrees in New York that day, I was wearing a suit and the room did not feel air conditioned at all. At one point, my mind just went blank and I started to meander aimlessly as I’d plum forgotten the question. Well, thank God the Hiring Manager hadn’t so she repeated it. I didn’t get the job but I’m not entirely sure my blanking out contributed to that result; perhaps the shvitzing did. LOL

    Reply
  11. Andrea

    Anon (1:47) is absolutely right. For the most part, we interviewers are just people, and we’re more interested in what you know about doing the job than we are in how you perform in a high-stress, artificial situation like an interview. Being able to recite things back to me perfectly without prompting would be a great skill for a spelling bee, but my very best interviews (from both sides of the table) have been more like a conversation between two colleagues than a spelling bee. You don’t get any extra points from me for never having to ask me to repeat something or for memorizing all the questions. The things that stick with me are your experience, your ability to draw on that experience and talk about it, and whatever I’m able to learn from you about the way you work with other people.

    I think we make too big a deal about things like this. As a person with poor auditory skills myself, I am forever forgetting people’s names. It has taken me a long time to learn that people are rarely offended if I just politely say, “I’m sorry; I’ve forgotten your name.” The important thing is that you are polite and apologetic, and that you are relaxed and open about asking for clarification.

    If you let this situation send you into an icy-terror tailspin of panic which throws your confidence for the rest of the interview, it’s that panic that’s likely to sink the interview, more than your need to ask for the question to be repeated.

    Reply
  12. Steve G

    This might be a listening problem. Maybe you are too much in your own head, worrying about being nervous, if the interviewer likes you, trying to think up something witty to say – and you are not focusing fully on the questions. How often in your personal life do you forget what someone just said to you? If it is less often, then maybe the correct MO is to try to live in the moment and focus more on what the interviewer is saying, and less on the ever pressing thoughts of “does she/he like me!” “do I get the job?!” Etc.

    Reply
  13. Eric

    As a model for how to write down notes, watch a presidential debate (it may be the only thing they are good for). You’ll notice that the candidates take notes as the questions are being asked, but it is unobtrusive, they still show that they are listening to the question. When answering, they may look briefly at the note, but they certainly don’t read from them. This is what you should be emulating.

    Reply
  14. girlreading

    This just happened to me at an interview today! My interviewer was asking really long, multi-part questions and during one I couldn’t remember the second part. I answered the first part and just said, “sorry, I forgot the second part of that question”. I was hoping it didn’t reflect poorly on me, so good timing on this question. To be honest, I’m a bit exhausted by the hiring process with this company- this was part 3 of 5. It’s not a specialized or high level or even high-paying, but man there are so many steps.

    Reply
  15. moss

    I agree that it is okay to ask for a clarification or repeat. We are asking that question, in part, to see how you respond to stress and confusion. We don’t expect a perfect answer from a machine (that is what Google is for.)

    However we will be judging you on whether you get too flustered to speak coherently, try to make something up just to have something to say, or are able to take a breath and a mental step back to assess and deliver what you can answer while seeking clarification on anything confusing.

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  16. Jes

    I think it’s fine to ask to repeat part of a question. I am a hiring supervisor and I would rather have someone ask me to repeat the second part of a question then just not address it. Many of the question that we ask during interviews in my current position do have multiple parts, so if I am asked to repeat part of the question, it signals to me tha tthe person I am interviewing is thorough. Also, at the beginning of interviews, I always make sure the person knows that they can ask me to repeat anything or we can come back to any question.

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  17. Abby

    While practicing for the interview is helpful, personally, I noticed that the more I practice, the more confused I get during the real interview. I find myself trying to remember the exact answers that I practiced, and end up rambling around. Perhaps you are also trying to remember what you practiced ?

    Reply
  18. Erica

    I would also worry a little less about being “penalized”! An interview is a conversation, or at least it should be. It’s likely that an interviewer may have some sort of a checklist, but it’s highly unlikely they’re deducting points from Gryffindor while you’re talking.

    Reply
  19. Steph

    I am a big fan of having a portfolio/notebook and a nice pen with me during interviews. When the interview begins, I always open it up to the notepad and generally address that I find it helpful to jot down topics that I want to be sure that we/I come back to. It’s also helpful during the times when you ask questions like, “What are the key success criteria for people in this role?” You can jot down 4 bullets and refer to them later in the conversation.

    I get really positive feedback on this “habit” and find that I come across as being prepared, diligent, and organized. Just don’t write down 500 words or interrupt the flow of the conversation.

    Reply
  20. AnonEMoose

    I remember reading, some years ago, a tip on communication skills that has stuck with me. The article I read said that one thing people tend to do is begin formulating what they intend to say, rather than focusing on listening to what is being said to them.

    So is it possible that while the interviewer is asking you the second part of the question, you’ve already started deciding what to say about the first part, so you’re not “hearing” the second part as well? If that’s the case, maybe making a point of really focusing on what the interviewer asks might help. Then restating the question in your own words as the beginning of your answer is a natural start.

    For example, if the interviewer were to ask you: Tell me about your work at XY Company; what did you most enjoy, and what did you find most challenging? the start of your response might be something like: XY Company was really a great place to work; some of the things I most enjoyed were also some of the most challenging, because I really enjoy digging in and solving problems, and the team that I worked with was very collaborative and supportive. There was one particular time when etc., etc.

    What you’ve just done is lightly touched on all of the parts of the question right from the beginning of your response. That may make it easier and more natural for you to address all the parts of the question in the rest of your response.

    Jotting down a few notes helps, too. Also, having notepad and pen means that, if something comes up in the conversation that you want to ask about later, you can jot down a quick note as a reminder.

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  21. COT

    I think it’s also okay to ask, “Did that answer cover everything you wanted to know?” That’s another way to ask about any parts you may have skipped over.

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  22. Katie in Ed

    When I’ve forgotten questions in interviews, I’ll usually say something like, “I want to make sure I’ve addressed all the parts of your question. Could you remind me of that second part?” My read is that interviewers really appreciate that you recognize you’re missing parts, and will happily have you elaborate if need be.

    Reply
  23. ADE

    I’m conducting interviews for a high-level job search right now, and I must say, related or unrelated to the OP–keep your answers short! I really, really, really don’t want to hear platitudes about how you solicit other points of view and feedback and look for consensus across partners (because really, who DOESN’T agree that consensus is ideal????) unless you can give me a specific situation, describe it briefly, and tell me what you learned from it. Perhaps your answers are so long that you are forgetting the question?

    Other tips- “that’s a good question. Can I think about a good way to describe an example for a moment?”

    And, if you’re really SOL, I think it’s ok to present one get out of jail free card, and say, “I don’t think I have a response to that at the moment, but I am sure you have other questions for me. Maybe I can return to this question later?” ( If the question is never returned to, you’d do a solid by answering it in the follow-up thank you note)

    Reply
  24. Luis Zach

    I’m the worst at remembering oral information so I just jot notes like a fiend on an interview. It works if you bring a pen and a portfolio and my experience has been that employers think you’re conscientious.

    Reply

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