what to do when a job candidate just reads answers from a script

A reader writes:

I work in higher education and one aspect of my job is hiring student workers within a department on campus.

Recently, I had an candidate came in with her written responses to the general questions I asked — i.e., “tell me about yourself,” “what are your strengths and weaknesses?” — those kind of questions, along with specific questions for the job that I am interviewing for. While the candidate did an okay job, I felt it was awkward when she read her responses.

What is your opinion on candidates bringing in written responses or possible responses to general questions? I felt it was too scripted and that the candidate should have all of this memorized. Or is it just me? Am I being too harsh?

No, it’s not just you — this is utterly bizarre.

If you wanted scripted answers read to you, you would have just conducted the interview over email. You wanted to have an actual conversation with at least somewhat natural answers. For all you know, someone else could have written those answers for her and she was just reading them.

(By the way, you also don’t want a candidate to have “memorized” her answers either. You want candidates to prepare, yes, absolutely — but you still want a real conversation, not a stilted exchange of pre-readied questions and answers.)

But … why didn’t you say something at the time? With the first answer she read, why not say, “I see you have answers written out there, but I’d actually like to talk with you, not hear written answers.”

In general, as an interviewer, if a candidate is handling the interview differently than you’d like, say something. You can say, “We have a lot of questions to get through, so I’d love to just hear about X” to a candidate who is rambling into tangents. You can say, “I don’t quite understand what your role was in that; can you clarify that?” to a candidate whose answers are vague or that leave you unsure of what she actually did on a particular project. You can say, “I’d love to hear more about that” to a candidate who is so concise that you’re not getting the information you need. And you can say, “Please just talk with me rather than reading what you’ve prepared” to a candidate reading a script.

Related: should I give my interviewer a typed list of my answers to likely questions?

{ 67 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    While I do think her reading answers from a script is akward, I don’t see anything wrong with her having written down questions about the job. Interviewers bring in a list of questions for candidates, so I don’t see how this is any different. It would be weird if she read off the question robotically, but simply having a list with questions seems fine.

    1. LouG

      I read this as the person being interviewed also had scripted answers to more specific questions about the job, rather than the more generic “tell me about yourself” questions. I may be wrong though.

    2. Jamie

      I read that as she wrote out responses to specific questions she thought she might be asked…not questions to which she wanted the answers.

      I don’t think there is anything wrong with a bulleted list so you make sure to remember what you wanted to ask…because lord knows it is a nervous situation and it’s easy for stuff to slip your mind…but this is different.

      I wonder if she had the advice to prepare for some common questions and write out your answers to prepare and mistook that to mean bring them with you.

  2. -X-

    “Humans of Earth, we desire to obtain the position you advertised in the Milwaukee Daily Chronicle of twenty-two days ago for an Administrative Assistant. Our reasons for interest in this position are the reported compensation at market rate, which we have determined is sufficient to meet our needs for sustenance, our ability to complete complex calculations rapidly due to superior intellect, and our desire to obtain a typically human form of employment that does not draw attention to ourselves. We thank you for this opportunity.”

    1. Chinook

      We would like to interview after you answer the following questions:
      1.Which high school did you graduate from, when and what was your major?
      2. Please submit 3 local references.
      3. Do you have a habit of cracking your knuckles, trimming fingernails at work or chewing gum loudly?
      4. How many times a week do you prefer to bathe?
      5. You will be working in a challenging environment. How are your mind reading skills?
      6. Do you have reliable transportation?

        1. Chinook

          I can ask those questions because:
          1. They are legal in the place of employment (place of residence being irrelevant)
          2. Even if they were a protected class, maybe I am looking for someone who doesn’t bathe regularly or has perfected knuckle cracking to such an art form that they can perform “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” at the company potluck (attendance required after hours).

          BTW we forgot the most obvious question – are they legally eligible to work in this country and can they send a copy of their alien identification card? (Which, by the way, I actually had in Japan and which did state, in English, that I was a legal alien).

          1. Jamie

            has perfected knuckle cracking to such an art form that they can perform “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” at the company potluck (attendance required after hours).

            For the love of all that is decent no one EVER let Chinook get on a party planning committee.

            1. Chinook

              But what else can follow the armpit version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”? Atleast I am not insisting on mandatory karaoke.

              1. A Bug!

                Ugh, I second the sentiment that nobody should let you near a party planning committee.

                Everybody knows armpit ‘Mary’ is a traditional closer; much like a national anthem it is expected that all attendees participate.

                Knuckle-cracking ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ customarily follows the belched ABC’s.

                1. Chinook - Chocolate Teapot Social Committe Chair

                  A Bug! you obviously have a knack for choreographing the company talent show and, as the self appointed chair, I designate you talent coordinator.

    2. Rob Bird

      Thank you for your interest in the Administrative Assistant position. We know it takes a lot of time applying for jobs, and there were several strong candidates.

      We have chosen someone who lives a little closer to our company (30 minutes vs. how ever many light years for you). Please feel free to apply to any other openings you feel you are qualified for.

      Thank you
      Agent K

      1. -X-

        “Rob Bird of Earth.

        We now inform you that we have the ability to modify one of your internal combustion engine automobiles so that distance is immaterial. We hope that you will now reconsider our application for the position advertised in the Milwaukee Daily Chronicle of twenty-two days ago for an Administrative Assistant.”

        1. Adam V

          Unfortunately, we have already moved forward with other candidates. We invite you to apply again in the future, and in the meantime kindly ask that you refrain from destroying our planet in response.

    3. Josh S

      I was really hoping that was going to end with:
      “I am also am being a Prince from Nigeria with a Sum of $US 12,000,000 million that I need help recovering. If Sir would kindly offering me the job and a fee of just $US 400 for a customs duty of the Internal Revenue Serivce to move the monies to the American States, I will share ten (10) percent of the monies with you.”

  3. Marmite

    I agree, this is odd. I wonder if this is a result of bad avice/misunderstanding of advice, given that the OP is hiring students. Maybe this is the first real job, or any job, the student has interviewed for and this is how someone advised him/her to prepare. I think OP would have been doing him/her a favour if she’d done what Alison suggests and addressed it in the interview. That way the candidate would be aware that it wasn’t normal.

  4. Corporate Drone

    You’re interviewing students? I would bet you anything this candidate is following the advice she received from her career planning office.

    Some day, she will be interviewing for an entry level job, and the interviewer will read a bunch of questions off of a piece of paper. Many of them will be, “on a scale of 1 to 10. . . ” After she endures that, she will realize that reading from a script is ineffective and insulting.

    Of course, I’m also of a mind that you, as a member of the university community, have a responsibility to coach these students on why this is not the best way to present yourself to a prospective employer.

    1. College Career Counselor

      I doubt seriously that anyone in Career Services told her to read her answers at the interview, but I do think it’s entirely plausible that she received the advice to “devleop her answers in advance.” Unfortunately, what she then extrapolated was that it was okay to speak directly from a script. When I work with students, I occasionally have concerns that I’m being pedantic when I explain things. Stories like this reassure me that I’m not.

      1. KayDay

        That’s what my guess was. She was told that it’s important to think about and prepare answers to common questions (meaning, have a mental idea of your talking points) and she though, “hey, I’ll write down my answers, that way I don’t forget anything when I’m nervous!” I’m sure it seemed like a great idea at the time….

      2. Carmen

        That reminds me of when I had to get my student loan forms signed. At the time (Canada, about 18 years ago), you had to have the university sign something, then take it to your bank and have them sign it. I had the papers signed at the registrar’s office, and the person smiled and me and said “That’s it! You’re done!”

        My reply: “I’m done? That’s it?”

        “Yep, all squared away!”

        So I went home and filed the papers away with the assumption that the process had changed within the last year. Until the phone calls started a few weeks later, ’cause the university didn’t get their money …..

        Moral: over explaining is a must when it comes to school/money/jobs/ugh. Also, that whole assume-makes-an-ass-out-of-u-and-me thing.

        1. Anonymous

          Funny enough – it’s been like that up until last year. National Student Loans replaced the banks, but basically the same thing. Guess government do move at a glacial place.

  5. Kay @ Travel Bug Diary blog

    I think you would do the student a favor if you communicated that this is not standard interview behavior. The candidate may be uncomfortable now, but it’s better than being even more uncomfortable after graduation.

  6. Bonnie

    Maybe she is just really nervous and shy and thought reading the answers would sound better than stumbling through them. If she is a student, she might not even realize how bad this sounds and just needs someone to let her know.

    1. TR

      I agree with this…. perhaps she has a speech impediment, or something similar and writing out her answers help her to keep her focus?

      1. fposte

        It doesn’t matter–she still needs to find another way to do it, or else it will keep her from getting the job.

        1. anon-2

          Depends on the job.

          Most people interview a candidate to see if he/she can think on his (or her) feet. Because, that’s what they want.

          There are OTHER positions where they DON’T want people to think on their feet (I have another “dinner table story” about that one) — just react, look up a procedure, and if none exists, ask management to think it out.

          This is why – when something goes wrong – a minor thing – a place goes crazy. I have seen procedure-oriented places go nutso when a simple solution is available.

          If the person is interviewing for an “automaton” job then reading off a script is what they might want.

          You never know.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            It would be highly, highly unusual for a job interviewer to be okay with this in any setting, for any job. I’ve never met someone who would be okay with it, and suspect I never will. An interview is a conversation. If they wanted you to read them answers, they could do it over email. They have no way of knowing you wrote those answers, either.

            Believe me, there’s no context in which this is going to be okay.

            1. anon-2

              Perhaps not for you. Certainly NOT for me.

              But there are some positions where people are sought out — they want people who have no ambition, no willingness to advance themselves, are very happy with a low salary, and will take whatever is dealt to them.

              Sorry -AAM – I have seen it in action in some places I’ve worked. People who aggressively try to develop themselves, and advance themselves, represent threats to some people. I’ve been in positions like that myself.

              Remember how I talked about the place that was about to fire me, and when I gave my notice, they COUNTEROFFERED? That was one of those places. In my prior position – we were *expected* to think on our feet. In the new one, we were expected NOT to do that.

              Drove me crazy. Ran into my former co-workers, at a football game, who had a disdainful attitude toward me. Turned out that two of us – who were about to be fired and quit — have had the most successful careers in our field.

              I had to do all I could to stop mrs anon-2 from laughing at these people … one who let off a string of obscenities toward me….

              But it does happen.

  7. MaryTerry

    I wonder if the student was worried about “freezing” at the interview, and this was her prop.

  8. Rob Bird

    This is really odd, and shows she doesn’t have any idea about normal interview procedures. I am wondering if someone told her to do that or she thought of that on her own.

    1. anon-2

      Probably coached or instructed to do that.

      There are some people out there giving “guidance” to young grads/grads to be, yet the advisors aren’t out there in the working world.

      A friend of mine – I may have mentioned him – is a veteran computer engineer, who has been out of work for a year – I looked his resume over, found out it was boilerplate, bland, basically just said he’s a computer engineer looking for work.

      I also advised him – apply to ANY job that you’re remotely qualified for. When I was out of work 20 years ago – I made it a point to send out three applications a day – and at least 15 a week. The final push – I sent out 27 over a four day period, landed a string of interviews and a job.

      When you’re out of work, looking for work is supposed to be a near-full-time job.

      He’s finally getting interviews.

  9. Joey

    This is why its better to stay away from canned questions- you get canned answers. I think more important than the evaluating the canned answers is to improve your interview technique. It shouldn’t be a test with right and wrong answers. It should be an inquisitive conversation that will help you evaluate who can best do the job and is the best fit for the team.

    I know student workers aren’t rocket scientists, but you can certainly have a good discussion around work ethic, punctuality, maturity, reliability, etc

    1. Kate

      Agreed. I work at an university and have interviewed students before. They tend to be nervous (more so than the average job candidate) and overprepared to the point of stiffness. Not blaming them; I was the exact same way in college.

      The question that yields the best information is, “Of everything on your resume– jobs, extracurriculars, everything– which have you enjoyed the most?” And then a discussion on what they enjoyed about it, what the challenges were, etc. You can tell a lot about a person by what excites them– if they’re teachable, conscientious, creative, collaborative vs. independent, etc.

    2. Carmen

      Actually, some student workers ARE rocket scientists, or, you know, learning to be one …..

  10. Sniper

    This is just bizarre. I know there is a ton of bad advice floating around out there, but I can’t say I’ve seen anyone credibly say that you should bring written/prepared answers to questions – especially questions you have made up.

    I suspect that helicopter parents may be in play here. If a professor gave this student this advice, they should be fired immediately.

  11. Jazzy Red

    Ha ha ha!!!! I can’t even count how many interviewers just read the questions from a script.

    Job candidates don’t like it, and it’s just plain funny to hear of it happening to a hiring manager.

    Not a good thing for either one to do, but I have to give the student props for knowing she would be nervous and trying to get through the ordeal as best she could.

    1. EM

      Yeah, I had an interviewer read me questions from a 3×5 card he clutched in his hand. I think he was more nervous than I was. :)

  12. OP

    Hi all; I am the OP for this question. And I want to thank everyone for their comments.

    I will admit – this is my first time chairing an interview committee and for me, it was extremely awkward. Perhaps because I know what it is like to go on countless interviews when I was job-searching a little over a year ago.

    Ironically, she did not seem nervous, but very confident, but still read her typed answers and I think that is why it was awkward for me. Here I see – a confident candidate or more specifically, a candidate attempting to project confidence in the interview.

    And this position that the candidates were applying and interviewing for is a graduate assistant position(s) within my department, but I can still see how career services may still give bad advice. While I liked her answers, it would have a better impact (for me anyways) if she did not read her answers.

    She was not offered the position (but was offered to be on the alternate list, in case one of the candidates I do offer the position declined), but she did ask for feedback, which I will give her later this week. I am a huge advocate in teaching students about the proper way of job-searching and doing well in interviews. And I always refer them to this blog!

    Again, thanks everyone for the comments – I will instill your suggestions and food for thoughts the next time I am chairing an interview committee.

    1. Chinook

      OP, as one of the ones who his being a wisedonkey, I just wanted to let you know that I have respect for the question and, in all seriousness, think it would be a great kindness if you mentioned to the applicant how awkward they sounded for future reference. It is hard to judge how natural you sound to other people, especially under stress.

      Now I am going to find my spaceship I left parked next to the dog sleds when I crossed the Canadian border.

  13. Ann O'Nemity

    So am I the only one who thinks it is just a little humorous that the applicant responded to canned questions with canned answers? I can just imagine a parody of this.

    (BTW I’m not advocating for reading scripted answers.)

    1. Jamie

      I am – heck I’m advocating for the tongue in cheek reference to email interviews. I would love a forum interview, actually. The next time I have an interview I’ll just ask them to meet me here at the next open thread!

    2. Corporate Drone

      Hahahahaa! Good point! I was just talking to a friend today, who has 15 years of experience, and who was asked recently at an interview, “what song best represents you?” I told her that the correct response would have been “The Bitch Is Back,” by Elton John. She opted for the safer, “Against the Wind” by Bob Seger.

      1. Windchime

        I’m fortunate that I’m employed and not looking, because I wouldn’t have a clue how to answer this question. And I’m pretty sure I would have a hard time hiding the “WTF?” expression from my face when it was asked. What song represents me? Good grief. That’s worse than the tree question.

  14. Lily in NYC

    A coworker and I once interviewed someone at the same time (for an internship). The poor girl was so awkward and shy she could barely say two words and was bright red the entire time. Coworker and I stared at each other in shock after she left – like “what just happened?” We ended up being forced to give her the internship because her aunt was in HR here. She turned out to be one of our best employees, EVER. She was hired full-time after her internship and was promoted twice in two years before she moved on to become a teacher. Her first two weeks were painful, but once she warmed up and became more comfortable, it was like night and day. I would have never hired her based on her interview. But I’m so glad we were forced to – it was a lesson I needed to learn about first impressions and social awkwardness not necessarily being a deal-breaker.

    1. -X-

      I think this is especially true for a person new to the workforce – they’re in a completely new experience and may not know how to deal with it. Perhaps also for someone from another culture, or even a very different work environment.

      But if you’re interviewing someone with significant work experience in the same field, they’re less likely to be able/willing to change those types of behaviors.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      The thing is, though, there are lots of other candidates who might have become great employees too, who interviewed better (or didn’t). With interviewing, you have to go on what you see. Yes, sometimes you might get lucky and find a gem where you didn’t expect it, but in general you’re going to have better luck by believing what people show you about themselves.

  15. EngineerGirl

    I was thinking autism spectrum or ESL. But it needs to be confronted during the interview.

  16. PEBCAK

    I think it’s fine to have some notes in front of you, though, if you can do it in a natural manner. I wouldn’t bring specific answers to questions, but I have seen candidates with either some notes for themselves in a notebook or an annotated copy of their resume. If I say “tell me about a time when you…”, and they glance down a list of projects to come up with an example, I don’t consider that intrusive.

  17. darsenfeld

    It’s unusual, certainly.

    Though if I were the interviewer, I would immediately mark them as a no-no, and then ask them questions appropriately. I think this signifies a number of red flags on this recruit’s part.

    That said, I don’t see how somebody can bring pre-written answers to an interview, as not all interview questions are standard.

  18. Windchime

    The whole thing is kind of funny. I mean, if the questions that interviewers are asking are predictable to this degree, then they kind of deserve a typed up, regurgitated answer. I guess I want it both ways, huh–I don’t want the canned questions (“Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with a co-worker/customer….”) but I also don’t want to answer questions about what kind of tree I am or , God forbid, what my theme song or super hero power is. Can we just talk about SQL while we try to ascertain if either of is normal/nice enough to work with/for? Please?

    1. EA

      “Tell me about a time when you wrote an SQL statement to choose what type of tree you would be and what your super power would be”

    2. Jamie

      Can we just talk about SQL while we try to ascertain if either of is normal/nice enough to work with/for? Please?

      Right down to the SQL that’s my idea of a perfect interview. Seriously.

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