A reader writes:
I work in a sector where it is common to ask competency questions in interviews (apologies for being vague, but if I stated my work area you’d probably respond with “oh yeah, those guys probably DO get a lot of competency questions”). These range from informal “how would you handle this situation?” discussions to “please take us through the X process” to full-on sheets of exam questions with mark schemes.
Needless to say I loathe the things.
After one too many interviews where I “dried” on questions that I’d have answered off the cuff if I were at my desk, I started putting together a quick-reference sheet of common scenarios. I now tuck this into my notepad when going into an interview. I’ve also started keeping a record of the types of questions that get asked, and over the last five or so years I’ve built up a good little two-page reference document.
When someone asks something like “please take us through the X process,” I can certainly name the steps, but I would struggle to remember in an interview things like the exact time that one has to complete a particular step, or that kind of detail, and that’s on my notes sheet.
My confidence in interviews has soared since I started doing this. I’ve still been blindsided a few times, but when that happens I look up the answers after the interview and add them in for the next one. Often the sheet sits happily untouched inside my document folder for the whole interview, but if I need to refer to it I am usually not shy about glancing down and doing so. I figure it’s better to be prepared than to stare blankly at the interview panel and say “Er, sorry, let me think about that for a minute…”
Reactions from interviewers have varied from raised eyebrows to total indifference. But recently I got my first bad reaction. I interviewed for a post that was a really good match and I felt I had a solid shot at it. I was disappointed when I didn’t get it, and the feedback specifically said that I wasn’t offered the job because I should not have to “look something up” on material I’d brought with me.
Does it actually reflect badly on me as a candidate to have written myself something to refer to in an interview? I could honestly answer any competency question with “well, speaking as a senior X, my first move would be to look up current practice in that area,” and I assure you I and my colleagues are never far from a reference manual in the real world!
We work in a sector full of complicated time-specific procedures that change on a regular basis – am I really going to have to memorize the full set of names, dates and addresses in a way I’d never do outside an interview? Are there better ways to handle this problem?
I think you’ve got to stop consulting the notes.
Rightly or wrongly, your interviewers are asking these questions because they want to see how you answer them off the top of your head. If they wanted to see how you’d respond with time to look up the answers, they’d ask them in a different format — in an context where you could consult outside materials, or in a take-home exercise, or so forth. But that’s not what they’re doing; they’re asking them in a conversational interview, and that signals that they want a conversational answer, not one that you pull from prepared materials.
They’re not asking “how would you find this answer?” They’re asking “what is this answer?” And when you consult written materials for the answer, they have no way of knowing what your actual knowledge on the topic is. For all they know, someone else could have researched the topic and handed you those papers.
I totally hear you that in the real world, you’d look up this kind of question. But that just doesn’t translate into the context you’re encountering in interviews. They’re asking what you know on a topic, and you’ve got to answer in that spirit. They presumably know your field and share your knowledge that it’s complicated and changes regularly … but they’re asking anyway, and so those are the rules you’ve got to play by. (Meanwhile, though, you should assume that they’re taking that into account.)
I do get that coming in with these sorts of notes is a confidence-booster, but confidence isn’t the only thing that matters in interviews. In this case, the notes are making you come across as someone who doesn’t know or doesn’t care about adhering to professional norms, and it’s probably raising questions about your actual knowledge base.
And while I normally discourage people from putting too much weight on a single piece of feedback from a single interviewer (since interviewers can have preferences and quirks that aren’t representative of most other interviewers), in this case I think you need to listen to it. And actually, it doesn’t really sound like the person who gave you the feedback was the first bad reaction; I’d put those raised eyebrows that you noticed from other interviewers in the “don’t do this” bucket too.
For what it’s worth, there are times when it’s appropriate to consult notes during an interview. It’s okay to bring in short bulleted notes to jog your memory and make sure you cover the points you want to cover (although you really want to use them judiciously; it would be weird if you consulted them for every question or for basic elements of your job history that you’d normally be expected to remember on your own, like what type of work a particular job entailed). And it’s smart to bring a list of your own questions so that you remember everything that you want to ask (just like a good interviewer will usually have too).
But with the sort of questions you’re talking about, they’re looking for extemporaneous answers, and that’s what you’ve got to give them.