can I bring a crib sheet into interviews to help me answer questions?

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.

{ 110 comments… read them below }

  1. Jennifer

    Might I suggest you write this stuff on flash cards and memorize it before the interview? Or at least the less terrible stuff that doesn’t take fifty pages to check? I’ve actually had a career counselor say to memorize the sorts of questions that get typically asked ahead of time so you don’t forget, have an answer that doesn’t have “uh” in it, keeps it short and to the point, etc.

    1. Gandalf the Nude

      I was going to say, OP, that it seems like you’ve at least compiled a decent study guide. Just take care to review it before getting in front of the interviewers.

    2. Kelly L.

      Yeah, I’ll second this. “Cram” right before you go into the interview, read them at a coffee shop if you’re running early, etc. I did this with my personal experience, thinking of incidents that matched behavioral-type “Name a time when you…” questions so I wouldn’t be caught off guard, and I could see it working with procedural stuff too.

      1. The Cosmic Avenger

        Right! If the OP has been using this sheet a lot, they probably have more of it memorized than they realize. if they make sure to read through it once or twice a day even when not interviewing, I think they’ll be able to “read” the whole thing in their head without needing the actual piece of paper.

    3. Judy

      I remember in college, when I had classes that allowed crib sheets on tests, the act of distilling everything down to one page meant I didn’t need to reference it during the test. I started going through that process even when I wasn’t taking the sheet into the test.

      1. KR

        Same, same, same. The act of making study guides is a great way to study. It also is a great way to condense all the important information down so that you can study on the go without taking your textbook and all of your class notes with you.

      2. themmases

        Yes, definitely. I work for my thesis advisor and one of my instructors, and they once had this discussion in front of me. My advisor had recently found out that people were bringing much more detailed notes into his exam than he’d ever meant to authorize, and was leaning towards not letting people bring a formula sheet at all in the future.

        My instructor said she likes to allow it because a) creating it is a great way to study, and b) people make a ton of mistakes anyway so it probably doesn’t matter! They were pretty much in agreement that cheat sheets should be for things like formulas that no one expects you to memorize, not text explanations of concepts that you should know; and code you write in an exam should demonstrate how to use that function but needn’t run perfectly.

        If I were the OP I’d study the sheet only or nothing at all. If it’s truly unreasonable to have some of the things they’re writing down memorized, then the other candidates won’t have this stuff memorized either and that won’t be what most interviewers are looking for when they ask these questions. If other people are able to answer with that level of detail, then apparently it is reasonable and maybe the OP should focus on applying to jobs where they are more familiar with the scope of work.

        1. TootsNYC

          The thing I’d worry about is whether people were buying/borrowing/sharing the crib sheets. Making your own *is* a good study aid; using someone else’s is not.

          1. themmases

            I agree, but then the person doing that hasn’t actually studied and that would be reflected in their performance.

            It is also possible to collaborate on these and have it be very effective. It helps keep the group on track to have a product you are each making.

          2. JessaB

            Honestly, why? Why can’t someone who is good at notes share them? In the real world people do that all the time – I was famous at almost all my jobs for making materials that made the work flow easier, and everyone ultimately ended up with copies. By the end, the company often passed them out themselves. Why does someone on a test have to know everything cold, if they’re allowed to have notes.

            I used to have terrible issues in maths. I was good at doing it but arithmetic killed me (fingers to count with, or no answers,) I could not remember formulae, but in the real world there are little books of formulae you can use if you need them. I would stand outside the test room and recite the stuff and the second I hit the desk I wrote it down. If I didn’t I’d fail the test. The point is to be able to answer the questions. In the real world if you get a question you don’t know, you look it up.

            If you’re allowed to have notes, what difference does it make if they’re yours or not? I agree notes should not be sold, but that’s a different ethical issue to me – people who cannot afford it (and students have been known to be down to tuppence at certain times of the year,) are at a disadvantage. But testing at most levels is about processes, or worse rote memorisation (history.) I think testing is taken too seriously, because again in the real world outside of academia, people have reference books, people can look things up or ask someone.

        2. JessaB

          If an instructor wants the students to have a certain kind of crib note and no more, then it behooves that instructor to make up such a sheet and pass it out with the exam (they could even make a class exercise about “what really must be on the sheet.) Otherwise they need to let the students do it. If they have limits, then they should state them in enough time for people to edit their lists. They could also just say hand in your lists a week before the test and they can mark out what the student should not bring. What they should not do is say “you can have notes,” with no parameters and then get annoyed when the notes are super detailed. And they certainly (and I don’t think from your post that they did,) was confiscate too detailed notes and leave the student with nothing, cold.

          1. Evan Þ

            Yep. I’ve been in classes where the instructor didn’t allow any crib sheets but handed out one formula sheet with the exam, other classes where the instructor said “bring in one 8 1/2 x 11 crib sheet; write anything on it you want,” and then one class where he said “bring in anything you want”… and I not only brought in the textbook, but printed out every set of slides and homework solutions he’d ever sent out, and brought them in too.

      3. Squeegee Beckenheim

        Yep, I did the same thing! I would refer to the sheets for an equation or two, but in general making it was more important than having it. (I would also write DON’T PANIC on the top, and that helped too.)

  2. BRR

    Wasn’t familiar with the term “crib sheet.” I thought the question was going to be something completely different.

    But even the interviewers who are showing total indifference, they might just have a poker face. It doesn’t sound like anybody went, “that’s really smart.” Is it really about knowing a specific numerical value for steps or would you be good just going through your thought process?

    1. blackcat

      Uh, yeah, I read “crib” and “sheet” separately and went ?!?! I think anyone would find you strange for bringing in a crib to an interview…

      I second everyone above–study, study, and study some more.

    2. Nethwen

      My first thought upon reading the headline was, “Fitted or flat? Wait! Why would that matter?! And what is one doing carrying around a sheet? And why a sheet for a baby’s bed specifically?”

  3. Folklorist

    Totally read this first as, “Can I bring a Crib into an interview?” and my eyebrows shot up. “Crib Sheet” didn’t seem nearly so bad afterward!

    1. TotesMaGoats

      And I read “crib sheet” and thought, why would she need a crib sheet in an interview? Is she going to take a nap? Or have to show that she can put together a crib?

      1. Kate

        This was totally my impression as I began to read the post! Mom brain, I guess! That would have been an AAM Hall Of Fame contender for sure.

  4. TotesMaGoats

    FWIW, my husband works in a very technical field and while on the job he’s always telling me about referencing a certain book for a formula or coding or something like that. Much like what you’ve said about a specific process that you follow step by step. However, for the interview, there is no way it would look good to come in with a crib sheet of formulas or coding steps.

    I think a couple quick bullets of major accomplishments or things like that would be okay. I always forget some of the cool things I’ve done in the moment. Nerves. So, I write down one word and it triggers the memory.

    Best of luck.

    1. JessaB

      And honestly, if the industry standard is to have a book of information, why can’t the interview answer be “Generally this, in this order, but to make sure we’d consult ‘the Scientific Guide to Teapot Construction,’ for the actual stress figures for the chocolate spouts, there’s a chart at the back that we use so constantly everyone photocopies it and laminates it, because we get chocolate ALL over it.”

  5. pomme de terre

    It might be worthwhile for the OP to still make the cheat sheet even if she doesn’t refer to it during the interview. It’s a bit of a safety blanket that you can review while you’re waiting AND I’d bet that writing things down (especially by hand) helps you to memorize them, at least in the short term.

    1. F.

      I would NOT be cramming for the interview while waiting in the lobby or the interview room. As a receptionist, I was often asked for my impression of a candidate while they were waiting, and cramming would be a definite black mark. It would also be awkward to have the interviewer walk in on you cramming while you were waiting for the interview to start.

      1. Shannon

        I think it depends on how discreetly you can cram. If you can put the material in question on your phone or tablet, it becomes a lot more discreet. I could be cramming. I could be reading Amazon’s latest in Dinosaur fiction. You never know with discreet electronics.

        1. Traveler

          This. Unless as a receptionist you walked right over and read what they were reading, it could be anything on their tablet/phone. Maybe if its a notebook you could assume it was interview related, but still.

      2. The Butcher of Luverne

        If by “cramming” you mean a person has a notebook open and is quietly reading, I see nothing wrong with that.

        1. KR

          Same. You often need to have copies of your resume when going into the interview, and personally I like to take them in a manila folder or a nice looking presentation folder. You could slide a sheet of notes in the folder and pull them out to review while waiting. You could also use the back for notes!
          I don’t think anything is wrong with that – is the applicant just supposed to stare into space before the interview?

          1. Traveler

            Right. I often bring a copy of the job listing with me, to go over the things they were interested in. I’m in a field where the job posting is 2-3 pages. Its nice to have a quick review to think about things I might want to mention in the interview.

            IMO this is totally normal and would not constitute a “black mark”. People are nervous before interviews and want to prep.

      3. StudentPilot

        I think there’s a difference between ‘cramming’ and ‘reviewing notes’. If I were interviewing somewhere, and I had to wait, yeah – I’d go over my notes, much the same as I went over my notes before writing an exam in university. (That isn’t to say that I’d ignore the receptionist, but at the same time I’m not going to distract them from doing their work). I’m curious – what would you suggest doing instead?

        1. TootsNYC

          how is there a different between “cramming” and “reviewing notes” that is **apparently to an outsider**?

          I suppose if “cramming” means, to you, muttering phrases out loud in order to memorize it–but that’s not what I consider “cramming” to be. To me, “cramming” is just studying late in the game.


      4. jamlady

        I do have to ask why this would be a black mark. It’s possible I’m trying to learn things I don’t actually know for my interview, which would be bad, or it’s possible I’m just reviewing my notes on this particular company and the questions I’d like to ask. You can’t see my notes from your desk – it doesn’t seem particularly fair to give someone a black mark just because they look like they’re studying.

      5. Cruciatus

        How do you know if someone is cramming? I always prepare for my interviews, but once I get there (always with at least 10 minutes to spare!) I sit and reread some of my notes just to remind myself of some key words or phrases. Maybe that’s considered cramming. I would probably be OK without doing this, but it helps me focus my nervous energy on something instead of just sitting there like a doof. I mean, if I brought a book to read I might look like I’m not serious enough about the interview/job. The receptionist is probably busy so I don’t want to bother them more than just some hellos and thank yous. So I sit quietly and reread some interview notes. When someone gets me I just close my folder and put it in my bag. If that has given me black marks that’s kind of worrisome!

      6. Ask a Manager Post author

        I don’t think there’s anything wrong with quietly reviewing notes. The only type of cramming I can think of that would look weird would be something like going over flash cards, or mouthing the words of your answers to yourself.

        1. F.

          This is what I was thinking of (flash cards, looking like you’re intensely studying, etc.). Our lobby is so tiny that I could see what a waiting person was looking at from the front desk. I do like the suggestion of having notes on your phone. (Don’t forget to turn off or at least mute the phone before going into the interview!) Just be discreet.

          1. F.

            Upon further reflection, I realize I am answering from the construction inspection standpoint. When the inspector is in the field, say in the heat of a concrete pour or asphalt placement, they do not have time to refer to the ASTM standards manuals for the necessary specifications. There is certain knowledge that needs to be readily available in the inspector’s head without question. It is also helpful to be able to present this knowledge in an authoritative manner, especially when dealing with a concrete company that likes to water down their trucks, for example. Some of these drivers are not known for their tact, shall we say.

            1. JessaB

              I get that this is an industry thing, but why? Why can’t they have an app, or a card with the specifications (I’m not talking a huge manual here, I’m talking, they know site x is doing concrete, and y other work,) and there’s a card for concrete etc. Or an app for that. In the age of technology I guess it’s easier for people, they don’t have to have the breadth and depth of memory recall that used to have to happen. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll probably remember certain specs just by using them, but plenty of extremely competent people have bad memories. On the other hand one takes courses for this, it’s a certified profession, I’m sure the standard stuff that you do every day gets memorised through massive usage. But someone with poor memory could just as easily memorise where in the little notebook they keep the numbers are, or how to in two seconds input the data into an app.

    2. Cambridge Comma

      Yes, I used to do this for Latin exams. I would fit on one sheet the things I would take in if I could bring in a cheat sheet. I found that writing it out somehow made it possible to summon up the piece of paper in my mind’s eye during the exam.

        1. Ad Astra

          As a former Latin student and lifelong verbal/linguistic learner, I second both of these. Keeping and studying this stuff is obviously helping the OP; using it as a cheat sheet in an interview is what’s hurting.

  6. Katie the Fed

    Oh yeah, I would totally look askance at someone doing this. Sorry, OP. But I would expect someone to be able to remember the basics of a situation they’ve dealt with in the past. I can’t imagine needing to get into names, dates, addresses – that level of detail in an interview. But you should be able to outline the key points. I would have serious doubts about someone who brought in an answer sheet, especially without asking ahead of time.

    What you might be able to do is take a blank notebook and pen and jot some notes down before answering – I do that so I remember everything I wanted to say and don’t forget to answer part of the question.

    1. AnotherAlison

      Agreed. I wish the OP had shared the industry, because I find it strange that someone would be interviewing for a role where “take us through X process” would be asked, but would not be comfortable answering it. It’s almost more strange that the OP knows what will be asked and can’t answer it. Interviewers most likely aren’t looking for every detail, and if they are, it’s really important and you should know it.

      For example, I had an interview once where I had to show my Primavera scheduling expertise for a specialized position. It was fine to go through the big-picture stuff from memory without nailing down all the minute details of how it’s done, but they also asked how to export the blabity-blah file. I had to answer that from memory, and I knew because I did it every day. If I had to consult notes to know how to do that, I wouldn’t have had the level of software expertise they needed. To me, it sounds like the OP is getting hung up on referencing details not required by the interviewer, while possibly causing them to question that she doesn’t know the things that need to be ingrained in her memory.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I think that’s probably the case too — the OP thinks she needs to answer with more detail than is required. (Or, alternately, she doesn’t have the level of familiarity with details that that’s required by the job, but I think the first scenario is more likely.)

        1. Graciosa

          I read this a little differently, primarily due to the line in which the OP says she “dried” in an interview on things that she would have answered off the cuff in real life at her desk.

          That led me to the conclusion that the OP is having difficulty interviewing because of her nerves rather than because of a misunderstanding of the level of detail required. Interviewing can be nerve wracking – but I think there are more effective ways to handle the stress than using notes to answer questions.

          I would not be interested in hiring someone who did this in an interview.

          My function is also one in which we are called upon to answer off the cuff questions, and I need people in the role who can handle a certain level of that – not everything, and I don’t interview to find a walking reference manual, but questions are chosen to reflect the work that we do and the level of expertise required to handle it.

          I could handle someone blanking a bit on one question, or missing a few nuances if they knew the main points, but it’s a test of both competency and ability to manage at least the basics under stress. Someone who resorted to notes would be failing the interview.

          Perhaps the OP can find other techniques to help manage her stress in ways that allow her to be her normal on-the-job self in how she responds in an interview.

    2. Traveler

      Yes, I would think if its common to look things up you could answer what you know, and for gaps say “and here I would consult X website or X manual to address the changing element of this process”.

    3. Jubilance

      I recently had an interview where the interviewer asked me extremely detailed questions on a project I worked on 3 years ago. Like very minute technical details that I couldn’t remember since I hadn’t looked at all the details of the project in 3 years. In that situation, a crib sheet would have been helpful…but it also would have been helpful to have an interviewer not ask such detailed questions. Like who needs that level of detail in an interview?

  7. Nonna

    Since my toddler grandchild just visited, when I saw “crib sheet”, I thought OP meant some type of security blanket, and wondered who would think this was a good idea.

      1. OhNo

        That’s a really good point. Especially because the OP mentions that they often don’t even need to look at it.

  8. Sunflower

    If you’re glancing at a sheet to look up small things like specifics, it’s possible the interviewer thinks you don’t really know any of this stuff and you’re reading all of it from the sheet as opposed to just the smaller bits.

    Are your interviewers expecting you to really know all of this in that specific amount of detail? It’s possible they don’t need things as down to the point as you are describing them in. I don’t know your industry so if it’s really necessary you know all of this, I’d be focusing on memorization tactics

    1. AndersonDarling

      Agreed, they may like exact specification for most of the answers, but I would hope one or two responses could be, “I don’t remember the exact time frame, but I know it is between 5 and 10 minutes.”

    2. Ad Astra

      That’s what I suspect, too. OP either needs to memorize this stuff or get comfortable explaining the process without consulting these notes. It’s kind of hard to tell which option makes the most sense without understanding the industry and the questions at hand, but I’ll bet OP will have an inkling here.

  9. Cambridge Comma

    I work in a field where standard works of reference are heavily used. In an interview I might answer a question such as ‘Talk us through your usual approach to affixing handles’ by saying something like ‘I make a point of always checking the current edition of ‘Teapots for Fun and Profit’ at the beginning of the process to be sure that I have the latest specs, but if I had to do it from memory I would start by…’
    Might that be something that could free you from feeling that you have to get the process exactly right?

    1. Jady

      Agree with this. If the process is as complicated as OP suggests, simply stating that you’d have refer to [source] for the exact details is probably what the interviewer is expecting. But then describe the general approach and cite where you’d look up the information.

      I work in software testing and I have a general idea of writing code, but by no means am an expert. I’ve had interviews where I write sudo (fake) code just to show that I can logic my way through the problem, with the communicated knowledge of “I’d have to look up the syntax for this, but here’s my goal.”

      1. Ad Astra

        I would give a similar answer in an interview for a copy editor/proofreader position. There are some basics that I should know off the top of my head, but the real skill in this job is knowing when something doesn’t look right, and then knowing where to look for an answer.

        1. Cambridge Comma

          My first fake reference title was the Chicago Manual of Teapots. And yes, it’s most important to know where to look. When you’re 100% sure you know the answer without looking? That’s when you really need to look it up,

  10. Erin

    I think you have to accept thatthat they are in fact looking for answers in real time with no cheat sheet. As Alison said, you should assume they’re taking into consideration that in the real world on the job you would be looking this stuff up.

    You could make it less awkward for yourself by saying something like, “Of course normally I would look this up first in the X manual, and then I’d try Y if it wasn’t there, but on the fly right now I’d have to say…”

    And I know you mentioned you don’t want to stare at the blankly while you’re thinking of an answer, but I don’t think taking a minute to gather your thoughts is a bad thing. Obviously you can’t let silence drag on for five minutes, but I think it’d be perfectly appropriate to say, “Hmm, that’s a good question, let me think on that for a second.”

    Also, maybe a mind trick for yourself: Tell yourself that you’re answering these questions as if you were on the job without these materials at your disposal – that this problem solving, flying-without-a-net is part of the substance of the question. Pretend they’re saying, “The internet is down at work, your cell phone is dead, the manual is missing – how would you proceed?”

    1. TootsNYC

      all those introductory phrases are “thinking time,” actually. It’s one of their purposes.

      of course, you don’t want to say, “like,” or “ummm,” but it’s totally appropriate to have transitional phrases that you rattle off while in the background your brain is working.

      Phrases like, “Of course normally I would look this up first in the X manual, and then I’d try Y if it wasn’t there, but on the fly right now I’d have to say…”
      (if you didn’t recognize this, I snipped it straight from Erin’s answer)

      See how wordy that is, “I’d have to say…”? That’s thinking time.

      So working up a few of THOSE to have in your back pocket is another good interview-prep tactic for you, specifically, because you need that “gather my thoughts time” more than perhaps someone else does.

  11. Snarkus Aurelius

    Media training is part of my job, and a job interview is quite similar so I hope you take what I’m saying to hear.  I do want to help.

    It’s not that you don’t know the answers.  You do.  It’s that they’re not coming to your mind when you’re asked.  THAT is what you need to get over, and THAT is what is making you look unpolished and unprepared.  

    If you’ve already compiled a good list of questions you’ve gotten over the years, is there a reason you haven’t committed the answers to memory already?  I’m not saying sit down and memorize them; I’m saying these are answers you should know like you know your name, your address, your SSN, etc.  

    Aside from the jerky interviews on Not Always Right, I can’t imagine an interviewer in your field would expect you to give a detailed explanation of something totally complex and nuanced.  More like these interviewers are asking you rudimentary questions that you should know and a lay person wouldn’t.

    I don’t doubt that these notes were a confidence booster, but you were already paying a price I’m not sure you were aware of until now.  Remember an interviewer has very little information to go on so while you know that you know the answers, a person who doesn’t know you doesn’t know that.  Assuming you aren’t as knowledgeable as you claim is totally reasonable here.

    1. OriginalEmma

      Do you have any tips for recalling and reciting? I’m amazed at how polished, concise and comprehensive some interviewees can be and I wonder if it’s down to both practice and a good recall/recite skill set. I want to be like that.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius

        My karate sensai had a fantastic response to that question when he was trying to teach us muscle memory. (Think of the wax on/wax off scene from Karate Kid.)

        You do it over and over and over and over and over and over again to the point you don’t even need to think about the response anymore.  My instructor is where I got the “like your name, your address, SSN, etc.” bit from.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t get it right the first time.  You force yourself to do it over and over again, perfecting your responses each time while not dwelling on your mistakes.

        Find a good friend to practice with, which is what I did for a few of my friends.

        When I first started interviewing, I was T E R R I B L E.  Now that I have a specific field and almost 20 years of experience, I don’t blink at the standard questions.  I never sat down and memorized my answers; it was stuff I learned over the years that I just know it.  I recognize that not everyone can do it as I did, but this OP needs to in her field.

      2. Koko

        Practice it 100 times over – out loud. If you have a solo commute the car is the perfect place for this. While you’re driving, pretend you’re walking an interviewer through your resume – out loud. Tell a couple of instructive stories out that would answer common behavioral questions – out loud.

        When I taught a few college courses that was how I made myself familiar enough with the material to be comfortable teaching. I gave the lecture a dozen times out loud in my car before ever giving it in front of students. By the time the students heard it, I’d already smoothed out the rough patches and finally memorized that one thing I kept having to look up.

    2. Just Visiting

      Of course, there are some of us who DO say “uh, wait a minute…” when someone asks us our addresses. :P

    3. JessaB

      Also maybe you can role play with someone outside the interview process, like practising your thesis defence.

  12. YourUnfriendlyPhlebotomist

    The way the OP has worded their email makes me think they’ve had a lot of interviews. OP are you job hopping, browsing the market or just been at this for many years?

  13. Jellyfish

    I wonder if you could use flash cards to prep immediately before the interview, and then pair it with a statement such as –

    “As you probably know, these regulations are complicated and change often. My best recollection of THIS regulation at this point in TIME is X, Y, Z. Of course, in real life on the job I’d research and verify that to make sure we’re 100% in compliance.”

    I can’t help wondering if you work in the tax industry in the US? If that’s the case I can’t imagine reasonable employers actually expect employees to memorize EVERY change in the tax code each year. If the interviewer’s question is about a minor code change that impacts few people — meaning the employee would encounter it very infrequently — I have to believe something like the above would satisfy reasonable interviewers.

  14. F.

    OP, would practicing interviewing be of help here? Have a friend ask you typical questions that normally give you pause in an interview and keep rehearsing your answers until you have the clear association in your mind. You want to get to the point where when the interviewer asks about the process for sizing chocolate teapot spouts, you can answer immediately and fluently because you have associated chocolate teapot spouts with the answer almost automatically. Just try not to make it a rote script, and bear in mind the questions may be asked different ways by different interviewers. I would think just rehearsing like this would help cement the answers more firmly in your ready consciousness. FWIW, I also find acronyms or mental pictures to be helpful in some situations where my memory is weak. Just a couple of options to think about.

    1. Shannon


      You’re one step up on the game, OP, in that you have been recording which kinds of questions will/ have been asked. You have your answers prepared. I don’t like saying memorize your answers, but, you do need to practice them until you can answer that question in your sleep. Practice with different friends so that you get experience hearing the same question asked different ways.

      I don’t know if joining an organization like Toastmasters would help, but, there are some public speaking parallels here. When I give a *good* extemporaneous speech, I find that I know my speech so well that I don’t look at my notes to see what they say – I look at my notes as a way of taking a second to modulate my speech, calm down and focus on what’s coming up ahead (I’m talking about a three second glance here). I’m definitely picking up on some sort of performance anxiety in your letter.

      If your profession has any sort of professional association, you might want to think about getting more involved in it, just to get practice talking about your job to people you don’t know.

      1. Doriana Gray

        I don’t know if joining an organization like Toastmasters would help

        Toastmasters would definitely help. Even though I’m a trained actress, I always hated extemporaneous speaking because I felt very clumsy at it (thanks, nerves). But once I joined TM and started doing table topics, I got much better at thinking on my feet.

        OP, if you can join an org like this either through work or just in your community, I think it would be worth it to pop into some meetings (even as a guest). You’ll learn how to be sharp and engaging which will give you a confidence boost in your interviews.

  15. Izzy

    Preparing the crib sheet is an excellent way to review the material and build confidence. But I agree, don’t refer to it.

    I had a graduate statistics professor who encouraged us to use crib sheets for exams – one 8×11 sheet for the first exam, two for the second, and three for the final. Choosing what information to include on that sheet was a great study technique, and I found I rarely needed to refer to the sheet. Our professor was less concerned with our memorizing formulas and procedures, more with our understanding of knowing the correct one to use in a given situation.

    I also once interviewed for a position using a certain software. I was asked to write code to solve several problems, and given a pile of reference books to use. I still had to know what to look for and the basic approach to the problem. So it is sometimes done that way. (I didn’t know how to do what they needed, and all those books were no help because I didn’t know what I was looking for. I didn’t get the job. A colleague recommended me because I was quick with the software at our job, but we used it very differently. Wouldn’t have been a good fit.)

    1. themmases

      Yes, my comment above was about biostatistics/epidemiology and this is how it’s often done. I had a couple of exams where we could bring in *everything* and it is really not as great as it sounds. There was no way you’d have time to do more than confirm something in your notes. In those situations I’d still make a detailed table of contents for my notes or a very condensed summary of the course that highlighted just the tricky stuff.

      1. Oryx

        When I worked at a college I’d often hear instructors talk about how many students failed open note tests because the students didn’t bother doing any studying and just figured they’d be able to rely entirely on their notes and textbooks without prep work.

        1. F.

          This. When I got my Math degree back in the stone ages, my CRC Manual was my right hand. However, all the formulas in the world are no good if you don’t know what to do with them and how to tell whether you have arrived at the correct answer.

        2. Ad Astra

          Sounds familiar. Many of my college friends came to hate open-note tests because they never developed an ability to decide what is and isn’t important. Most of them also didn’t bother keeping up with the assigned reading for these classes, so creating this cheat sheet was often the first time they’d encountered some of the material. They spent hours trying to fit ridiculous amounts of information into whatever space (a slice of paper or a certain size of note card) was allowed, but never actually learned the concepts.

          1. Kathlynn

            sounds like the 2 person assignment I did for one class. We had to prepare a slide show out of the section/chapter of the textbook. I took my pages and summarized them, my partner just copied her pages word for word. I was shocked. Then again I’d say I’m fairly good at summarizing information.

  16. Just Another Techie

    OP, you have to stop doing this. I too work in an industry where interviews often feel like the kind of qualification or comprehensive examinations one takes in graduate school. We have a marking scheme for our technical questions. I often ask candidates to solve problems for me, that in a real work scenario, would require at least one reference manual and equations with nine or ten terms. And I do not like it at all when candidates bring notes to the interview. That’s pretty much an automatic rejection.

    I don’t expect them to have memorized the equations but I do expect them to be able to say something like “The teapot handle length must be directly proportional to spout weight to keep the teapot balanced, so I’d make this handle relatively long, maybe three or four inches” or “Cast iron teapots hold heat better than clay, but are more expensive to produce than clay, so given this customer’s budget I would recommend they relax their heat retention requirements.” If someone consulted a notes sheet and then gave me an exact number (“The handle should be 3.5472 inches”) that doesn’t tell me anything about whether they’ve internalized the underlying principles or not. Do you really understand why handles and spouts have to be balanced or are you just blindly putting numbers into an equation? If you punch the numbers into your design software wrong and you end up with a picture that is wildly askew, will your intuition be good enough that you’re realize you made an error in calculation? Or will you pass those numbers along to the workers in the factory, who have no education or training and will just blindly stamp out whatever you give them, wasting millions of dollars of resources before someone catches the error? That’s what I care about, and if you reference a crib sheet, I can’t even begin to evaluate you on the things I care about.

    1. Development professional

      This is a stellar response. I too figured the OP was in something technical.

      Also, bravo for taking the teapot metaphor to such clear detail!

    2. OriginalEmma

      This reminds me of Richard Feynman’s lecture on whether you truly know something or not. It’s basically what you describe – can you describe the process, in your own words, without using technical jargon? For example, if your answer to question of “what makes a car move?” is “energy,” that doesn’t tell me whether you understand what makes a car move. You gave the answer but you might not know the process to come to that answer.

      1. AnotherAlison

        And there is a range of answers that indicates anything from yes, you know how a car moves to wow, you are a skilled automotive engineer. If you’re in the generally-knows-what-makes-a-car-go category, you should not be reciting written answers to sound more like an automotive engineer.

    3. Green

      This is a great response. In law you would usually have to look something up if you were answering a question for an actual client, but we refer to these hypotheticals as “issue spotters.” You get the hypothetical and then tell them the things you would need to consider and the general principles that govern it, not an exact recitation of the applicable case law (i.e., “I’d first need to determine whether X principle would apply. If so, then Y. If not, then that would weigh in favor of our client. Then, …”).

    4. themmases

      Yes. I wonder if the OP realizes that examples like that do make them sound like an expert? When you work in a specialized field it can seem like everyone knows what you know. Within your department, the ability to carry out the technical task might be what separates you from your project manager or someone else who also has a high-level understanding of what you’re supposed to be doing. In the context of a job interview, you’re not differentiating yourself from people with other roles on the team. You’re differentiating yourself from other candidates who might or might not be qualified. That is about belonging in the field and knowing the issues, not necessarily working through the whole problem unless they sit you down and test you.

  17. Catlady

    I write out common questions and come up with answers at home. I bring this sheet with me to interviews and look over them before interviews, but I would never bring it into an interview with me. This way I have a general idea of how to answer questions. It’s best to practice them and know what you’re going to say.
    If you really have a lot of problems with this, you might want to consult a doctor about possible anxiety, treating that helped me a lot with being calm and knowing how to answer questions in interviews.

    If you refer to anything in an interview, it should soley be your resume.

  18. boop

    Even the interviewers who seemed indifferent to your sheet couldn’t have actually been indifferent if they didn’t hire you and you’re still interviewing.

    1. Jean

      Ouch. I’m sure you didn’t mean this comment to sting, but it stung me and I’m not the OP.

      OP, I want to add a +1 to Just Another Techie above and the people who responded. I found the whole thread extremely helpful in articulating the different possible levels of expertise on any given subject. It also helped me to understand how it’s entirely reasonable to expect differences in presentation style and vocabulary depending on whether the topic is being discussed by, say, an Intelligent Intermediate User or a Top-Flight Super-Expert and Innovator in the Field.

      In the end the best thing that any of us can do in an interview is present the best (meaning neither-self-deprecating-nor-self-aggrandizing) version of ourselves. I’m speaking as someone, sigh, who sooner or later will have to return to the challenge known as Job Hunting.

      1. Ineloquent

        It may sting, but it may also be the truth. If you’re getting lots of interviews but no jobs, then you’re almost certainly doing something wrong in the interview, and this is certainly weakening the OP as a candidate.

        This comment forum is certainly not intended to bash the OP or rub their face in their problems. I think in general, we’re all pretty considerate of what we say in the comments. Most of the time the people here, whether consciously or not, follow the general rule of what you say should be (choose 2 of the 3) true, kind or necessary. If it’s true and necessary, but hurts to hear, it’s something we should tell the OP (unless the last 80 commenters have already done that).

      2. OfficePrincess

        But sometimes the truth is hard to hear and I really do think the overall point is valid. OP is presuming some interviewers were indifferent because they didn’t say anything or visibly react when OP checked the notes. That doesn’t mean that the notes didn’t count as a strike against the OP.

    2. SusieQ

      Sure they could. It’s perfectly possible there was some other reason altogether that the OP didn’t get those jobs.

      They MAY not have actually been indifferent, but there’s no reason here to assume either way.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I think the point is probably more precisely stated as:
        You shouldn’t assume that previously interviewers didn’t have an issue with it, since more often than not interviewers won’t give you critical feedback about things that hurt you (and it’s worth noting that these interviews didn’t result in job offers, so there’s no positive data in favor of the habit).

        Or the point I talk about here:

  19. Felicitas

    I do quite a bit of interviewing for posts in the UK civil service, where competency-based interviews are the norm. Not sure if these are the same thing you mean, but the idea in these interviews is to look for situations where the candidates have demonstrated particular behaviours or skills. Mainly, I ask a lot of “Tell me about a time when you have….” questions.

    I’m just one data point, but, for what it’s worth, I’ve had people bring in crib sheets and I’m absolutely fine with it. I’m not testing whether they can come up with the right example off the top of their heads, I’m testing whether they can demonstrate that they’ve shown the necessary competencies. That’s what qualifies them for the job.

    PS – To be clear, I’m talking about a candidate simply quickly consulting the notes to remind themselves of the examples they noted for a particular competency. If the candidate then needed to read all the key points of the notes, I’d be worried and wonder if it was a real example.

  20. Blurgle

    OP, I’m sure you loathe the interview process in your field, but guess what: everyone else does too. Breathes not a person on this planet who enjoys this type of extemporaneous intellectual deconstruction. That said, the process is not going to change no matter how much you or anyone loathes it because it is necessary. The Kobayashi Maru is fictional, OP; you can’t rewrite the process so that it caters to your comfort level.

    But I am fairly certain that the issue is, as Catlady suggests above, not that you loathe it but that you are afraid of it. The process makes you fearful (of failure, of looking like a fool in front of strangers, whatever) and therefore anxious, and it’s that anxiety that is making you dry up. In fact, I could break down your issue into two parts:

    1. The interview causes you to become unusually anxious.
    2. That anxiety causes you to dry up.

    Your crib notes serve to fix Problem 2 – but it’s really Problem 1 that needs to be solved. Because trying to make an end run around Problem 1 by only solving Problem 2 is like an anxious doctor slapping a hot water bottle on the belly of an appendicitis patient instead of operating. It’s an illogical end run around the real issue, and it caters to your emotions instead of your needs or those of the employer.

    The best way to successfully conquer test anxiety is with the help of a credentialed, evidence-based medical professional. You need to fix this.

  21. willi

    Do as many mock interviews as you can, ideally with interviewers who know what’s what in your field and can ask (and evaluate your answers to) demanding questions.

    Interviewers are (among other things) assessing how you handle yourself under pressure. Referring to notes makes it look like you can’t handle pressure well.

  22. Soupspoon McGee

    OP, how are you answering the “take us through the process . . . ” questions? With something like that, you should be explaining how you would find the most up-to-date regulations or specifications, and you can give an example using something you know very well that might have been recently revised. That way, you show your interviewers that you know content well, you recognize it changes rapidly, and you know how to find the most current information.

  23. TootsNYC

    I think you can also say, quite frankly:
    “This is one of those detailed processes that it’s easy to get wrong, because there are so many small steps. It’s exactly the kind of process that, in real life, I make a procedures sheet for. Those help because you can add in small tweaks that improve efficiency or accuracy, and of course then you don’t forget any of the smaller steps.
    “It’s easy to leave something out when one is walking through it verbally, out of context, but the bigger steps are….”

    So you TALK about your cheat sheet/procedures memo (you look organized!), and you ACKNOWLEDGE that you might actually miss something here in the verbal interview.

  24. MommaTRex

    Focus your reply on how you would go about researching the answer. I got a question once that stumped me (I work in accounting). I admitted that I didn’t know the answer off the top of my head, but I explained in detail how I would go about looking up and researching the answer. They were impressed by my response and I was offered the job.

  25. Employment Lawyer

    Use this:

    “As you know, this job requires a lot of information and it has a low tolerance for error. I’m a detail oriented person and I have a tendency to check data rather than trying to memorize it. It’s my way of ensuring accuracy and making sure I keep up-to-date values.

    I’m quite good at predicting what I need: For example, I was so sure that this question would be asked, I have the answer right here! (indicate folder.) If you want guaranteed accuracy and up-to-date data, that seems to be a great way to get it.

    So in the work context, I’d normally just glance at my sheet and be 100% sure I was right. I don’t mind switching to memorization, if you prefer, and I’m happy to run the interview any way you’d like–but I have not memorized this. Let me know if you’d rather have the correct answer, and I’ll show you how I would do it in a work setting.

  26. NK

    “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…'”

    I’m surprised no one has brought this up (unless I skimmed too quickly), but it is absolutely OK to pause in an interview and ask for a second to recall something! Of course, you can’t do it on every question, not even the majority, but if you need to pause to think for a few seconds – which will feel longer to you than the interviewer – that is completely acceptable in most interviews.

    Also, if you have any friends in your field who you trust professionally – especially if they have experience interviewing – I would ask them to mock interview you and get their feedback. Not only will this help your nerves, but your general interviewing skills as well. As others have noted, I am wondering if you think your answers need to be more precise than they really do. Typically interviewers are looking for your ability to think through things and understand the concepts than to be able to recite nitpicky things that you could look up anytime on the job.

  27. MorganLizzie

    At first, I had no clue what a crib sheet was (other than a literal sheet for a crib), and was a bit confused.

    However, I always was a bit thrown off when candidates would reference papers they brought with them to an interview. I had one who literally had pre-written responses to questions he thought I may ask (which was way worse than the OP’s situation, in my opinion), but I really felt it was always off putting for candidates to be looking for answers in their notes/papers. I’m also not a fan of someone needing to look at their own resume during an interview though, so I may be a little harsh (it’s your experience…you really shouldn’t need to look!).

    I think it’s just part of the interview prep process to ensure that you’re prepared to answer the questions that may come up, in this case, technical questions. Ideally you’d practice ahead of time and be ready to give great answers without needing notes. Typically interviewers won’t be expecting exact step by step answers with every minute detail, so it should be manageable (though I’m unsure, since your industry could possibly be different).

  28. Liz

    I think that taking some notes into an interview can be a positive. In my interview for my current position, I took in a notebook. One page had a bullet-pointed list of projects I’d done and responsibilities I’d held – interviewers in the sector I work in often phrase a lot of their questions around “tell me about a time when…” and it can be difficult to come up with different specific examples on the spot for every question. The next page had a list of question I wanted to ask the interviewers.
    This may be sector or even company/interviewer specific, but this went down very well and I got some positive comments about it. I only had to glance down at the first page a couple of times, but it helped me to make sure I was picking out appropriate examples, rather than saying “I do that all the time…” but not being able to think of a time when I’d done it. And the question list was helpful too, as I was able to actually get the information I wanted, phrase the questions in the clearest way, and note down the answers too. The job I do places a strong emphasis on preparation and a thorough, systematic approach, and by taking my notebook in to the interview with me I was able to demonstrate that I work in the way that the job needs me to do.
    You’re always going to get some interviewers who like something an interviewee does and some who don’t, but I get the feeling that the problem here is that you’re using your notes to answer questions about processes that are a part of the job. The interviewer wants you to show your expertise and have an actual conversation with you about how you would do the job. If it’s all written down then you could have very minimal knowledge and have just Googled the processes you thought you’d be asked about.

  29. Olive

    My field also has a lot of different processes and a wide knowledge base, so when I ask competency questions in an interview, I’m not expecting the candidate to know everything off the top of their head; what I’m after is what they DO know off the top of their head.

    So if a candidate started referring to notes in the middle of an interview, I would ask that they put them away. Not getting a question right isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because I’m comparing the candidate against the rest of the pool, and some things can be trained. But that’s my field – YMMV.

    So, OP, have you asked other people at a higher level in your field what the expectations are for those types of interviews? Maybe a professional organization? I think that’s where you’re going to get the most reliable answers.

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