can you ask to come back to a question later in the interview, and how long can you pause before it seems weird?

A reader writes:

I recently went on my first interview after obtaining a technical degree. It was unlike any interview I’ve ever been on, and I quickly realized I was not well prepared. The interviewer stated before beginning that if I needed to skip a question to have time to formulate an answer and come back to it later, I could. I took him at his word that it was acceptable, assumed it wouldn’t affect his hiring decision, and skipped two questions to save for the end. Despite him telling me it was okay, do you think I hurt my chances when I skipped questions?

If the answer is no, then would it be acceptable to ask to save a question for later during an interview when the interviewer didn’t specifically mention it being ok?

Also, I’ve been told that in an interview, it’s acceptable to pause after a question to think of an answer. How long is an acceptable pause before it gets weird?

For asking to skip a question and come back to it later, it depends on the question. It’s pretty normal to need a little time to think of an example for some “tell me about a time when…” questions or the sort of brainteaser questions that can be common in technical interviews. But it would seem odd to ask to come back later to a question about, say, the details of a work project or the reason you’re interested in this particular job; it’s generally expected you’re going to be prepared to talk about that kind of thing pretty spontaneously.

I also wouldn’t do it more than once or twice — more than that, and you’ll start looking like you have trouble thinking on your feet and that you don’t realize that you’ll be creating that perception or that it would matter. Plus, I’ve got to think it’s going to be tough to be thinking about so many delayed questions while also continuing to answer new ones.

All of the above applies whether the interviewer specifically offers to let you come back to a question later or not … although if they don’t, I’d err on the side of being more sparing about it than if they do.

As for pausing after a question to think of an answer, it’s definitely okay to pause! Interviewers assume that you’ll need to think a bit about some questions — especially “tell me about a time when…” questions since those require you to search your memory for an example that will work, or questions that require problem-solving.

But yes, there’s such a thing as pausing so long that it starts to seem weird.

It partly depends on the questions and the rhythm you’ve set up. For a question about your work history or what you’re looking for in your next job or why you left your last job — topics I’d expect you to be pretty fluent in if you’re interviewing — I’d expect you to be answer pretty quickly, without pausing for more than a few seconds. But for questions that require you to search your memory or generally just be thoughtful about something, it’s reasonable to take a little longer. Even there, though, pausing for a minute or two would be pretty long, unless you buy yourself some time by saying something like, “Let me think about this for a minute” or otherwise signaling that, yes, an answer is coming.

The best way to think of it is like a normal conversation you might have with a colleague. It’s probably not going to be rapid-fire back-and-forth, but will have natural pauses as you stop to think things over, right? They’re probably not full one- or two-minute pauses, but short ones, and that kind of rhythm is the one you want in an interview too.

One exception to this is if your interviewer is asking you to solve a problem or think through a scenario, it makes sense to take longer. In those cases, though, it often makes sense to do some of that thinking out loud, because generally interviewers asking these kinds of questions are as interested in how you’re approaching the problem as they are in your ultimate answer to it. So even there, it’s not minutes of silence.

{ 94 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. hnl123

    For questions that require some “thinking on the feet,” and I want a few extra moments to think, I usually respond by starting like “That’s a good question. A time when I XYZ…..(repeat the question) Looking back at my experiences…. ”
    That makes me calm down, slow down, and enough pauses to think of something.
    Additionally, if I’m truly stumped, I will also ask for clarification. “Sure, a time when I XYZ…. just so I understand correctly, could you clarify if this means ABC?” (Even if the question is pretty straightforward, I’ve found that when I ask people to clarify, they usually give you a much longer explanation of what they want to hear.)
    Again, this gives me more clues on how to answer the question, as well as extra time to think. Plus asking for clarification makes me sound more put together than stammering. Hope that helps.

    Reply
    1. Jerzy

      This is really good advice. It also helps to demonstrate you’re listening to the question and are invested in providing a useful answer to your interviewer.

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    2. Anonymous Educator

      For questions that require some “thinking on the feet,” and I want a few extra moments to think, I usually respond by starting like “That’s a good question. A time when I XYZ…..(repeat the question) Looking back at my experiences…. ”
      That makes me calm down, slow down, and enough pauses to think of something.

      I don’t think it’s a horrible thing to do a modified version and say “That’s a good question. Let me think about that,” so you don’t have to do more talky filler while you think.

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      1. Ife

        I like this suggestion. I’m not a naturally talkative person, so trying to figure out what to say next as filler, whilst also trying to figure out an answer to the question, is really difficult for me.

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  2. MKT

    If by technical degree you maybe mean computer science or something along those lines?
    My husband has told me that some of the questions he’s asked in interviews and they absolutely stump me. I couldn’t even consider going into the field because I literally can’t answer the interviews questions like:
    If a ball is dropped from 10 feet, lands on a flat surface, to which direction will it roll?(There’s some other math thrown in there about speed and wind and some sort of human element)
    My answer would be like “Uhhh…check please”

    Anyway, from what I understand, in those interviews they expect you take a few minutes to work out your answer, but I also know that’s more developer industry dependent.

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    1. Tammy

      Being in a technical field, I’ve seen questions like this asked before in interviews. I think they work poorly when the interviewer expects the “correct” answer, but they can be useful as a way of seeing a candidate’s thinking process.

      One question which sticks in my mind was something like “how many golf balls does it take to fill a 747?” The precise answer is absolutely unimportant, but if I candidate says, “hmm, so I’ll assume a golf ball is 1.5 inches in diameter, and let’s say a 747 is something around 200 feet long and 10 feet in diameter, so that means…” I have a pretty good idea how they approach unknown problems. That *can* (but isn’t always) be valuable information.

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        1. Vicki

          The one and only time I was handed a “puzzle question”, the interviewer got up and left the room while I “thought abut it”. This is why puzzle questions should be banned. They’re _supposed_ to be about your thinking process, but too many people think they’re about the “right answer”.

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      1. Sanguine Aspect

        I work in software as a project manager and I’ve had questions like the one you describe in most of my recent interviews “How many Netflix DVDs get lost in the mail every year?” or “How many feet of garden hose are in the United States?” — the purpose of the questions is solely to see how you work through the problem. There is no RIGHT answer, only a train of logic. You think out loud, usually white board, make assumptions, and work toward a conclusion.

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      2. TootsNYC

        but I know I’d be specifically asking, “How would you work out getting that answer?” Or, “walk me through your process.”

        I wouldn’t just say, “What’s the answer?”

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        1. starsaphire

          Well, with respect, “What’s the answer?” is the appropriate question, because sometimes they want to know not only how you approach it, but a host of other things too — like how quickly you’re able to come up with ideas, whether or not you get overwhelmed and freeze, etc. It’s not just a process question, really.

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    2. Dan

      It can be anything analytical. I was once asked to critique an airline’s hypothetical sales campaign (not from a marketing standpoint, but from a data analytics point of view.) Sometimes it’s going to be straight up algorithmic questions, like describing how some sort of sorting algorithm works.

      The kind of questions your husband asks are designed to capture a few things — how do people tackle problems they don’t know how to solve, how do they communicate, how do they function in a team? It’s not the what, but the how that they’re getting after.

      BTW, a ball dropped from ten feet is probably going to bounce first.

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  3. Come On Eileen

    For the “tell me about a time when…” questions, I like to have a few bullets in front of me (inconspicuously, tucked behind my resume in a padfolio or something similar) that list out examples from previous or current jobs that I can use to answer that type of question. Typically I have 4-5 scenarios from my past that can be used across several different STAR-type questions (situation or task, action, result) and I’ll glance down at the list to refresh my memory and decide which one to use as the best example for the question at hand. So if the interviewer says “tell me about a time when you had an unhappy client and needed to think on your feet to come up with a resolution” I might have two or three different bullets I can pull from because each past situation can be used to explain:

    1. how I interact with customers
    2. how I problem-solve
    3. how I meet challenging deadlines
    4. how I balance different projects and priorities
    5. etc

    That’s a bit of a tangent, but I find it really helps me during interviews to have situations I’ve thought through, practiced aloud once or twice, and written down in a SHORT bullet so I can glance at it and remember what I want to say in response.

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      1. fposte

        Actually, I’m amending that. I find it weird if the interviewee pretends there aren’t note but uses them. I would be okay if somebody said, “You know, I thought that question might come up, and I prepped some notes to make sure I remembered my best examples.”

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        1. Beezus

          I usually have a folder with a couple of copies of my resume, and a sheet of paper with a list of questions I wanted to ask and a couple of bullet points to jog my memory on my go-to stories. Not really notes, just a few words I can glance at to snap me out of the deer-in-the-headlights brain freeze moments. For example, I have a great story about getting a difficult colleague at another satellite location to accept a new process – it works for a lot of conflict handling/relationship management/problem solving questions. All I need is his name on my list to jog my memory.

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      2. Come On Eileen

        I feel like AAM has touched on this topic once or twice, yes? I can’t remember the general consensus on bringing notes to an interview, but I can’t imagine too many people would find it weird for the interviewee to have a padfolio in front of them (?)

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        1. Elizabeth the Ginger

          I think it’d be very normal for an interviewee to have a couple notes about what they want to find out about the role, so they don’t forget to ask the questions they have. Likewise, it’d be very normal to take a few notes about things the interviewer says about the job or the workplace.

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          1. ThatGirl

            I always take a pad of paper and pen with me – even if I rarely write things down, it helps me focus a little better, and I can include notes at the top too.

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    1. ASJ

      I was always told not to use notes in an interview because it looks bad (though I do usually take a little book in so I can jot notes down). I would think it probably depends on the interviewer as to whether or not they think it looks okay. But that doesn’t stop me from having scenarios in mind in advance. I’ve got STAR answers written out that I review right up until the interview itself. It’s saved my ass SO many times because I’m not stuck on the spot trying to come up with an answer.

      For what it’s worth, Alison touched on this here: http://www.askamanager.org/2015/12/can-i-bring-a-crib-sheet-into-interviews-to-help-me-answer-questions.html

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    2. Joanna

      The thing about notes is that if you’ve had enough practice with them, you just won’t need them anymore. I’ve prepared for a couple of very important presentations (one was in a job interview) by writing out everything I would say and when I would say it in conjunction with my slides. But come the time to give the presentations, I found that I hardly needed to glance at the notes. Eventually, I ended up losing my place in the notes anyway but by that time I was on a roll so I didn’t care.

      So my advice is to make notes, practice with them, take them with you, and then forget about them.

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  4. Dan

    AAM,

    The OP states in the first sentence that he just graduated with a “technical” degree. I’m projecting, I’m sure, but with his framing I was sure he was describing a technical interview — your response was more appropriate to “soft skills” kinds of questions.

    In technical interviews, it’s not uncommon to not have the “best” answer on the spot. In the real world, I don’t always come up with the best solutions to problems between 9 and 5. They come when they come.

    It’s fine to have to have a couple of weak answers in a technical interview that you follow up on later with your thank you notes. I’ve done that from time to time — “hey, I was thinking about the problem you asked me about a bit more, and I realized that A) and B) are also important factors.” If you’re an otherwise weak candidate, this isn’t going to save you, but if you left an impression like, “he was generally great, but I’m surprised that he missed…” you really want to fill in those blanks. Normal people will cut you some slack for interview anxiety, but you do want to recover from it if you can.

    At my current job, my would-be boss was running late and had 5 minutes to interview me. He asked me a really bad question (bad because it was broad and vague and he wouldn’t clarify it when I asked him to). We got nowhere with it during the interview. In my follow up, I told him that the question was broad and that if this were something I encountered on the job, that I would take a fair bit of time to discuss with the client (or project manager) what their problems truly are, what level of solution they’re looking for, and their timeline.

    What I didn’t say was that if he didn’t like my follow up, that we wouldn’t work well together. I’ll happily go off on the wild goose chase that you asked for, but you’re not going to like the answer. That’s just not an environment I want to work in.

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    1. Jacob

      As a technical interviewer, I’ve had some candidates send followup after the interview with answers to my questions and it almost never changes my mind. Usually it comes off as, “Hey, I’ve had time to Google your question, and here’s what I found…”

      Definitely people have been leaning more to take-home work and portfolios for technical interviews, at least in my field, which addresses some of this. But if they want to gauge your performance via interview, it’s hard to provide a comparable signal of your ability once the interview’s over.

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  5. Rebecca

    Length of time to pause and think was one of those things I always worried about when I was being interviewed. Recently I have been able to be on several interview panels, which in general is so beneficial for improving my own interviewing. One thing I noticed is that within reason pauses do not seem awkward to me as the interviewer. If anything I appreciate it as a nice breather and I find people who pause generally give answers that seem to flow better. So I can honestly say as someone who has been on both sides, I would not worry too much about pausing.

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  6. KC

    Plus, I’ve got to think it’s going to be tough to be thinking about so many delayed questions while also continuing to answer new ones.

    It is very difficult, in my experience.

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    1. The IT Manager

      I honestly don’t understand the offer*. It’s not like I can be thinking up a good answer to question two while I answer questions three through six. It sounds more distracting than anything else.

      *unless a future questions jogs a memory in some way and references back to an earlier one, but in reference to technical questions that almost sounds like “cheating” although if the interviewer offered I guess they know they’re not giving away the answer.

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      1. Elizabeth the Ginger

        I feel like I could file away one question in the back of my head, maybe. But I still think my gut would be to take a stab at everything when it’s asked, and if later on I had a realization, I could just bring it up then – “Oh, I just thought of another way to look at the Empire State Building problem! You could also…”

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      2. Lynn Whitehat

        I could see not wanting the candidate to get bogged down on one question. Let’s say they’re having trouble with question 2, but could nail questions 3-6. Maybe it’s better to let them pass, answer some questions successfully, and come back to it, rather than watch them stammer and panic-sweat for 20 minutes. And once people are panicking, they can’t answer anything successfully, so then what have you accomplished? It’s true that there are jobs where it is vital to stay cool under pressure, but there are also jobs where it’s not as important, so you’re trying to keep the candidate calm.

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    2. Nobody

      Yes, exactly. I once had an interview where they told me they would be asking 10 behavioral interview questions (tell me about a time when…), and it would be fine to skip a question and come back to it later if I wanted. Around the 3rd or 4th question, I paused a little too long and the interviewer said, “Remember, it’s fine to skip a question. Why don’t we come back to that one at the end?” So we did, and guess what? I hadn’t spent a second thinking about the question I skipped because I was busy thinking of answers to the other questions.

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  7. Ashlee Bre

    Wow, it’s crazy how this blog and its questions have been syncing to my exact work experiences of that same day! I had a candidate today who is clearly a brilliant person but paused a whole bunch during the interview, not just the beginning. And some of the pausing was on easy words like thinking up the word relationship rather than explaining a full thought. Has anyone dealt with this before? Pretty sure his pauses lasted about 3 minutes total. I think he’s very smart and want to move him forward, but at one point, I thought we got disconnected because his next sentence didn’t start until close to 10 seconds later.

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    1. Dan

      Hold on to him until you’ve convinced yourself he can or cannot communicate clearly or whatever the issue is. If the guy hasn’t interviewed in awhile, he could get some big time jitters that he just needs to warm up and shake off.

      Also figure out if you can live with his drawbacks (ie he’s an IC who doesn’t interact with people outside the team) or that you require a polished person because it’s a client facing position.

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      1. fposte

        With the first sentence, you mean “keep him in the process,” not “hire him,” right? I’m fine with bringing somebody in for a second interview to see if a flaw was a one-time thing, but I wouldn’t hire somebody in anticipation of their being different.

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        1. Dan

          Yeah ;) OP uses “move him forward” which is a little vague.

          One of my old bosses once was talking about a candidate who just couldn’t communicate well. Boss said he tried multiple ways of drawing out the answer. At one point, I told him that it some ways, it doesn’t matter about the candidate’s general communication skills, because what boss was able to ascertain was that person couldn’t communicate with *him* and that would be a problem on the job.

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          1. AnotherHRPro

            I think it depends on the job. How important is it that the person be able to quickly respond to questions (i.e., think on their feet) to individuals with positional power (i.e., important customers, leadership, etc.). I’m thinking sales jobs or positions where you have to regularly present to senior leaders. If this position is not like that, I would bring them back if they are well qualified. If the job requires these type of skills I would pass.

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    2. it happens

      I worked with someone like this and learned a lot from him. He was a very thoughtful person and didn’t say anything until he had something worth saying fully formed in his head. And sometimes it would take 30-60 seconds for that to happen. It took all of my willpower to learn how to wait for his comments and not insert my own verbal filler/potential directions for the conversation. Not saying that this is the case with this person, but there is value in a person who doesn’t talk to hear his own voice.

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      1. CheeryO

        Yes! I work with someone like this also. At first it was hard not to jump down her throat (“Spit it out!” or worse, finishing her sentences for her), but it didn’t take long to get used to the way she speaks. She’s very intelligent and always comes up with a thoughtful answer, even if it takes awhile to make it out of her mouth. She’s also amazing on the phone because people can tell that she is carefully considering their problem and really racking her brain to make things right.

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      2. TootsNYC

        Recently I heard this description of introvert / extrovert

        Extroverts talk in order to think; they almost have to talk, or they can’t think. So almost you can not pay that much attention to what they say until they’re all done.

        Introverts can’t think if they talk; they think in order to eventually talk. And when they do talk, you’d best pay attention, because this is the end result of all their thinking.

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        1. fposte

          That doesn’t map onto the usual definitions, though. Plenty of introverts are yappers–I’m one, as are many of my friends.

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      3. Mockingjay

        My colleague is thoughtful like this. He doesn’t speak unless he can “improve the silence.” We sit in adjoining cubicles in the back corner and can work all day without speaking a single word to each other. When we do interact, it is usually by chat. It’s lovely.

        We found out at the beginning of the week that the program is expanding and we may need to hire another person. His only request for the new hire: look for someone like us who likes to work quietly.

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    3. Lee Ann

      Words aren’t always easy for me, but I do get to the right answer even if there’s some bobbling along the way – “did I say X? Of course I meant Y.” And that sort of thing is worse in phone interviews because if I’m looking at you when I say X your puzzled look will clue me in, but over the phone I have no such cues.

      If he got to the right answer he may just interview badly. If verbal communication isn’t required then I’d give him an in-person shot; the same pause in an in-person interview might not seem so long when you can see the person thinking.

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    4. Elizabeth the Ginger

      My father is like this in casual conversation! He likes to be very precise in his word use and will sometimes just fall silent for two or three seconds right in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes you’ll think he’s done and start to say something, usually right as he starts speaking again! It can be a bit irksome but he’s my dad and I love him. :-)

      It’s not a general intelligence thing, either, because he’s super smart and has a memory like a steel trap. (He was able to help me with my AP Chem homework when I was in high school, even though he hadn’t taken chemistry in about 25 years.)

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    5. Colette

      Is the next interview in person? I’d be wondering if he was being coached or googling answers, since it sounds like it was some sort of technology-based interview.

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    6. Nobody

      How does that compare with other candidates? You have to remember, it can be very difficult to answer a tough question on the spot, so I think you need to cut candidates some slack. Did the other candidates answer the same questions quickly and easily? You say he’s clearly brilliant; is that because his answers, when you finally got them, were better than the other candidates’? If so, I would think it’s a good sign that he took the time to think about the question so he could give a good answer. Did he do the same thing with simple questions, like asking about something on his resume? (I know you said he did it on an “easy” question, but questions are always easier to the person asking; it may still have been something he had to stop and think to remember.)

      Also, assuming it was a phone interview, is it possible there were technical difficulties, such as static on the phone or the candidate having trouble hearing you? I know sometimes when I talk to people who have me on speakerphone, I can hear an echo of myself, and I find it very difficult to talk over the echo so I end up pausing a lot.

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    7. MillersSpring

      It could be medical rather than a sign of a limited vocabulary. I have problems with both sleep apnea and insomnia, and with the resultant chronic sleep deprivation, I daily have problems trying to think of the right word, even simple words. Sometimes I pause for a few seconds to avoid stammering, too.

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    8. Janice in Accounting

      Do you think he might have been Googling or otherwise looking up answers to your questions? I’d bring him in for an in-person interview and ask similar questions to see if he has long pauses before his answers, or doesn’t answer quite as brilliantly as he did on the phone.

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  8. ASJ

    One thing I want to point out, resist the urge to say “Umm” or some other filler word like that! I’ve spoken to a couple of managers who were ok with pauses (and even really liked it, because they thought it meant that the candidate was taking the time to really think and put together a well formed response), but really picked up on the interviewee using filler words – especially if it’s done repeatedly. I try to watch myself for it during interviews, because I didn’t even realize how prone I am to that until it was pointed out how noticeable it was.

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  9. Anonymous Educator

    This may not be that helpful for the OP, but when I’ve been an interviewer (for hiring or for school admissions), I’ve never said anyone can skip a question and ask to come back to it later (it’s an interview, not a quiz), but for more thought-required questions, I’ll often preface it by saying “Don’t feel you have to answer right away. You may have to think about this for a bit,” to give them intentional space for them to think and so they don’t think it’s awkward or abnormal or something they have to view for to have that space. I’d recommend the same for interviewers if you’re doing more of a “show me your strengths” interview and less of a “gotcha” interview.

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    1. 42

      Amen. That type of preface should be the standard. If I were in that kind of situation it would immediately calm me down and let me focus my thoughts.

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  10. AnotherHRPro

    Like Anonymous Educator, I have never proactively told someone they could skip a question (but do tell them it is fine to pause and collect their thoughts) however I have had people request to do this. Every single time someone has requested to “come back to a question” the answer to that question was still very weak. In these cases, taking time did not help the person and frankly I think them taking so much more time preparing for the question resulted in me expecting more from them. So I guess my advice is to pause in the moment and go with the best that you’ve got right there and then. Just my opinion…

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  11. Rowan

    On a side note, if anyone wants to watch an interview made hilarious by delayed answers not matching up with the latest question, watch the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (available on iTunes).

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  12. TootsNYC

    I ask a lot of open-ended “soft skills” questions that people often aren’t prepared for.

    So I give people a beat or six to think, and I’m very happy if they circle back later. In my case, I don’t need a specific answer; I’m just trying to pry out more conversation from them about our field and their experience. I’m trying to get them talking, and so I ask questions about values, problems, etc. I’m looking for how they think about our field, etc. I’m not looking for any one right answer. I’ll get what I need eventually, even if they never answer any particular question. They’ll answer some -other- question, and the way they answer it will tell me more about them.

    So if you were interviewing with someone whose goal is much like mine is (to just get to know you and how you think), I wouldn’t suggest specifically asking to come back to it, but if an answer percolates up later, it’s totally OK to circle back unprompted: “Oh, you were asking…I just thought of an example.”

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    1. OP

      Can you explain what you mean by “In my case, I don’t need a specific answer. I’ll get what I need eventually, even if they never answer any particular question”? Are you saying a candidate interviewing gives an answer that doesn’t really address the question but is still considered to be doing well in the interview?

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  13. Little Mary Moonshine

    I work for the Canadian federal government and have been involved in 3 staffing processes (very long and painful staffing processes…) in the past year in my current department. We always give the candidate the list of questions and tell them that they can answer in any order they want, skip a question and come back to it later, and come back to a previously-answered question at any time during the interview if they think of anything they’d like to add. I remember being given similar instructions in my own past interviews. AFAIK it’s also common to give the candidate a half-hour or so of prep time with the list of questions before the actual interview; that’s what we’ve done for the 3 staffing processes so far and it was also my experience as a candidate in the last couple of interviews I did.

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    1. OP

      I would LOVE this. It would take so much pressure off and I would be able to give much better answers that truly reflect who I am as an employee.

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  14. Lily Rowan

    When I was looking for my second job after college, in my mid-20s, I was a TERRIBLE interivew. Which I know because I got called in for almost every job I applied for, but could not for the life of me get hired. I finally realized that I was trying too hard. I didn’t want to sound like a dumb kid, so I really tried to think through every answer before I gave it, and it was really not going over well. When I finally relaxed some, it went much better, even if I was coming up with the answer as I was giving it.

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  15. OP

    OP here: All of the questions at the interview were behavioral. “Tell me about a time when….” “What would you do if…”. I had a lot of difficulty coming up with answers for behavioral questions in a field where I have very limited experience. One question was “Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with a coworker and it ended badly.” I have had jobs before but I have never had this happen to me so I was at a loss for the best way to answer.
    Anyone have a good answer to that question??
    My other jobs have been menial minimum-wage jobs. I was a nanny for 4 years prior to going back to school so it’s hard to draw examples from that. Although the interviewer suggested I use my nanny experience to answer the question above. I was thinking “You really want me to talk about having conflict with a child?”.
    I was never asked any questions about my knowledge in the field, only behavior questions to demonstrate how I think and act. The interviewer made a couple comments about my answers indicating I think outside the box and he liked that. I was really reaching for answers though….

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    1. Jubilance

      Hi OP, thanks for coming in and clarifying. Here’s my suggestion – as part of your interview prep, write out responses to common behavioral interview questions and practice your responses. You don’t want to look rehearsed, you simply want to get yourself familiar with the scenario and how to communicate it in a concise way. I like to use the SAR (or STAR) method, which is Situation, (Task), Action, Result – set up the situation, explain your task (if necessary,explain what action you took/what happened, and summarize the result.

      For a question pertaining to an experience you haven’t had, you can go a couple of different routes. For example, you can say “I haven’t had conflict with a coworker, but in a conflict with a group member for a class project…” and then explain. Or say “While I haven’t had conflict with a coworker, here’s what I would do if I encountered this situation…”.

      You can Google behavioral interview questions and get lots of examples. Ones I get commonly are: a time where you needed influence people you didn’t have authority over; a time where you had conflict with a teammate; a time where you had to make a decision with limited information; a time where you had to use X skill, etc. With each question, map out your answer using the SAR method and practice a couple days before your interview. Good luck!

      Reply
      1. OP

        Thanks for your response Jubilance. After that interview, I borrowed a flashcard set of “Common Interview Questions” a friend had bought from a bookstore and took out all the cards with questions I thought might apply to me to practice for the next interview. Glad to hear that other people think it’s ok to admit that you haven’t had a particular situation happen and can answer with “Here’s what I would do if that situation happened…”

        Reply
        1. Chriama

          Hey OP — as a new grad, it’s expected that your answers to behavioural interview questions won’t be as ‘perfect’ as someone with more work experience. I think this really boils down to a lack of preparation for interviews. People have mentioned above how they’ll come up with answers for common behavioural questions — you need to be doing the same thing. “A conflict with a coworker” could just as easily be “a conflict with a classmate” or “a conflict with a coworker in the last job I had before I went back to school” or even “a time I had to discipline a child as a nanny”. I think your lack of professional interview experience has you thinking too literally. The point of a behavioural interview is to see how you *behave* in various circumstances. Rather than trying to exactly match the circumstance the interviewer has put forward, just focus on what behaviours the interviewer is trying to asses (e.g. conflict between peers) and think of examples that can show it.

          Reply
          1. OP

            Thanks for the reply! I think you’re right that I was trying too hard to match up my answer perfectly with the question despite having so little experience. I’ll definitely be more prepared for my next interview!

            Reply
              1. OP

                Yes! I didn’t discover this site until after my interview. I’ve spent hours and hours reading everything on here trying to absorb it all. Plus some the questions with crazy scenarios are hilarious!

                Reply
    2. 42

      That’s what I was thinking earlier–that some of the behavioral questions I’ve seen (never had one asked of me) lay out situations that I’ve frankly never experienced. Ever. How does it look to interviewers if I were to tell them that during the interview?

      “Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with a coworker and it ended badly.”
      Me: …

      How should that be handled?

      Reply
      1. Colette

        You’ve almost certainly had conflicts – so explain the conflict and how you handled it to avoid it going badly.

        (Also, that’s a poor question).

        Reply
        1. OP

          Colette, I thought it was a crazy question, too. It’s one thing to say “Tell me about a time when you had conflict with a coworker?” but to add on that he wants an example that includes it ending poorly….?

          Reply
          1. Chriama

            Eh, I sort of get where they’re coming from. I think they want to see not just the typical “I’m a perfect person and have excellent conflict management skills” but what happens when you do everything right and the issue still doesn’t get resolved? What tactics did you try? How much of the end result do you ascribe to other people’s actions vs your own vs the circumstances? I don’t love the question but I get what they were thinking when they asked it.

            Reply
      2. misspiggy

        I’d say why it’s never happened, hopefully using examples that show how well you resolve conflict (or how well you handle relationships so that issues are resolved before they become full on conflicts).

        Reply
    3. Marissa

      When interviewing for my first job out of university, I used examples of group work during my master’s degree. We had a year-long project that was exclusively student-run, so I treated my fellow post-grads as “colleagues” for that type of question. I too had menial minimum-wage jobs before I got this job, so I wouldn’t necessarily have an example from experience; so I would also just tweak the questions a little. For example, if I was asked, “Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with a coworker and it ended badly,” and I’d never had a real conflict that stood out in my mind, I would say, “Well, I can’t recall a time I had a conflict with a coworker, but I did have a conflict with a (peer/customer/professor) and we resolved it by X, Y and Z.”

      Reply
    4. Elizabeth the Ginger

      “Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with a coworker and it ended badly” isn’t a very good interview question, in my opinion, for exactly the reasons you point out! I think in that case the best thing to do is come as close as you can. Maybe it was a conflict that wound up being averted before it got bad, and you can explain how you kept it from being a problem. Maybe it wasn’t even really a fight, just a conflict of interest – like two groups who both needed to use a shared space at the same time. Maybe it was a conflict between two other coworkers that you witnessed, and you talk about what you did to continue working well with both of them.

      Reply
      1. fposte

        Agreeing that it’s not a good question–I’m kind of wondering if it’s to draw out people out who tell happy stories of people getting punched or co-workers still not talking to them so that these candidates can be weeded out of the process. But even if that’s the case, you don’t want to ask questions that make your better candidates uncomfortable and confused.

        Reply
        1. AnotherHRPro

          I think it is trying to get at how the candidate handles interpersonal relationships that don’t always go well. That is a reality – we don’t always get along with everyone. And if in this particular role, the candidate would be dealing with difficult personalities or conflict, it could be a very valid question.

          Reply
          1. fposte

            Right, that’s what the usual version of the question is inquiring into–“How have you handled a conflict?” The “ended badly” doesn’t get you any better outcome and is just going to confuse people who haven’t had anything like that and probably never will.

            Reply
    5. Ife

      Oh gosh I sympathize with you, those behavioral questions are awful! My memory goes to hell when I’m in stressful situations (like interviews) so if I don’t spend time beforehand practicing likely behavioral questions, I cannot recall a time I had a conflict with a coworker (or whatever the question was) to save my life. I try to categorize the commonly asked questions I find (conflict, teamwork, challenging projects, time management, etc), and think of at least 2-3 examples of each category of question because otherwise I end up using the same 2 or 3 scenarios over and over again, and that is frowned upon.

      Reply
      1. OP

        I get flustered when I’m put on the spot with an unexpected question and my brain freezes up. This interview was SO stressful. I’ll definitely take your advice and try to come up with many DIFFERENT scenarios, because like you, I’d get stuck on the same ones.

        Reply
    6. TheLazyB (UK)

      I’ve been offered jobs twice when I asked to come back to a question later and did so – apparently with really good answers both times.
      I also have a four year old child and I would totally respect you talking about conflict with a child. Disclaimer, I am not a manager :)

      Reply
      1. OP

        Glad to hear that it’s possible to ask to skip questions in an interview and still be offered a job.
        Yes, handling conflicts with children is tough, but not quite the same as a conflict with a peer. I can’t send a peer to his/her room or pick him/her up and move them, ha.

        Reply
    7. Murphy

      I’ve done a lot of hiring in my career and I’ve never thought about people hating the behavioural questions. They’re a full third in our interview process.

      We break our interviews into: Knowledge (questions about specific content); Abilities (tell me about a time when…); and Personal Suitability (What things do you look for in a manager…). Most people, in my experience falter a bit with #1 (unless they’re internal), excel at #2, and then are getting tired by #3. I honestly never thought people would find the #2 questions stressful. I’ll have to watch for that when I interview next (tomorrow) and prompt candidates to take their time and pause for a moment to think if need be.

      Reply
      1. CDN librarian

        I find them really stressful because it feels like a really round-about way of saying “I work well with people”/”I prioritize clients”/”I take responsibility for my actions” but instead of saying it, you have to weave a narrative that illustrates it clearly. Word choice and the framing of the story become so important because you know they’re parsing it carefully to see if you hit the right notes. It’s HARD to tell a story about a time you resolved a conflict while simultaneously stressing that you weren’t the cause of the conflict and carefully avoiding blaming your co-worker lest you be judged a complainer.

        Reply
        1. Murphy

          I suppose I just don’t see how coming up with a scenario for something like that is any different than coming up with a scenario for say a time you’ve managed a complex project with little in the way of protocol or past practice to fall back on. Both of those types of questions require “scenario” answer and are often phrased in the “tell me about a time when” vein, so I’m not sure what’s different between the two (for the record, I expect scenario-based answers for 90% of the interview questions I ask since it’s the best way to keep people from talking in hypotheticals and for me to get to a relevant example of how they’ve behaved in the past.).

          Reply
    8. TootsNYC

      Also, you may want to reframe the question:

      “Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘ended badly.’ I can’t think of anything dramatic, but I did have a conflict that I felt disappointed with the outcome; I don’t think I handled it as well as I could have.”

      Reply
  16. katie

    Ok I dunno if this is normal or no…but after the interview questions for an internship- without asking for it the employer provided me with feedback on my interview. Is this a good sign or a bad sign?

    Reply

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