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.