is it possible to prepare too much for an interview?

A reader writes:

Several months ago, I attended an interview and was stopped halfway by the HR person to ask how I had prepared for the interview. I was surprised, as I was in the middle of answering a question, and I responded that I had practiced a lot with friends and colleagues. (Note: I had really wanted this job and basically practiced, practiced and practiced.)

The HR person said, “Hmm okay.” I asked if there was any problem, and she said that my answers were a bit too perfect and I was too fluent in my answers. Naturally, this flustered me a bit.

Is there something as practicing too much? Or was she out of line? I had tailored my answers to be ale to answer any question and to give specific example of situations. Now I have another interview at the same organization, for another position, and am nervous. I always thought as an interviewee you should be prepared and organized. But apparently there’s something as too much? Where is the fine line?

Yes, there’s such a thing as over-preparing, if it gets you to the point that you’re sounding rehearsed.

Preparing is generally a very good thing. It means that you’ll have thought through how your background and experience lines up with the needs of the job, it means that you’ll have come up with examples from your past that demonstrate the key qualities they’re looking for, and it means you’ll have thought out answers to tricky subjects that might come up (like salary, or why you left that job you were fired from, or why you want to change fields, or so forth). It also means that you’ll have thought rigorously about what you want to find out about the job, so that you’re able to do the information-gathering that’s part of your role in the interview.

However, you certainly don’t want to sound rehearsed in an interview; you want to sound like you’re having a real conversation with the interviewer. That means that it’s bad if your answers sound stiff, or memorized, or like you’re reading them off of a paper in your head.

Preparing shouldn’t be about memorization. It should be about the pre-thinking that I described above, so that you’re not considering the interviewer’s questions for the very first time when you hear them in the interview room. The idea is that by the time you’re in the interview, you’ve already done deep thinking on your fit for the role, and those thoughts are fairly easily retrievable and ready to be turned into answers.

But I have no idea if you were coming across as delivering memorized, overly rehearsed answers or not. And there’s a danger in putting too much weight on a single person’s feedback to you, because it’s possible that she was off-base. “Fluent answers,” as your interviewer put it, aren’t a bad thing. We don’t know if she really meant “these answers are too good!” (which would be silly) or if she meant “you sound like you’re reciting this rather than actually having a real conversation with me.”

She certainly wouldn’t be the first interviewer to deliver silly feedback that you shouldn’t act on. But then, you also wouldn’t be the first candidate to deliver rehearsed sounding answers. So I’d just take it as a flag for you to consider whether you feel rehearsed when you interview, and to work on counteracting that if you do.

{ 63 comments… read them below }

  1. CrazyCatLady*

    OP, I can relate. I think I definitely come across as overly rehearsed, when I prepare too much. For me, this means actually practicing my answers. I know Alison does recommend that and I’m sure it works well for many people. For me, it’s better that I come up with examples of situations that answer a whole slew of behavioral questions. If I actually practice those questions, it sounds unnatural. If I have an idea of what I want to say, it comes across much more naturally.

    1. Anna*

      I do the same thing. I worry that I’ll come across as too rehearsed so I’ll come up with examples I can call on and make note of the details.

    2. Sketchee*

      Yes definitely! I know I can get nervous, it’s still important for me to feel like I have a human connection. I often notice when people sound like robots. It’s like having that Comcast customer service person who just reads from the script to point where you’re not quite sure it’s a recording =)

      1. Sketchee*

        Also can I recommend if you’re all going to be studying, study improv! Look up online Tina Fey’s tips (excerpt from her book Bossypants). The basics are easy to learn and practice and really help me tell stories and talk without sounding rehearsed..

        I often enjoy retelling similar structured jokes or stories and different details come out depending on the conversation and context. Friends often draw these out of me as part of introductions and they always get new parts. Every moment has an infinite number of facts, just aa matter of picking which to tell =)

  2. Dan*

    I’ve heard of interviewers who complain that candidates seem too well prepared in one way shape or form. My response to that is, “If you’re getting your interview questions from googling ‘Top 10 interview questions’, don’t be surprised when your candidates have answers that sound like they came from googling ‘Answers to Top 10 interview questions.'”

    Tailor your questions to the candidate, and you get answers that are unique to that candidate. Ask generic questions that you find on the internet, and the candidate can easily give you “prepared” answers to those questions.

    I have to admit, as a tech person, it’s been quite awhile since I’ve been asked “generic” questions in an interview. My interviews are typically walks through my resume, talking about the projects I’ve worked on, and my involvement with them.

    1. Audiophile*

      This! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked “tell me about a time when you faced a difficult work situation and how did you overcome it?” or “what interests you about the job?” I’m sure my answer sounds canned. because I’ve interviewed for countless jobs at this point. I remember the questions that aren’t like all the others.

      1. Ted Mosby*

        100%. You can only rehears answers for guessable questions. If you’re going to ask every person about a challenge they over came in the work play :-/ then the candidates who care about doing well are going to have an example and a story ready.

      2. Jotojo*

        Totally agree with Audiophile. I’ve been on so many interviews myself that they all are starting to sound alike. I know most of the questions that I’m just quoting what I always. It’s not that I practiced or rehearsed them, it’s just that the question is so generic that my answer is sort of ingrained in my head. I wish interviewers would do away with asking the generic questions and let’s just have a conversation.

    2. Ad Astra*

      Yes! This question makes me wonder if the interviewer was asking only (or mostly) generic questions. If the interviewer asks about something specific that she found interesting on your resume, or asks you what you think of a certain project the company’s working on, you’re not likely to have a well-rehearsed answer in your head.

      I definitely wouldn’t ding someone for having a slightly rehearsed-sounding answer to “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” or “Tell me about yourself.”

      1. LW*

        The questions were generic. Literally, as Dan mentioned “Top 10 interview questions.” But as I mentioned below, the HR lady thought someone had given me the questions before =\

        1. Melissa*

          I wouldn’t worry about this one specific point of feedback, then. Take Alison’s advice about self-checking to make sure it doesn’t feel too rehearsed to you, but if they’re going to ask the top 10 they should expect the candidate to sound like they’ve answered them a few (dozen) times before.

  3. Charityb*

    It’s possible that she was responding to your cadence or tone rather than your content. (People sometimes sound rehearsed if their sentences sound as if they are reading it from a card rather than speaking extemporaneously). For example, if the sentences were too long or too rigidly structured – more like an essay than a conversation – then that might be what she was responding to.
    It’s worth checking with friends or mentors but I wouldn’t worry too much about it; the big worry in interviews is being unprepared, not too prepared. A tiny minority of people will be intimidated by the latter but no one will appreciate the former.
    It’s possible – or perhaps even likely – that the interviewer is just used to relatively unpolished or overly nervous interviewees and the problem is entirely on her end. In the end, as long you delivered the message that you wanted to deliver this shouldn’t be too much of a setback.

    1. Myrin*

      My mentor at uni is able to come up with really intricately structured sentences that could be written down as-is on the spot. It doesn’t sound rehearsed in any way and I actually admire him for it because I couldn’t ever da anything like that, but at the same time it can become quite exhausting and even a bit unnerving because it sounds so unnatural.

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      Yes , or that particular hiring manger was one of those slightly sadistic types that take pleasure in trying to trip you up. I highly doubt the next interviewer will be like the first one. I agree with others it wouldn’t hurt to record yourself answering a couple questions with a friend just to be sure though.

  4. Q*

    My coworker was on an interview and they asked him a question which he answered. One of them then said, “That’s your practiced answered. What’s your real opinion?”

    1. College Career Counselor*

      Depending on what the topic is, I can see asking for another side of the issue (to demonstrate that you understand how people might approach/think about it differently. But that’s still kind of obnoxious of the interviewer, in my opinion, to assume that the interviewee doesn’t really believe what he’s saying.

  5. KR*

    I can’t imagine being too prepared for an interview. I’m still polishing my social skills to be able to speak without stuttering for interviews and public speaking. +1 to the OP for being so prepared!

  6. Golden Yeti*

    For one interview I did, I made it a point *not* to over prepare.

    Previously, I typed out my answers and actually memorized exactly how I wanted to answer questions. While it’s not bad inherently, I do wonder if it took the genuine interaction out of the process. Plus, I was extra stressed trying to obsessively memorize perfect answers in a few days’ time. I was super invested, so I took it very seriously–there was probably a bit of performance anxiety at play.

    For that one interview, though, I wasn’t as invested (though still interested). I figured I had nothing to lose either way, so I just made bullet points of what I wanted to cover in my answers. It was hard to not study as much, but I forced myself to take it a little easier. When the interview time came, I was prepared with a story or response, but my answers were much more natural because I was choosing how to phrase things in the moment. As I was leaving, HR commented that it was a good interview, so I think I may use that approach in the future.

    That method may work for you, and it may not. But that has been my experience.

    1. Ad Astra*

      I have much better luck when I write out my answers once and then don’t really let myself look at them again until right before the interview. The point is to help myself easily recall the points I want to make or situations I want to discuss, so I’m just keeping them fresh in my mind, not memorizing them. That keeps things sounding more like a conversation than a performance.

    2. Green*

      I never think about the questions ahead of time. I have all the information I need about me, and if I have enough information about the company then I’ll be able to put the two together. Part of that is because in legal interviews there is a real risk of sounding over-rehearsed (or answering the wrong question) because you are inevitably over-rehearsed. Typically you do 20-30 interviews with different firms over a few days of about 30 minutes each on-campus, and then you fly all over the country for interviews of 4-8 sessions PER FIRM that range from 30 minutes to an hour (and/or a meal). It’s also not uncommon to get same day offers. But the more important thing to prep for there is having plenty of intelligent questions to ask, information about what the firm actually practices (in that particular office). If I could remember 2-3 key points about the firm, 5 or 6 good questions I can ask of different people (“I wanted to get your perspective on X…”), and one thing about each interviewer then that’s more than I could reasonably have hoped for.

  7. F.*

    If the position requires thinking on your feet and speaking off the cuff, I can see why the interviewer would like to hear more of your natural speaking style, especially if it requires giving coherent information and answering questions under stress. It is similar to seeing the professionally polished and highly edited resume and cover letter from a person who is themselves incapable of that level of writing.

    1. LBK*

      Is there any job where you don’t have to speak off the cuff in a professional conversation occasionally? Even in call centers with scripts, you presumably have to have meetings and talk to your manager/coworkers.

      1. Anna*

        Yes to this. Even if you ARE a CSR working from a script, what happens when the customer inevitably throws something at you the script doesn’t cover? It will always happen.

      2. StudentPilot*

        I’m a second language teacher – there’s a lot of thinking on my feet. I’m never sure class to class what someone will ask, either related or unrelated to the grammar/vocabulary being covered, or want to discuss (I spend a lot of time on news sites to cover anything that could come up.)
        I should note that I’m not making things up as I go, but I have to be ready to answer almost anything with little to no prep.

  8. Eric*

    If you were asked the same question twice (by two different interviewers), would your answer be the same word-for-word, or just the same substance. If it would be word-for-word the same, that might be a sign that it is too rehearsed.

    1. Sketchee*

      Of course every company and job is different. So even the most basic questions will be answered differently. Just like how your resume is tailored to the speaker, one would expect the interview to be very specific. Bring it back to what you know about the job, what do you all think?

  9. Blue Dog*

    This is going to sound strange, but EVERY SINGLE TIME I have REALLY wanted a job, I didn’t get it. And EVERY SINGLE TIME I have been completely ambivalent about a job, I have received an offer.

    I don’t know if it is because I was applying to “stretch” positions and bumped up against better candidates. Or if I was a lot more relaxed on the other positions and came across better. Personally, I kinda think it was the latter.

    1. Miss M*

      I’m the same way. I’m in the running for a job I’m ho-hum (but would help) about but now I have a call for a job that I REALLY want. Allison, any advice?

    2. AFT123*

      THIS. So true! I once interviewed for a job where the interviewer was 45 minutes late, the position was outside of my technical skill level, and was something I had just applied to on a whim. I was not super interested to begin with but wanted the interview practice, and by the time the interviewer showed up I was so checked out of the opportunity that I had zero nerves and was on the verge of arrogant because I was a bit mad about being made to wait. I’ve never interviewed so well in my life.

    3. Rat in the Sugar*

      I have a similar experience–I’ve gotten all my jobs through people I knew and all my managers told me openly several months after giving me the job that I bombed the interview and they hired me based on my recommendations only. The sole exception is the job I have now–which I was very ambivalent about taking.
      I think it has a LOT to do with Allison’s advice about interviewing being a two-way street. I’m very nervous and prone to over-thinking, so I tend to babble and stammer in an interview in a desperate effort to make a good impression. The one time when I wasn’t sure I wanted the job, of course I became a smooth talker–there was no pressure on me to impress anyone!

    4. Oryx*

      Yeah, I think a lot of it has to do with not feeling pressured about the interview and, therefore, naturally coming off far more relaxed.

  10. BRR*

    Stealing a line from the conductor George Szell, “It should sound completely spontaneous as the result of meticulous practice.”

  11. OfficePrincess*

    I’ve never gotten that feedback, but I wonder if anyone ever thought I sounded too rehearsed. I spoke competitively for years (foresicators unite!), primarily in limited prep events. I naturally fall into a very measured speaking style when I’m thinking and talking at the same time. The result is a polished and possibly rehearsed-sounding sentence or sentences even if I didn’t really know what I was going to say when I started talking.

    1. College Career Counselor*

      I think I have this challenge as well, although I was not a competitive speaker. While I hope I sound polished and thorough, a little too polished may mean I sound glib or somewhat aloof at times.

    2. Shell*

      I think the way to solve this question is to do the exact opposite thing all the public-speaking training tells us. That is, add your ums and ahs, stop in the middle of sentences, etc.

      Naturally, since you’ve practiced and you have the relevant experience, the content of the answers wouldn’t change. But the delivery becomes far less polished and doesn’t sound quite as much as a delivery of a speech, which I think is the main turnoff here.

      Really sucks for practiced speakers like you though, because an aptitude at public speaking is a plus in basically every other situation I can think of.

      1. Ad Astra*

        I was going to say the same thing! Without the occasional um or uh, it doesn’t sound like you’re actually thinking about your answers. Public speaking skills are great to have, but a job interview isn’t a public speaking engagement; it’s a conversation.

      2. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        Similarly, even if you think “Ah, I know this question!” while the interviewer is asking the question, take one or two seconds after they’ve stopped talking to think, “How should I tailor this response to this particular interview, even though I’ve answered basically the same question in other interviews?” In addition to helping personalize the answer, the very brief pause will send a signal that you’re not just reciting something you’ve memorized.

    3. OhNo*

      Same here! I competed in some extemporaneous speaking events in school, so I have the same issue of sounding like I’m speaking from memory when I’m prepared to think and talk at the same time.

      I’ve found a really good way to make it sound more natural is to try and speak off the cuff about things that I know absolutely nothing about. Then I always add in my ums, weird pauses, questions and such. It is a pretty good way to practice speaking naturally again if you’re not used to it.

      1. Mookie*

        That’s a really interesting method — I like it! Although I have found that there’s a certain species of Polished (and initially quite arresting and impressive) Speaker who has reached that precise level of polish because they’ve learned to appear confident and well-informed while winging most (well, nearly any, no matter how esoteric the subject) conversations, people who make excellent imposters and bullshitters unless you can interrogate them closely. (It’s always frustrating to deal with someone professionally who takes great care to pretend they know what they’re talking about better than anyone else in the room, rather than expend that same energy learning, evolving, collaborating, and sometimes admitting gaps and weaknesses in knowledge and experience. Argh!)

  12. AndersonDarling*

    I once saw a printout on the HR copier with notes from an interview, “His answers were obviously memorized.”
    I prepare for interviews by thinking about key moments in my career including unflattering experiences. This way, I have my arsenal filled for whatever question may be fired at me, but the response will always be candid and honest.

  13. LBK*

    I always make sure I have a list of examples ready for common questions that require them (talk about a time you went above and beyond, talk about a time you had a conflict with a coworker, etc.) but I don’t think it’s a good idea to get any more specific than that when you’re practicing. Treat it the way you’d treat any other meeting with your manager – you might have made a rough agenda of things to go over, but you wouldn’t write out a script for your conversation.

  14. Green*

    Another tip if you have that feedback: Be sure you’re answering the question that was *actually* asked, rather than a version of the question you rehearsed (or the question you wish they’d asked!).

    While it’s good to have a few points you want to touch on (objectives to cover in your answers), you don’t want to look like you’re steering (or stretching) to get to your objectives.

  15. plain_jane*

    My co-workers recently did a bunch of interviewing, and one of the interviewees left a negative impression by being too prepared. He brought up the title & topic of a colleague’s dissertation from 15+ years ago, and detailed work history for both of the people doing the interview. I mean, those things are on Linked In, but it made them both feel uncomfortable.

    1. Ad Astra*

      Oof. If you’re gonna bring up information that specific, you have to own up to Googling that person to soften the weirdness. “I looked you up before the interview and noticed you did some really interesting work in Teapot Sociology” might be a little off-putting depending on the interviewer, but it’s a whole lot better than casually referencing that information like it’s common knowledge.

    2. Green*

      This is a little different in law or other agencies where individuals have professional profiles on the websites that include relevant publications, major cases, community involvement, and degrees/journals/schools (which are all fair game for interviewees if there’s something you have in common or resonates with you). However, even if that scenario actually reading the articles or memorizing someone’s CV would be a bit off-putting.

      One place I think people try to over-research on is the interviewers, and then they wind up under-researching the company. Skimming through an annual report, checking a google news search for major news on the company or products or business performance, etc. are much better prep than Facebook stalking people on your interview list.

  16. Christian Troy*

    I think if there’s anything I learned from this website, it’s that you don’t want to come across as stiff and artificial during an interview. People are looking to connect with you and looking for your personality.

    I’m not sure if the feedback was warranted or not obviously, it might be possible they were looking for someone a little more outgoing and warm.

  17. hbc*

    If you have a script for Generic Interview Question #4, you’re missing the opportunity to pick up on cues from the interviewer, and specifics that matter to that company.

    I’ll never forget the guy who said he would start his first week by reading all of the instruction manuals and procedural documents. The other interviewer and I looked at each other and said, “Uh, we basically have none of those, that’s one of the things we’d want you to help with.” He sounded okay with that, but then two questions later, he’s telling us that he’s leaving his current job because of the lack of procedures and guidance. It’s a great “Why I’m Looking” story for an organization that has actual on-boarding and whatnot (“Yay, someone who will actually read and follow the rules!”), but he essentially told us that he’d be miserable in the job we had open.

  18. LW*

    Thanks for answering the question and the advice!
    So after submitting the question, there was an update. I talked to a friend, who works in the department, and told them about the interview. They did some investigating and found out that HR had asked cause they thought someone in the office had given me the questions before hand. Note though, these were generic questions.
    There was a rumour going around the office that the Manager had someone already in their mind to fill the position, and because the manager and I share a similar last name HR thought it was me.

    1. Soupspoon McGee*

      Wow–sounds like some drama brewing! In that case, I’m sure it wasn’t you being too polished, but the HR person being not very competent (or direct with her hiring manager).

      1. LW*

        But I guess the experience was still a lesson in terms of being ready for an interview. Also, the manager did end up hiring someone they knew. Turned out the new employee is a family friend of the manager.

        And guys! I’ve gotten a response back for the other interview. They’re moving on ahead with my references. Fingers crossed!

  19. Stephanie*

    Depends. I’ve over prepared for HR phone screens (or maybe improperly prepared). I have all these detailed questions and talking points…when all the recruiter needs to know is my availability, salary requirements, and basic info about my interest in the job and my background.

  20. Elsadora*

    It is all nice to say don’t over prepare for those who can speak off the cuff with relative ease, but what about those who can’t? There are people with Asperger’s, a form of high functioning autism, were they can’t speak just off the cuff, either because in the midst of answering a question, they will prattle (say too much), muddle up their words, or they will unintentionally say the wrong thing at an inopportune time. It just seems to me it is darned if you do, and darned if you don’t. Prepare too little, you look inept, prepare too much you are deemed a cold, mechanical person.

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