what should I do if I need more time to think of an answer to an interview question?

A reader writes:

I recently remembered a piece of interviewing advice from my high school teacher a long time ago, and I was curious whether this is actually a good idea or if there’s a better strategy.

This teacher said that during an interview, if you’re asked a question you didn’t expect and might need a moment to contemplate (for example: something oddly specific like “tell me about a time you overcame a challenge involving a squirrel in the workplace” or a question that requires a bit of creative thinking like “if you had to describe your work ethic using a movie title, what would it be?”), it’s perfectly fine to say “that’s an interesting question, I’ll need a moment to think about that one” and just take a moment to think about it quietly.

From my limited perspective, this seems pretty solid in principle. While good preparation of relevant experiences and answers to common questions can help avoid this, I think it’s still reasonable to assume that an interviewee is going to encounter a few questions that make them think and might need some time.

In practice, when I used this tactic during a mock interview, I found it to be beyond awkward. I just looked at the wall and tried to talk through my disjointed thoughts with the interviewer (mostly just “hmmm”s and “well, there was that one incident … but that wasn’t a squirrel, so…”). It also was difficult to concentrate since the silence and time pressure (and nerves) made my brain focus less on the question at hand and more on things like “my answers to that last question might have been lacking” and “I wonder if I LOOK like I’m thinking hard or not.” Then when I felt I had a good response, I couldn’t really think of anything more elegant to say than, “Thanks, I think I have an answer now.”

Is this a solid piece of advice and I just needed more practice with my execution? Or is this a bad idea to do in an interview? Do you have any suggestions for better ways to handle questions that you might need some time to think about? I know for some questions it’s possible to start answering as long as you have a general idea of what you want to say and you can think about it as you talk, but what’s your advice if you’re not sure how to even start?

I’d really love to hear your feedback on this, and please let me know if I’m off-base with any of my assumptions here as I’m still pretty inexperienced (I’ve only been in the work force for about two years so far).

The real problem is that interviewers shouldn’t be asking questions like “describe your work ethic using a movie title” unless the job they’re hiring for requires that specific type of creativity and the ability to come up with creative answers under pressure. Some jobs do. Most jobs don’t.

But of course, you can’t control that as the interviewee, so you still need a way to handle questions that you don’t have an instant answer to.

Asking to take a moment to think is generally fine. It would be odd if you did it in response to something like “why are you interested in this job?” or another question an interviewer would reasonably assume you wouldn’t need to search your brain for … but for questions like the ones in your examples, it’s perfectly fine to say, “Let me take a minute and think about that.”

That said, a pause can go on so long that it starts to feel off and with most questions, that point is right around the one-minute mark. Which doesn’t give you all that long to think, frankly — and knowing you only have a minute can create the kind of pressure that sometimes makes it impossible to come up with an answer. So if you’re really struggling to think of something, it’s also okay to say, “Nothing is coming quickly to mind! Could we come back to that later in the conversation and I’ll let it percolate in my head meanwhile?”

Also, know that with “tell me about time when…” questions, if you can’t think of a relevant example, it’s okay to say, “I haven’t encountered that specifically, but something similar was…” or “I haven’t experienced that exactly, but my thought would be handle it by…” (More on doing that here.)

And — while it doesn’t sound like the sorts of questions you’re asking about — there are some questions that will take a while to answer, but where the interviewer wants you to think out loud as you go. With problem-solving questions (like “how would you figure out the number of windows in New York” or so forth) or in technical interviews, interviewers generally want you to talk your way through figuring out the problem because they want to hear how you’re approaching it (and in those cases they can be more interested in your thought process than your ultimate answer).

{ 289 comments… read them below }

  1. fishtent*

    Describe my Work Ethic with a movie title? Only one possible answer: Die Hard (With a Vengeance)

      1. Constance Lloyd*

        Mine was Pretty Woman. I would take exactly half a beat to realize what I’d said, feel mortified, and then decide it’s ultimately in them for asking such a useless question.

        1. Honey honey bee*

          Just trying to think of any movie title about work, my brain offered up “Working Girl.” Ha.
          Terrible question.

          1. Piano Girl*

            I came up with “Working Girl” also. I started as a Secretary and ended up as an accountant. Still, not the best….

    1. Dust Bunny*

      My brain goes to “Dazed and Confused” for literally everything. Not helpful. (Nor accurate, really.)

    2. Elenna*

      And what about people like me who basically never watch movies and can’t think of many movie titles at all?

      I’m giving myself 2 min to think of all the movie titles I can come up with.
      3 LoTR movies (no, I don’t recall the names of the Hobbit films)
      Star Wars 1, 4, 5, 6, and 9
      Kingsman: The Secret Service
      Mad Max: Fury Road
      Home Alone (maybe? if there’s anything more to the name than “Home Alone” I don’t remember it.)
      7 Harry Potter movies
      Casino Royale (why I remember this I don’t know)
      When Harry Met Sally (ditto)
      A Christmas Carol

      I definitely know more movie titles than that but that’s all I could come up with from the top of my head. And that’s without the pressure of an interview, and with double the time Alison suggested.
      So that’s 22 movie titles, most of which make no sense as an answer. I guess “Serenity” might be a decent answer if it actually described my work style, which it doesn’t. If for some reason I got this question in an interview, I’d probably just laugh, admit that I never watch movies, and describe my work style briefly with regular words.

      1. It's Growing!*

        As another hardly-ever-see-a-movie person, my options would be pretty limited.

        Interviewer: “If you had to describe your work ethic using a movie title, what would it be?”
        Me: Enola Holmes? The title says nothing of use, but the character was incredibly persistent and I’m persistent.

        Brownie points for coming up with anything at all?

      2. MEH Squared*

        Same here. Last movie I saw was Knives Out . Hey! That might work to confuse them.

        My favorite movies are The Station Agent, Once, and Japanese Story. None of them work, either. So I would be SOL with this question as well.

        1. GoryDetails*

          Knives Out (awesome movie!) could certainly apply to a number of workplaces – many of which keep coming up in the letters here {wry grin}. And for some of them it might make for a really good work ethic; sales, for example (Glengarry Glen Ross, anyone?), or the legal profession (from what I hear) – or, you know, surgery…

        2. Lucy Skywalker*

          I was thinking the same thing, to say something totally random just to confuse them, like “Star Wars” or “Never Been Kissed.” They’d be just as confused by my answer as I would be by the question!

      3. Koala dreams*

        Actually, your list sounds great! It’s even worse when you only remember obscure titles or old movies nobody else remembers.

      4. Antilles*

        I think you’re probably dead-on with the last sentence; that’d be my approach as well – just admit you’re not a movie buff and then describe your work style in a regular fashion because that’s what they want to know anyways.

    3. quill (and the bees agree with me)*

      The Prestige (because I’m gonna disappear from that interview like someone clone-teleported me.)

    4. Al*

      I was asked that question! (Although “work ethic” wasn’t the exact phrase used.)

      I later thought that Die Hard would have been a great answer.

      At the time, though, I blanked out on movie titles and asked if I could substitute a song title; I chose “Let the sun shine in.”

      1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        When I actually used to use ringtones on my cell phone, anything from a work number was Godsmack’s “No Rest For The Wicked”.

    5. knitcrazybooknut*

      Definitely Office Space or Clockwatchers.

      (The latter is an amazing sleeper of a movie from 1997 with massive stars semi-before they were: Parker Posey, Toni Collette, Lisa Kudrow, Alanna Ubach, Debra Jo Rupp, Jamie Kennedy, etc. etc.)

    6. irene adler*

      Let ’em squirm in their seat for a bit, then explain “I deliver the goods. What did you think I meant?”

    7. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      Brazil? 9 to 5? What if I just went complete non sequitur and said A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night or Donnie Darko?

      1. kicking_k*

        I had to watch *Brazil* and *Minority Report* as assignments for my records management qualification.

      2. Wendy Darling*

        For some reason even though I watch tons of movies the only movie title I could bring to mind was Alien: Covenant and I have decided I kind of love how absolutely incoherent that is as an answer.

      3. Mongrel*

        Or The Room, I’m not sure what that would say about anyone.
        Although the movie about that movie was called The Disaster Artist so that’s another one for the pile

      1. Lily*

        My first thought was “Cutthroat Island”. Second thought- “Muppet Treasure Island”. So apparently my brain thinks I have a piratical work ethic?

      2. Cheap Ass Rolex*

        My favorite movie and a perfect answer! So many interpretations:

        -You’re cautious yet entrepreneurial like Rizzo
        -You’re adventurous and optimistic like Gonzo
        -You’re ambitious and polite like Jim
        -You’re prone to cabin fever!

        1. Cheap Ass Rolex*

          (And of course the piratical possibilities:

          -You’re passionate about your work like Long John
          -You’re a sunny personality like Clueless Morgan
          -You defy preconceptions like Big Fat Ugly Bug-Faced Baby-Eating O’Brien!)

          (Ok I’m done now.)

    8. Cthulhu's Librarian*

      … I would totally blank on this and just start naming Kurosawa films or Anime titles, then hope they read some deep meaning into something like Yojimbo.

      1. PABJ*

        I would probably blank at first, but now that I’ve seen that question, there is only one acceptable answer: The Incredibles!

    9. L.H. Puttgrass*

      “The Seventh Seal.” Then let them try to figure out what the heck that means.

      I sort of like “Any movie with Humphrey Bogart as a detective” as a semi-legit answer. Both Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe had a certain dogged determination to them.

    10. ReadyPlayer3*

      Casablanca: May have some ups and downs but is overall dependable and always does the right thing in the end. Also doesn’t tolerate Nazi or any fascists really.

    11. Loredena Frisealach*

      sadly the first movies that come to mind are Real Genius and the Princess Bride. Maybe not quite what they’re looking for….

    12. Purple Cat*

      “Clueless” was the first movie that came to mind for me.
      I guess I’ll go with Bring it On instead :)

    13. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I’ll take “Local Hero”…because like Gordon, I like to do a variety of things in my job.

    14. DCDM*

      I’d go with something like “Watcher In The Woods” and let them percolate on my creepy answer to their dumb question

    15. Princesss Sparklepony*

      I came up with Home Alone…. but I really need to work on my ordinary items booby traps to work that one.

  2. Beast ala Mode*

    I was once asked “if you were a tree, what kind would you be?” I couldn’t stop myself from saying “well, that’s a stupid question.” Pretty much ended the interview. It was for a staff accounting position.

    1. Me (I think)*

      I’m sure that question has a ton of relevance to the everyday responsibilities of a staff accounting job.

    2. alt ac*


      My sister was asked in an interview what she thought of garden gnomes. Like, what? She’s an elementary school teacher.

      1. just a random teacher*

        To be fair, as an elementary school teacher you will be asked a lot of totally off-the-wall questions by students. I don’t know that having an adult ask one in an interview would be a good way of assessing how you’d handle them while teaching, though.

        1. MsM*

          Now I’m envisioning a preschool teacher interview that’s just a series of follow-up “Why?” questions.

        2. Sweet Christmas!*

          I don’t think it would be. I’m much more prepared for kindergartners asking me off-the-wall questions than adults.

      2. Anonymous4*

        I’d say that I wasn’t much on garden gnomes myself but — and tell a story about how a relative’s neighbors kidnapped his Christmas gnome and hauled it around town, taking snapshots of it in different places and writing a really funny little story about it.

        That would work, wouldn’t it?

        1. Bluesboy*

          At least one of my colleagues would be the missing piece that you don’t realise is missing until you get to the end and realise you need it…

      1. Delta Delta*

        As a good GenXer, I would not be able to resist quoting The Lemonheads and saying “the puzzle piece behind the couch that makes the sky complete.” And if the interviewer got it, we’d naturally be work BFFs forever. But I assume this will never happen to me, so I’ll just have this fantasy.

      2. Meep*

        The one that simultaneously brings you the most annoyance because you cannot figure out where the heck it goes and the most pride when it finally falls into place.

        (Nope. I think I couldn’t stop sarcastic answers.)

      3. Princesss Sparklepony*

        Corner piece, it’s a lynchpin. And there are only 4 of them, so somewhat unique in comparison to the rest of the pieces.

        Although in brownies I prefer a non corner piece….

    3. Phony Genius*

      This was a famous question from media week at the Super Bowl. The player who was asked said “a cheese tree.” This player was widely known for being both very crazy and very uneducated. Nobody’s sure if he was trying to put the reporter in his place by giving a nonsensical answer, or if he genuinely believed cheese grows on trees.

    4. knitcrazybooknut*

      Immediately brings to mind that exact question used in Drop Dead Gorgeous. “Just give me a minute to warm up!”

      1. Meep*

        lol. I was thinking “A birch tree – pale, skinny, kind of weird-looking, looks fragile, but could still do serious damage if you get in my way.”

    5. The New Wanderer*

      I was asked the tree question too, which wasn’t even the worst part of that interview loop. I spoke with three different interviewers who all had the same sheet of typed, generic interview questions. Apparently they were asked to select three and didn’t coordinate with each other. So, all three asked me what my three worst faults/qualities were. In hindsight I wish I had come up with nine different faults instead of mentally sighing and repeating what I had just told the last person.

    6. Forest for the Trees*

      I was asked that once as well! It was some years ago now so I don’t remember which type I said, but the interview was for a management position so I used a justification that described providing protection with my branches and a welcome place for people to come together. It was the last question and I’m sure it was meant to be a light hearted parting, but it’s just so silly. I did get the job though.
      I was once on an interview panel where the lead insisted on asking candidates which part of a salad they would be. I’m still not sure what that was meant to accomplish.

    7. Goldenrod*

      I love your reply though! It IS a stupid question.

      I would say a “weeping willow” because I cry a lot at work.

      1. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

        Hrrm…Eucalyptus. I drop things when I’m stressed and also might explode.

    8. L. Ron Jeremy*

      I was asked “how many ways is a duck similar to a refrigerator?” I got 23 ways and got the job, as Senior Mech Engineer.

    9. ellex42*

      I was asked “If someone wrote a biography about you, what would the title be?”

      No one would ever write a biography of me, nor would I want them to.

    10. Smilingswan*

      I was asked, “If you were a tool, what tool would you be?” “Nailgun, because they’re persistant and get the job done.”
      Boom. Got the job and still here 6 years later.

  3. oh no*

    This is not strictly related, but … Does anyone have any tips for interviewing with brain fog? I can generally work just fine in normal circumstances (I’m a tech worker, so most of my life is me and my computer, which suits me just fine), but being in an interview really exacerbates my brain issues and makes my thoughts slow to a crawl. Is there a graceful way to say “This is gonna take me a second, I’ve got the answer in here somewhere, I just gotta rummage for it…” (For context: it’s a combo of ADHD, depression and chronic fatigue, generally well managed except in stressful, particularly social, situations…)

    1. anonymous73*

      Would it help you to write down answers to common questions, or examples of the type of work you’ve done for review right before the interview? I do this, not because of brain fog, but because I get very nervous and my mind just goes blank sometimes. Having read through some things beforehand helps them stay at the front of my brain for a short time.

      1. SheLooksFamiliar*

        This is a great technique, I’ve used it and recommended it.

        Most people don’t go through their day documenting everything they do and their thought process behind it, so those ‘tell me how…’ questions can be challenging. We just do our work and move on. Preparing your answers, and also practicing out loud, can help you feel more confident.

        1. ThatGirl*

          Yeah, I always try to have major accomplishments and a handful of “tell me about a time when…” answers written down, at least in outline form, because I am very liable to blank at an inopportune time. Practicing talking about them out loud helps too.

    2. Combinatorialist*

      You mention tech, so if you are talking about the kinds of questions like “what is technical concept X” that are to sort of see if you know anything about the things you claim, I would actually just do the thinking about it out loud. Like “it’s been a while since I thought about it. Let’s see, the first thing that pops in my mind is Y which is similar but not quite because A. Blah blah.” Probably through the brain fog you are searching for hand holds towards the information you are looking for — say those out loud. It’s helpful to see as the interviewer and also it shows that you have an understanding of related concepts instead of just fact regurgitation.

    3. Lynn*

      I like the have my own copy of my resume to scan through to help jog my memory. Random access memory is better in humans than computers!

    4. P*

      ADHD is a learning disability, and you are actually allowed to request an accommodation for an interview in getting questions in advance. Many neurodiverse candidates struggle with coming up with sparkly answers to these questions on the spot and are actually in an inequitable position compared to neurotypical candidates. This is a reasonable accommodation and it’s not totally uncommon.

      1. Reaf*

        I have both Autism and ADHD, and I’ve never heard of this before. If I requested such accommodations, I’d expect to be immediately withdrawn from consideration for the job, and I live in California, so not exactly the most anti-labor state around. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely struggle with answering the questions and with getting jobs, and the reality is not equitable or fair to me, but I would not ever do this, because I feel like it would just make it impossible to ever get an interview in the first place.

        1. SpookyScarySkeleton*

          Hmm. It’s worth a shot to try on a job you aren’t critically concerned with, just to see what happens. I just finished applying to a job in CA and it involved a reasonable accomodation notice as part of the application package, with autism being included under that umbrella and “reasonable accommodation include(s) making a change to the application process.”

          I wouldn’t try it for the first time if you were seriously concerned about losing out on an opportunity, just in case. It would look pretty bad on the company if you requested accomodations and they dropped you from consideration. That’s pretty open-and-shut discrimination.

        2. P*

          I have autism and ADHD, and yesterday I requested questions in advance for an interview which was granted.

          I originally wasn’t in the habit of doing this, but I watched a Hiring Neurodiversity course on LinkedIn that explained that masking WHILE thinking of an unexpected question on one’s feet is difficult in a way that is not necessarily indicative of job performance, so I thought I’d try it out.

      2. RagingADHD*

        ADHD can be a disability. It is not classified as a learning disability because it does not prevent people from acquiring knowledge or skills, though it may have learning disabilities like dyslexia as comorbidities.

        It is a misconception that ADHD necessarily interferes with interview skills. The symptom profile of ADHD varies incredibly wildly.

        Many ADHDers are better at thinking on their feet and improvising than they are at preparing answers in advance. For others, it’s the other way around. It’s highly individual.

        If someone feels comfortable asking for accommodation, that’s certainly their right, but as Reaf points out, there are a lot of potential downsides to disclosing a disability before an offer.

        1. P*

          “oh no” specifically cited brain fog and anxiety as additional challenges in their mix. I also have ADHD and can improvise well, but interviews are a separate animal completely. That’s because I’m great at improvising in environments where I have an awareness of the moving parts around me: if I understand my coworkers, my workplace policies, my expected duties, etc., then I can conquer new challenges quickly without much stress. However, many individuals with ADHD in unfamiliar situations (like in a job interview) may spend a lot of their energy during that meeting just trying to pay attention. Having questions in advance due to brain fog or difficulty staying on track can be beneficial. Like you said, it’s highly individual, and I think it’s an option worth “oh no’s” consideration.

      3. Neurodivergentsaurus Rex*

        ADHD isn’t a learning disability. Also yeah, I would never disclose in an interview that I’m autistic and ADHD for the reasons others mentioned.

        1. Neurodivergentsaurus Rex*

          I would also say I am above average at interviewing. Eye contact doesn’t come naturally and I can ramble/stumble over words at times, but I’m personable and give decent answers.

        2. P*

          I also have autism and ADHD, and I’ve not been faring well against the autism unemployment rate. So for me, not disclosing hasn’t been paying off anyway. I’m not even that bad at interviewing/performing/socializing, either. However, I do think that I lose my train of thought while articulating my answer and I end up coming close to answering their question but not necessarily nailing it.

    5. Blinded By the Gaslight*

      I bring my resume and a small notebook with me to interviews in which I’ve created a “cheat sheet” of common interview questions, topics (Leadership, Communication, Collaboration), and more specific job-related questions. For each question/topic, I put three bullet points of examples – not long-winded, but just enough to trigger my memory so I can tell the story. Such as:

      Why Do You Want This Job: *part of my long-term career plan *excited about opportunity to work on Llama Teapots *ready for more responsibility

      Tell Us About Your Experience with Conflict Resolution: *Bickering employees impacting service *Rude customer abusing staff *Dept A always late on invoices

      Tell Us About Your Llama Teapot Experience: *Interest developed at Teapots Inc *Trained with Llama Teapot expert *Proposed and lead successful Llama Teapot project

      The point of having three examples is not to talk about every single one, but to have options for what example(s) might suit the conversation better. This has been a very successful interview practice for me – I’ve gotten all the jobs I’ve used this technique for. :-)

      1. WoodswomanWrites*

        Same. It’s been really helpful to bring notes with me. I typically say right in the beginning that taking notes is helpful for me, and none of the interviewers has ever had an issue with my having notes to review and jot down my own. They’re generally doing that themselves.

        One positive from the pandemic is that when I interviewed for my current role online instead of in person, I could easily have all the notes I wanted in front of me.

    6. LittleMarshmallow*

      For me having an interviewee bring some notes (keep it to no more than a page) to glance at to jog memory wouldn’t raise a flag. It shows me you prepared. Make sure you don’t read the notes while you answer. Just glance to jog your memory. I would recommend not writing whole stories just key words. I usually write keywords for types of questions (conflict resolution, time pressure, changing priorities, etc) and then have 1-2 story key words written by each with as much variety as I can do to minimize having to share 1 story for multiple examples. Like teapots went boom or that time the teapot sales mistake or some other “story title” that will remind me of the story.

      I would also recommend either writing out each story or rehearsing them with a trusted person to make sure you have your story hammered out but for the interview just bring key word notes not the novel to reduce the temptation to read your story to the interviewer rather than telling them. The act of writing them or rehearsing helps solidify the examples in your mind.

      I also find it helps to view interviews as story telling time. When I ask you for an example, tell me a story about something that happened instead of trying to “answer the question”. Make sure it’s a relevant story but let the story answer the question instead of trying to “answer the question”.

      1. NYWeasel*

        I agree that referencing notes is not a red flag to me either, but please don’t be the candidate who seemed to be discovering his resume in the middle of the interview.

        Me: (looking at resume) “I see you were the event coordinator for the Yak Club at Teapot University. Can you tell me a little bit about what that entailed?”

        (Awkward silence as candidate scans resume, finds first bullet point which reads “Event coordinator, Teapot University Yak Club: Coordinated 10 events.”)

        Candidate: “Uh, I was the event coordinator for the Yak Club and I coordinated 10 events.”

        I’ve never had a candidate less able to speak to their accomplishments and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of cases where candidates were terrified and shaking, so I was trying very hard to help the candidate warm up and share information. (And no, I’m a short older woman, so I’m not purposely trying to be scary. I’ve just worked in the film/tv industry where the less experienced applicants put a lot of pressure on themselves to get their foot in the door.)

    7. Neurodivergentsaurus Rex*

      Honestly I think your wording is fine. Interviewers know that most people find interviewing very stressful and that it can make answering questions harder. I also would just prepare as much as possible – write down answers to common/likely questions and practice saying them aloud to a mirror or another person. Get some muscle memory linked to your responses and they’ll come a little easier. And don’t be afraid to take that moment to take a deep breath and a moment to find where you put your thoughts.

    8. just another bureaucrat*

      I prep 4-6 scenarios that can be used to answer a multitude of questions. So the time I had to solve a problem, learn a tech quickly, demonstrate ability to change direction on the fly all can be covered by one scenario. I do at least 1 or two that have dealing with coworkers or vendors and conflict because that always comes up. So I prep and write out these scenarios ahead of time and think about the questions they could answer. Then I have a short hand for each of them, “1 weekend proj” “squirrel build” “explosive outage” whatever that will help me remember it so that I just tag those in for answers and check them off my list as I use them. I’ve not yet run out of stories for a situation, I’ve definitely had interviewers say I was able to cover several questions at once, but I’ve not had a time where those weren’t enough.

      Those were always the hard ones for me before I started doing the prep on it. Good luck

  4. Cobol*

    I’d hesitate (pun intended) to do this. It’s not that it’s theoretically a bad idea, but there are so many people who use general feel as a huge component in their evaluation (they probably shouldn’t), that I think this would do more harm than good.

    1. Threeve*

      A casual “good question, let me think about that for a second” is one thing; a lengthy pause while looking at the wall and brainstorming out loud is WAY too much.

      1. Spencer Hastings*

        Yeah, I’m also curious about the one-minute mark as a threshold — if I’m actually silent for a whole minute, my interlocutor will probably feel like it’s been 3 minutes.

        1. BRR*

          One minute feels like it would be too long. I just ran a timer out of curiosity and 30 seconds would be the time I would give (but I’m impatient).

      2. KN*

        I agree–I give behavioral interviews frequently at a large consulting firm, and a pause of a literal minute would be way outside the norm of what I typically encounter. Personally, I would mark the person down on communication skills unless their eventual answer was exceptionally well-presented. A pause of ~10 seconds (after asking for a second to think) is the most I’d recommend.

        FWIW, the advice I give to interview candidates at my company is:
        – Plan out your best ~6-10 stories in advance and think about what themes they could be used to address–e.g., leadership, teamwork, resilience. These should generally be stories where you individually did something that others might not have done, and it resulted in a (major or minor) success.
        – Decide what your BEST 1-2 stories are — the “killer stories” you should try to tell no matter what
        – Practice telling all your stories out loud, using an answer framework like STAR (situation, task, action, result) – get it to a tight 1-2 minute story with a clear narrative arc
        – During the interview, take that 5-10 second pause to decide 1) which of your prepared stories best fits the theme of what’s being asked, and 2) could this be the last chance you’re going to have to tell one of your BEST stories? And if so, could you make that one fit here?
        – Whatever story you pick, actively sell it as an answer to the question that was asked–if it’s not a perfect fit, spin how you’re presenting it and/or pull in language from the question into your answer as much as possible
        – Sometimes you still might have to come up with an answer on the fly for a really random question, but with the above preparation you’ll probably have a strong answer to most of the questions asked.

        (As an aside – pausing for a full minute while preparing a framework for the case portion of a consulting interview is fine! It would just be strange in the fit portion.)

        1. Karl Havoc*

          Do you mean this is advice you send to candidates in advance of their interviews? If so, that rules. (It’s also great of you if it’s afterwards!)

          1. KN*

            Not directly to the people I’m personally about to interview, but we have info sessions with candidates before their interviews where we give advice on how to prepare. I wouldn’t be quite that explicit in writing about selling answers! But it is definitely part of the advice I give in person.

            Some of this is taken from the interview training I went through in business school, which was… absurdly rigorous. We had to fill out literal worksheets with our behavioral interview stories. But I think anyone could benefit from that kind of preparation–probably even more so if they’re not in an interview pool with a bunch of other over-prepared bschool students.

        2. NYWeasel*

          I especially like the notes about 1-2 minutes max on your stories. I was asked to sit in on a 30 minute interview for a lower level position where they asked the candidate to give a “quick introduction”. At the 15 minute mark I began to wonder if the candidate would ramble on for the entire 30 minutes, but at the 21 minute mark a colleague finally cut her off. I’ve mentioned before that we understand how interviews are stressful, and we don’t generally hold nerves against people, but this was for a role where it’s reasonable to expect that you’ll regularly be nervous having to speak with unfamiliar VPs and directors, so in that particular case I did feel the nervous monologue was a red flag that this job wasn’t a good fit for this candidate. Believe it or not, I expressed that concern to the hiring panel and they offered her the job anyway. There wasn’t any spectacular flame out but the candidate floundered and was ineffective in the role for a long time before moving on to greener pastures.

  5. Squeeble*

    The movie title question is terrible. I’m the kind of person who gets asked something like that and suddenly can’t remember any movie title whatsoever, never mind one that would be at all work-ethic related.

    1. laowai_gaijin*

      Exactly. If they asked me that question, I’d be like, “Have I ever watched a movie? I can’t recall . . .”

      1. quill (and the bees agree with me)*

        Me with book recommendations. I’ve read a thousand books and if someone asks which is my favorite my brain decides I’m suddenly illiterate.

    2. Elenna*

      Exactly! Like I said above, I spend 2 minutes thinking of movie titles (twice the time Allison suggests as the max time you can think! and without interview pressure!) and thought of a grand total of 22 movie titles, almost all of which were meaningless as an answer to the question.

    3. Karl Havoc*

      When I was 17, I had to go to traffic court for a speeding ticket, and a kind magistrate said he’d take it off my record if I came back in 6 months with no more tickets. At the follow-up I had a diff magistrate who was not so kind and apparently wanted to teach me some kind of lesson(?) and ordered me to sing a song, any song (??) In that moment I literally could not think of a single song except Happy Birthday, and there was no way I was going to sing Happy Birthday to this cranky magistrate so I just froze. He did not like that (but luckily didn’t have discretion to take back the deal). So, yes, I know exactly what you mean all too well.

    4. Curious*

      I’m curious if a question this esoteric is related to it being a mock interview. If the interviewer didn’t have concrete motivations for asking questions or have specific job-related questions in mind, it might lead to worse and more esoteric questions…

    5. Kyrielle*

      Right? I’m not even IN the interview, and suddenly the only title I could think of was Balto. Which would make very little sense, a little more if they knew the movie, but only a little more.

      The only thing that shook loose more titles was reading people’s comments and, as far as movie titles I knew before doing that, I’m still without one that I’d want to use to describe my work ethic.

  6. Grace*

    This reminds me of when I wrote in about an interview where the interviewer told me at the beginning I could skip questions and come back to them. The entire interview was “tell me about a time when” job questions and I was a new grad with no job experience. Painfully awkward interview even when given permission to take time to think and I did not get the job.


    1. The New Wanderer*

      It’s nice when the interviewers tell you their expectations up front like that, even when it doesn’t always help. I interviewed for a senior-level position and had to ask to come back to a question that I just didn’t get. At the end, I never did figure out what the question was about even after asking the interviewer to clarify, so I just wasn’t able to answer. I can’t even remember the question to throw it out to the commentariat for interpretation, it was so vague.

  7. AnonEMoose*

    This is a great question, but I’ll admit my first thought was “Oddly enough, I did once overcome a challenge involving a squirrel in the workplace…”.

    1. Me (I think)*

      I have a squirrel story, too. Said squirrel had an up close and personal experience with a transformer at the main power station feeding campus.

        1. Anonymous4*

          Ends badly for the transformer, too. A trained suicide squad of squirrels could take out a town’s electrical grid. Or a city’s, but it would definitely require more squirrels.

          1. AnonEMoose*

            And now I totally want to write a gaming scenario involving a trained suicide squad of squirrels….

      1. Phony Genius*

        I know a firefighter whose first official “rescue” was a squirrel who had been electrocuted setting a transformer on fire. His department officially considers the removal of any body from a fire, alive or dead, as a “rescue.”

    2. alt ac*

      Same, AnonEMoose! Two baby squirrels in the ceiling above me dropped down into my office because the office had flooded, and facilities never replaced the ceiling tiles. There was a lot of quiet shrieking on my end.

    3. quill (and the bees agree with me)*

      Ooof. I haven’t had a squirrel problem but I’ve heard more than one story about it.

    4. COBOL Dinosaur*

      My squirrel challenge was in my house! I had one come down the chimney once in an apartment I was renting. I had a heck of a time getting it to go back outside. I managed to trap it in a room and then went and got a piece of wood and made a ramp up to the window.

      1. The New Wanderer*

        Same! Except my squirrel chewed through the wall behind the stove and apparently lived in my house for several days. I had two cats, so water and cat food were plentiful and obviously the cats weren’t overly protective of their territory. I finally realized when one evening I was watching TV, one cat in my lap and one on the couch back, and I saw movement over by the window. Happy fat squirrel was hanging out on the window sill and the cats just glanced over at it like, “yeah, he’s cool.”

        I did learn that when you patch the drywall, mix in black pepper with the plaster to prevent them chewing through again.

    5. Anonymous4*

      We had a problem with a squirrel in a classroom. Does that count?

      It got into the dropped ceiling (very probably from the building’s attic), and it galloped around in a panic, sounding like a herd of elephants and EVERYONE expected it to fall through on his/her head. We were all ducking and cringing whenever it got close to us, and when it got to a certain place, I finally stood on my table and banged on the ceiling with the edge of a textbook to try to shunt it back into the attic.

      Old building. Very lovely, very gracious, wonderful to be in, somewhat oversupplied with squirrels. (One was MORE than enough.)

      1. AnonEMoose*

        I think that totally counts, and I could totally see it happening on my old college campus, too!

      2. Becky*

        Have you ever read Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars? Has two rats getting fat and happy in the drop ceiling; until the tile breaks…

    6. AnonEMoose*

      In my case, it was when I was working a campus security job back in my undergrad days. The squirrels on campus were…somewhat notorious. They had NO FEAR. So, there I was, sitting there doing a late night entry control shift into a building, when I heard a scrabbling noise from the parking garage – I was watching the entrance from the garage into the building. I think it was about…4 am or so? So I looked up and saw…a gray squirrel sitting up on its rump. We looked at each other for a bit.

      Then the squirrel went running down the hallway. I called it in, and was told the squirrel had been in and out of the building for at least a week. Then the squirrel came running back and went into the nearby employee break area. This room had doors and no other entrances, so I quietly snuck over and closed the doors, effectively trapping the squirrel. Then I called it in. As I went off shift, they had people there to deal with the squirrel. Which I assume they did – no one ever told me and I didn’t ask, I just hope that no one got bitten and they found a way to discourage the squirrel from coming back in! So…yeah…I did once overcome a challenge involving a squirrel!

      1. pagooey*

        At my bucolic college campus, we called security to get a raccoon out of a student-housing bathroom. We were having a heat wave; he’d wandered through a propped-open door and was stretched out on the cool surface of the empty bathtub.

    7. kicking_k*

      So have I! I encounter squirrels at work on a regular basis and they are occasionally challenging. Which means, of course, I will never be asked about them.

      1. kicking_k*

        OK, OK: we have a records outstore that is basically a garagelike building in the grounds of where I work, surrounded by a garden with large trees. More than once, squirrels have wanted to come into the outstore. They are not allowed in there. There’s nothing good to eat, electric wires to chew, and a lot of paper records to make a mess with. Sorry, squirrels. It’s for your own good.

    8. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

      I have overcome several challenges related to squirrels in the workplace, but they all came back when I was working as a petsitter. I once had a regular client whose Labrador could have had “squirrel-related challenges” as a middle name…not sure those solutions (use an owner-supplied specialized harness on the dog to make it harder for him to pull and scan the surroundings for potential squirrels to predict when he’d be likely to spot one) would apply in an office setting.

    9. Blueberry Girl*

      You know, I don’t know what it says about my job history, but I have several squirrel stories, an incident with a moose, and an incident with a raven. So, I could answer that one with some confidence.

    10. NotMy(Fancy)RealName*

      Not squirrels, but we did have baby racoons invade the plant. I wasn’t in charge of pest control then, so it wasn’t my problem. There was a rattlesnake in the warehouse once, but it was dead before I got to work. So I ordered glue traps to appease people. Haven’t had another snake since.

    11. LittleMarshmallow*

      I worked for a cleaning service… I had some random stories early in my interviewing life from that (dishwasher flooding a kitchen, mouse in a trash can, mouse (or something fuzzy) in a garbage disposal, accidentally dropping the front tire of my car in the ditch at the end of someone’s driveway, the lady that wanted to help us pack for moving, don’t mix bleach with whink rust remover, getting yelled at by rich people for no reason, etc). My first “career” interviews were for chemist jobs. I still managed to land a good one with my cleaning stories. Haha!

    12. BritChickaaa*

      I live in a gated community and there’s a squirrel who got into an office building in the estate and started living there. Became the building mascot and nicknamed Cyril. Someone objected and made a complaint to the council who decided they were going to MURDER Cyril.

      So my neighbour who works for an ad agency made a serious of high quality promotional videos to save Cyril, to garner support for a petition.

      It worked!! Now Cyril is a free squirrel, and also a celebrity (the entire thing got in all the newspapers and on TV).

      Not my story but a story of how my neighbour solved a squirrel related problem at work.

    13. indubitably*

      There is an amazing anecdote told on the podcast This American Life about an on-the-job squirrel encounter.

      It was originally in the episode called First Day, and then later it was added to a re-broadcast of the episode called Fiasco (which also has an amazing anecdote about a performance of Peter Pan).

      Well worth the time to Google and listen!

    14. Smilingswan*

      No squirrels here, but we have birds All. The. Time. They come into the office through the loading dock. We usually chase them back out with a broom, but there was one time a manager was able to catch one with her hands! She then set it free outside. Poor thing was terrified (the bird, not the manager)!

  8. anonymous73*

    I know this won’t work with off the wall questions, but I’m more with Alison in saying that you haven’t experienced that particular situation, then relate it to something else that you have done. If you ask for a minute to think, you’re sitting in awkward silence for a bit. If you ask to come back to the question, can you really think of an answer while simultaneously listening to the interviewer and answering other questions? It’s possible that answering another question could make you think of the answer to the one you passed on, but I feel like that’s too much stress on an already stressful situation.

  9. prismo*

    We had a group interview with a job candidate yesterday and after almost every question she paused for a moment before answering, and a few times she said, “I’m thinking…” I hadn’t really seen that before and was actually really impressed by it. To me it made her seem confident and comfortable, like she was more focused on getting us the right answer than on just appearing impressive. I could see where if it went on too long it would be awkward, but this came across as just taking a few moments to gather her thoughts and I thought it was really effective.

  10. MicroManagered*

    I like the “STAR story” approach to interviewing. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result and the idea is to prepare 2-3 work stories that you’ve practiced and can tell coherently. Well-chosen stories will fit a variety of “tell me about a time when” type of questions. If you google it you’ll find lots of helpful examples.

    What was the situation? How much context does the listener need in order to follow the story? (Like do they need you to explain all the inner workings of a teapot-kiln? Or just that you were responsible for operating industrial ceramics production equipment?) What happened or what was the problem?

    What was the task? What did you need to fix or do or accomplish? What goal did you need to meet?

    What actions did you take to accomplish the task? How did you logically approach the problem or delegate aspects of it? Did you have to adapt quickly to a change? That kind of stuff.

    What was the result? Was it the good result you hoped for? Did the actions fail and if so what did you learn from them? Did you lose a bunch of work and have to start over? and so on…

    If you have a couple stories like this prepared, they’re likely to fit a variety of questions. Then you might say “Well I can’t think of a challenge involving a squirrel, but there was a time I worked in a teapot factory…”

    1. Sabine the Very Mean*

      I like that style when it works. My current workplace has a very rigid interviewing rulebook where every single question must be answered as a STAR answer. They could not allow one single letter to be left out even if contrived. Hate that.

      1. MicroManagered*

        I find it to be just a useful framework for how to tell a story.

        I’ve interviewed people who ramble for so long about how the teapot kiln works, that both they and I forget what the question was. Or the answer lacks so many specific details that it doesn’t sound like it really happened.

      2. kicking_k*

        I find it a bit rigid too, but I have had enough interviews that had to be like that, that I now use it as my default.

  11. JB in NC*

    I have a real problem with “tell me about a time when” questions. My memory simply does not work that way. I have a very patchy memory for in-person interactions (write it down and there’s a good chance I’ll remember it forever!), and it’s a real problem to even come up with an answer ahead of time.

    1. Esmeralda*

      You have to prepare for those. I have a very good memory for such things, but in a high-stress/high stakes situation like an interview, I can goop them up. You can find lists of likely situations or “tell me about a time when”s — prepare your answers ahead of time.

      If you are doing a virtual interview, so much the better — you can have index cards with your examples right there and give them a quick glance to remind yourself of what the main points and key details are.

      1. AnotherLibrarian*

        Yeah, this is what I do. If it is in person, I always bring a notepad to take notes, but the first page of the pad is cryptic keywords to remind me to work accomplishments and examples. Plus I like to write down the questions I have for them, so I don’t forget them.

    2. Hlao-roo*

      Ignore if you’re not looking for suggestions, but two things popped into mind when I read your comment:

      1) Are there situations you could use to answer a “tell me about a time when…” questions that unfolded over email? Or any thorny problems you solved with an excel spreadsheet?
      2) If you have an in-person interaction you’re proud of or think might be useful to remember later, can you make a few notes for yourself? Then when you’re preparing for an interview, you can look at your notes to get some good answers for the “tell me about a time when…” questions.

      1. Karl Havoc*

        Oh yeah, this strategy is really helpful for the problem I mentioned below with self-assessments – a coworker at my last job gave me the great advice to make a “kudos” folder to save any compliments you get on your work. I can see that being great for interview prep as well – one step removed from that, I actually mined my previous annual reviews for cover letter and interview material when I applied to my current job.

    3. Karl Havoc*

      I’m the same way – dealing with it right now with both my annual self-assessment and, even worse, peer reviews. Hoo boy, it’s hard enough to come up with examples demonstrating my strengths and weaknesses, much less my colleagues’. And that’s even with plenty of time to think and write out my answers!

  12. hayling*

    Can we all as a society agree that the “How many windows are in New York City?” or “How many golf balls fit in a bus?” questions need to die in a fire, like, yesterday? Ditto to “Why are manhole covers round?” … they’re not telling you anything!

    1. quill (and the bees agree with me)*

      I think it’s an order of operations thing (if they ask how you’d figure it out, not what the answer would be) because you measure the golf ball diameter, measure the bus, and do math that I skipped in college in favor of fishing turtles out of the river. If they want the answer, not the process? It’s bullshit.

      1. ecnaseener*

        Yeah, for certain types of jobs I can see it mattering that the candidate can think their way through a problem like this. (Actually this is probably a skill that would be pretty useful for *most* jobs, but not worth testing in such a bizarro manner in most cases.)

        1. Cat Tree*

          Yeah, I’m an engineer and was asked a question like this one. I don’t *love* it, but it made sense in context. Now that I’m the one asking questions, I think there are better ways to evaluate problem solving. I’m a big fan of behavioral interview questions anyway, so someone giving an example of actually solving a real problem is better than asking about a ridiculous hypothetical.

          Here’s the question the interviewer asked me: if I took a boat out to the Marianas Trench and dropped a bowling ball over the side, how long would it take to reach the ocean floor? I guess my answer was fine because I got that job.

        2. fhqwhgads*

          I’m glad I read this site because I don’t think it ever would’ve occurred to me that the windows or golf ball questions were meant to get at how someone solves a problem. I hear those and think “why are they asking a math problem? Does this job involve a lot of math?”

          1. David*

            I think it’s a pretty standard thing in technical interviews, but (from what I hear) much less so in non-technical interviews.

            The kinds of jobs that use technical interviews are all about solving problems, and interviewers want to see that you have the skills necessary to do that: being able to formulate and ask questions to clarify the problem; to use rough estimates and heuristics to quickly get a sense of what a solution might look like; to break down a complex task into smaller pieces; to efficiently search for information you need, as well as a sufficient level of basic background knowledge to know what you even need to search for; to evaluate different solutions and determine which ones are more suitable for particular situations; and other things like that. It doesn’t even matter what the actual problem is (or what the actual answer is), it just needs to be something that’s non-trivial enough for the candidate to demonstrate those skills.

            At least, that’s the idea, but not all interviewers do it well!

            1. londonedit*

              Yeah, I’ve never been asked one of those esoteric questions – but then I don’t work in a technical sort of industry, I work in publishing, and interviews are usually fairly informal and more about talking through your skills and experience and why you’d be a good fit for the job. There are usually a few ‘tell me about a time when…’ questions, and 99% of the time there’s a ‘what’s your strategy for dealing with difficult authors/competing deadlines/things running late’ question because those things happen on a very regular basis in my job. But I’ve never been asked a ‘how many golf balls would fit in a bus’ question because that sort of problem-solving isn’t really relevant to anything I do. And editors are crap at maths.

    2. Ali G*

      Answer: I’d Google it.
      (The manholes one is a real thing though – just still stupid for an interview question, unless you are interviewing with a manhole company I guess).

    3. Elenna*

      I can see these being reasonable for some jobs, to test whether you can think quickly and solve problems that you may not have seen before. In that case they’d be looking more at the process than the actual answer you come up with.
      Of course there’s also many interviewers who ask these questions not because they’re getting anything useful from the answer, but just because they googled “fun interview questions”.

      1. Omnivalent*

        That was the supposed thinking back when certain hip tech companies were infamous for using these questions. Actual research revealed that no, there does not seem to be any correlation between how good interviewees are at dealing with “creative” interview questions and their job performance.

    4. Anonymous4*

      My first answer would be, “I’d check to see if there was an answer on-line, and I’d want to get some comparative numbers to see how well they correlate.”

    5. Purple Cat*

      Ooh, I got asked the manhole question during a college interview – ages ago! And I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
      I immediately said “Uh, I don’t know”, but then continued thinking and then said “Because that makes it easy to roll them out of the way.”

      1. The OG Sleepless*

        According to The Straight Dope, manhole covers are round so they don’t fall down the manholes.

        1. Cthulhu's Librarian*

          Suppodedly any other suitable shape has an orientation where the shape will fit within its own vertices, enabling them to fall through the hole while being replaced.

          (I vaguely remember having to do a geometric proof of that when I was in middle school, but I wouldn’t trust that my solution was correct)

    6. Nesprin*

      I’m a huge fan of “why do we need to know?”
      If I’m moving Mount Fuji as part of an evil supervillain plot, I have different constraints than if the reason is to build a park.
      Likewise, are we asking about windows because we need to know how to get them all cleaned? To figure out how to recycle NYC? etc.
      Lastly, why do you need golf balls in a bus? mobile ball pit? to supply the US Open? There may be different needs for accuracy and different definitions of full.

      1. Smilingswan*

        Very good point. If I were interviewing you (and asked such stupid questions) I’d be impressed with your response.

  13. Erika22*

    I’ve heard advice before that if you need a moment to pull your thoughts together, you should repeat the question as the first part of your answer (so to “tell me about a time you overcame a challenge involving a squirrel” you’d start by saying, “that’s a good question, sometimes it can be tricky working with squirrels. hmm, well there was one time I needed to overcome a challenge involving a squirrel when I was working in the parks department…” or “though I haven’t needed to deal with a squirrel per se, there was one time I needed to overcome a challenge involving a chipmunk when I was working in the parks department … [insert situation] … and that’s similar to a squirrel because x and y”).

  14. COBOL Dinosaur*

    I was once asked ‘If you were a tree what kind of a tree would you be and why?’

    It caught me off guard but I think I did ok…. I answered that I was a willow tree because I had deep roots but I was still very flexible.

    1. ThatGirl*

      If you were a hot dog, and you were starving, would you eat yourself?? (sorry, random bits of TV and movies get stuck in my head)

      When I was interviewing for my current job, they tried to throw in some “fun” questions to get a sense of my personality. One was “a penguin wearing a sombrero has shown up at your door. Why is he there and what does he want?”

      1. Anonymous4*

        Well, why WAS he there and what DID he want?? You can’t leave us in suspense like that, y’know!

        1. Clisby*

          He suspects I’m hiding Batman in my closet and has disguised himself as a mariachi band member soliciting gigs.

        2. ThatGirl*

          I answered that he was looking for some guacamole, but in retrospect, I think “ceviche” would have been a better answer.

    2. fhqwhgads*

      I feel like if someone asks the tree question now, they’re basically begging for someone to answer “I am Groot.”

  15. Salad Daisy*

    I’m an accountant and when asked tree/movie/etc. questions I would mostly just hum. Mmmmmmm. Took me a while to break that habit.

    On the other hand, my most favorite interview question ever was “Explain depreciation”. Good question if you are putting yourself out there as an accountant. Not sure if the interviewer had any idea what I was talking about, but I did get the job.

    1. CW*

      As a fellow accountant, I completely understand. Those questions about trees/movies or whatnot are not relevant to the world of accounting.

      And I also agree with you about those “depreciation” questions. Though I sometimes struggle to put it in words, because admittedly I don’t remember everything I learned in college.

      1. Salad Daisy*

        There is a little used method of accounting calle Sum of the Years Digits. You only use some of the years. That’s accounting humor.

    2. COBOL Dinosaur*

      I always like to throw a lower level ‘general technical knowledge’ question in when I do interviews. As a lead developer so I’m the one asking the technical questions. I won’t ask something super basic as to insult intelligence but I do ask something that I expect an experienced mainframe programmer to know. I used to be surprised at the number of people who couldn’t answer the question but it’s about 50% now. Probably not any other mainframe programmers out there but if you are curious what the question is it’s ‘what’s a s0c7 error’. If you can’t tell me what a S0c7 error is and how you would go about figuring out the issue then I can’t have you on my team.

  16. Squirrel Manager*

    I’ve been on a lot of hiring panels and I’ve had candidates ask me to clarify the question or ask about what I’m looking for. To use the squirrel example, they might say, I don’t think I’ve ever dealt with squirrels in the workplace—is it the my squirrel skills that are most important to you or something that is squirrel like in a work context? Unless I’m looking for a squirrel wrangler, that clarifying question is both totally fine and possibly a positive signal about their communication skills.

  17. CW*

    I really dread those “tell me about a time…” questions because I can never think of anything off the top of my head right away. And a lot of times, I don’t give an ideal answer and would always get nervous when answering because of it.

    Also, it is even worse when you get asked those questions if you are fresh out of college with little or no experience, because you really have no examples to bring up. Employers should know that, especially if they are interviewing for an entry level job.

    1. SomebodyElse*

      I still ask the “tell me about a time” to new grads, but I will tweak the phrasing to include “Maybe at a former job or during an extra curricular”

      It is good for new grads (actually all candidates) to come prepared with examples about tight deadlines, competing priorities, difficult collaboration, etc.

    2. Eden*

      With new grads, I am totally fine with examples from school or clubs, especially group work. I usually say that out loud but even if they don’t, it’s ok to talk about school, they probably just didn’t think to specify.

    3. Lab rat*

      My “tell me about a time you solved a problem with a creative solution” answer is about the time I fixed a toilet with a couple of paper clips and an elastic band.

      I’ve used that one a few times and got the position.

  18. Neurodivergentsaurus Rex*

    I JUST got off an interview with a very nervous candidate who could have benefitted from taking a moment to think about his answer before plowing forward. Poor guy. Clearly very nervous, but he hemmed and hawed and rambled SO much that I just couldn’t imagine he had the communication skills the role requires. His resume was also way too long and rambling (I’m not the hiring manager so not the person who offered the interview). I myself am clearly Queen Of Parentheticals and Asides so if I think someone takes too long to get to the point, you know it’s bad.

    1. SomebodyElse*

      This reminds me of my supervisor at my college job, I watched as a candidate left her office and the look on her face was priceless. I went in to her office to ask how it went and she described what I’m sure was the a terrible experience for both of them.

      I guess he was very shy and just couldn’t answer any questions, so to get him more comfortable she asked him to tell her about his previous/summer job, so he would have a safe topic to ease into the rest of the interview. My friends, that was a chicken farming and processing job. She learned more about chickens that day than she bargained for.

      That poor kid must think back on that and cringe. Sadly he didn’t get the job… it was a customer facing/think on your feet type job, he was not a good fit.

  19. Phony Genius*

    In a government job interview, coming back to a question later is not usually a problem. Of course, the questions are usually from a pre-approved script and very generic. Questions like the movie one would get rejected by HR.

  20. Veruca*

    A trick I used when teaching higher-level college math classes and often needed to think about answers to questions:
    When you realize you need a minute to think, pick up your drink and take a sip. Maybe say “hmmm” or “that’s an interesting question!” before you take a drink if you want to indicate you’re in the process of responding. It doesn’t look like stalling, but it gives you just a minute to collect your thoughts. Ideally do this with a drink your audience can’t see into, because it works just as well with an empty cup as a full one!

    1. Purple Cat*

      Ha. My younger son HATES it that in movies and shows the actors obviously have empty cups that they are drinking from. I can only imagine in his future life calling out an interviewee for fake drinking :)

      1. Nanani*

        Would it help to explain to him why that’s the case? Like, the actors have to do many takes and it’s just easier for consistency to use an empty cup – instead of filling to the same level every take, so nobody is drinking cold gross coffee on take 12 even if it was great on take 1, to prevent anybody needing a bathroom break, so there’s no liquid there to be spilled, no smudging makeup, etc.

        Depending on age and personality more facts might help, but “you’re right, well spotted! let’s talk about why that might be” could help it not bother him so much

    2. Squeebird*

      I’ve always accepted offers for a glass of water in interviews; not because I’m ever thirsty but because taking a sip is a great tactic to give you a few seconds to think, haha.

      I’ve also had a fine time just saying, “oh, that’s a good question, I need a sec to think about that”. Nobody has ever batted an eyelash.

  21. SomebodyElse*

    I’ve told this same story on here once, but it’s relevant so I’ll share again. During an interview for a position I asked “How would you approach a problem that somebody came to you with the information ‘This seems wrong’ while waving hands vaguely near some data” (It’s a stupidly vague question, just like the stupidly vague problem description that most data analysts find them themselves presented with. )

    The first candidate had a very neat and tidy answer about checking for errors, verifying tables, etc. The second candidate had a train wreck of an answer that wound around possible things that could be wrong, how to find backwards ways of validating pieces of results, and muttering discarded theories all while gesturing like they are trying to follow a piece of string. (I would have been really excited if either would have asked clarifying questions or follow up questions, because that is what I would expect someone to do if they were faced with a nebulous suspected problem. )

    I was not the hiring manager for this hire but ranked the second candidate as the one I would hire if had been. The hiring manager opted for #1. #1 was just as I expected, a good analyst, but one that had a very formulaic approach and often would stop just past finding the answer to the asked question or solved the symptom of the problem. They left after a relatively short time for a position as a report writer at another company. We then contacted and hired #2… They performed like I thought they would. They were the one who would dig through the data and scripts, they found problems nobody else had noticed, they were the one who go to fix problem A and find Problems B-D along the way and made improvements E-F because they noticed it could be better. Ultimately #2 was a great fit for our environment and I’m sure #1 was much more comfortable in a more structured role.

    Sometimes the way you answer a question is much more important than how you answer it. Quite honestly I don’t care what kind of tree you are. I want to know how you view yourself, what attributes you think are important about yourself, and how you applied that to come up with an applicable tree species or movie title.

    Honestly to the commenter above that only knows 20-some movies, I’d love to hear “Oh boy. well the first and sadly only movie title that is coming to mind at the moment is Ice Age, so not so much the title, but the over all theme of the movie was collaboration and problem solving. As those are two of the things that I enjoy most about the workplace, I guess that fits after all.”

    FTR- I don’t ask the tree question, but I’m sure my intentionally vague questions are just as bad if not worse

    1. Omnivalent*

      I don’t think your tree or movie questions are worse. Those questions are not only useless, but they force the interviewer to engage in game-playing to guess what the “correct” answer is supposed to be.

    2. turquoisecow*

      As someone who’s worked with data, that’s a really good question to ask. I often have people come to me questioning data on a report, and trying to figure out what, if anything, is wrong is an adventure that often does have a rambling roundabout answer. Often the person questioning doesn’t have any quantifiable reason for why it’s wrong, it just “feels” that way – and sometimes they’re right because they’re the subject matter expert, and sometimes they’re wrong because they’re not the experts they thought they were, or the data isn’t presented in the way they expected, so it looks different. Neatness is nice but often not what happens.

      1. Antilles*

        Agreed. When I was a younger engineer, I ran into this a lot.
        Now that I’ve been around the block a few more times, I do it myself too. When you do the same thing enough, you get an intuitive feel of what ballpark we should be in – so then it’s immediately noticeable that “well, this seems off”.

  22. Lemming22*

    Perhaps not exactly the same, but one of the best pieces of advice I have received is if you get a question and feel thrown off or need a second, you can also take a moment to drink some water. It is a really natural way to pause that nobody will think about I also find it helps me mentally collect myself and re-set. This works in interview scenarios and also for most public speaking events as well. I always makes sure to have some water on hand for these types of things!

  23. Goldenrod*

    “So if you’re really struggling to think of something, it’s also okay to say, “Nothing is coming quickly to mind! Could we come back to that later in the conversation and I’ll let it percolate in my head meanwhile?””

    I’ve done this before! It came across naturally enough and it bought me a little time.

    I didn’t get the job, but that may have been because one of the questions was “Describe yourself in 3 adjectives,” and unfortunately, I chose “clear” for some reason, as one of my adjectives. Then when they asked, “Why did you choose ‘clear’?” I followed up with an extremely garbled, confusing and un-clear response. :D

  24. RagingADHD*

    An unintentional pause gets awkward in 4-5 seconds. If you say you need to think a bit, that will extend the window somewhat, but it’s still going to start getting tense by about 20-30 seconds and it’s going to feel like dead air (or a memorial moment of silence) well before a full minute passes.

    1. Persephone Mongoose*

      Okay, I’m glad someone else picked up on this. A minute of silence during an interview, even a thoughtful one, is an insanely long pause. I’d personally go with the “nothing comes to mind, can we come back to this?” after 10 seconds max.

    2. Meep*

      I cannot tell if I am corrupted or not. I used to prattle on and on with silence, but recently I found myself sitting in a comfortable 30-minute veil of silence during a meeting one time because my boss was processing. (It is his thing.) That is good to know so I don’t sit there choosing my words for too long. lol.

      1. RagingADHD*

        That’s entirely different though. I’ve sat in comfortable silence with people plenty of times. When your boss needs processing time, the quiet is purposeful.

        This is in the middle of an active conversation where you’ve been asked a question and someone is waiting for a reply.

  25. Delta Delta*

    I work from home. I had a cat who could catch squirrels. He’d bring them in the house. Sometimes they were still alive. Sometimes this happened during my work day. If an interviewer wants me to tell them about a situation at work involving a squirrel, my response is, “a live squirrel or a dead squirrel?” I guarantee they’re not ready for that.

  26. Blinded By the Gaslight*

    Something I’ve seen done when I’ve been on interview panels, and also done myself (because I was impressed with it when I saw it!) is: “Hmm, that’s a great question. Let me think about that for a moment . . .” [“thinking” pose: sit back in chair, look down/to the side, maybe take a drink of water, hold for 5 to 10 seconds TOPS] ” . . . You know, I can’t think of a specific example/haven’t had that specific experience, but if I encountered that today, I would do X-Y-Z . . . ” Really, you just need to show them that you can either think through the scenario, or you can ask follow-up questions and say, “You know, that is an area where I have ABC skills, but I would need some training and support to develop DEF skills, which is something I’m really interested in because blah blah blah . . . Would there be an opportunity to do that here?”

    Also, to prevent myself (as much as possible) from having to do that, I bring my resume and a small notebook with me to interviews in which I’ve created a “cheat sheet” of common interview questions, topics (Leadership, Communication, Collaboration), and more specific job-related questions. For each question/topic, I put three bullet points of examples – not long-winded, but just enough to trigger my memory so I can tell the story. Such as:

    Why Do You Want This Job: *part of my long-term career plan *excited about opportunity to work on Llama Teapots *Company is industry leader

    Tell Us About Your Experience with Conflict Resolution: *Bickering employees impacting service *Rude customer abusing staff *Dept A always late on invoices

    Tell Us About Your Llama Teapot Experience: *Interest developed at Teapots Inc *Trained with Llama Teapot expert *Proposed and lead successful Llama Teapot project

    The point of having three examples is not to talk about every single one, but to have options for what example(s) might suit the conversation better. This has been a very successful interview practice for me – I’ve gotten all the jobs I’ve used this technique for. :-)

  27. megaboo*

    I did this in my last interview, but I asked if we could return to the question towards the end. Still got the job!

  28. LoquaciousOne*

    This isn’t a specific actionable suggestion, but I just wanted to say that I identify strongly with your description of the awkwardness of silent thinking moments because I… pretty much can’t think effectively in silence! I’m a verbal processor, which means that in order to think, I have to either speak or write.

    My former partner wasn’t like this. It always struck me as so, so, odd that I’d ask him a question, he’d say “Let me think about that,” and then he would literally sit in silence for a couple minutes and come up with a lucid, well-thought-out answer. At first, I thought he must be lying about the reason for his silence (“Wait, he says he’s not mad at me and is just thinking, but that can’t be the case!”) because for *me*, personally, the silence *would* have conveyed frustration or anger rather than genuine thought, because thinking silently isn’t something I can do! But indeed, he wasn’t mad, wasn’t lying, and really just needed the time to get his thoughts in order before speaking. The tradeoff for him was that he had a really hard time “thinking while he spoke.” So he had to think *before* he spoke, instead.

    So. Alison and the other commenters have some great suggestions about what to do in this situation in interviews. But I wonder if this resonates with you as an explanation for why you’ve had trouble implementing this particular interview tip. Is it possible that the person who gave you the tip was like my former partner (thinking silently is possible and helpful), but you’re more like me (thinking silently isn’t really something you can do)?

  29. Ranunculus*

    For what it’s worth, I once interviewed a candidate who never paused at all before he answered our “tell us about a time when” questions, which was actually worse than if he’d taken some time to think, partly because it then seemed like he was using his pre-prepared canned answers for everything, and partly because we always liked to feel like our questions were clever and unique and unexpected…

    We did end up hiring him, and he was a great employee, but I share this story for the OP to know that sometimes pausing to think comes across better than not needing to.

    1. Eden*

      I agree with stopping for a second to make sure the answer is a good one. But why do you care if your questions as an interviewer are “clever and unique and unexpected”? That seems weird to me.

  30. Frenchie, Too*

    “9 to 5”. Yay, Dolly!

    Or just say “I’d like to use one of my lifelines”.

    Seriously? It’s a dumb question. I hope I NEVER have to apply for a job again.

  31. WorkFromHomer Simpson*

    At a college career fair (so lots of students trying to quickly make connections with various employers and then move on) I once had the guy at the booth interrupt my introduction to ask me what my favorite movie was. Conversation went something like this…

    Me: Hi! I’m Homer, and I’m a junior in …”
    Booth guy (interrupting me): What’s your favorite movie?
    Me: Oh, um, a movie called Big Trouble. It is based on a book by Dave Barry.
    Booth guy: I’ve never heard of it. Pick another.
    Me: Um, I also really like O’ Brother Where Art Thou…
    Booth guy: Never heard of it either. Pick one I’ve heard of.
    Me: (thinking – how would I know what movies you’ve heard of?) Umm, uh, The Big Lebowski?
    Booth guy: Nope.
    Me: Um, well, they’re all comedies. So I’m a junior in engineering, and I wanted to talk about internship…
    Booth guy: (interrupting again) Just give me your resume. There is a long line of people waiting to talk to me. Next!

    I guess he was only interested in people with the same taste in movies as him? I always wondered how that worked out for him as a hiring strategy. What a clown.

    1. Nanani*

      What the.
      Somebody read a suggestion about breaking the ice with conversation about movies and completely missed the point?

      1. WorkFromHomer Simpson*

        You know, now that I think about it, this does sound like a bad joke about engineers’ stereotypically terrible social skills (assuming Booth Guy was an engineer as well – he never actually got around to introducing himself and his role). Poor guy was just trying to break the ice like he was told to do, but clearly I was not cooperating! ;)

  32. TootsNYC*

    Hmmm. This is making me think.

    Some of the things I have asked, maybe weren’t fair.
    I hired copyeditors. I would often ask them stuff like:
    What do you like about copyediting?
    What’s something at your current assignment’s stylebook that annoys you, or that you’d change if you could? Or maybe that you think is smart?
    If you were drawing up a copyediting test, what thing would you put on there that would separate the rookies from the pros?

    And sometimes:
    What’s one of your favorite catches through the years?
    Or, “What’s a miss that you really learned from, or are still embarrassed about, and why? I’ll go first; I once actively misspelled the word “kernel,” and I grew up in Iowa. Plus, copyeditors usually goof by missing stuff, not by introducing our own errors.” (I would sometimes say, “i’m not goign to never hire someone who made X mistake; I’m just curious to hear you talk about our job).
    I ended up dropping the “mistake” question. It just seemed too fraught. A couple of times, I’d make it be “a mistake you’ve seen,” so it wasn’t about them.

    In most of these, I would end up saying, “There’s no right or wrong answer; I just want to hear how your think.”

    I got a lot of interesting answers over the years to the first one (“what do you like about…”), all of them things that made the candidate look good. It would have been hard to look bad, particularly (even the woman who said, “I have OCD, no really, diagnosed OCD, and it lets me use that at work” was OK).

    But sometimes people did struggle with them a bit.

    One thing I’ll say: none of those were deal breakers–nobody bombed, no matter how much they think they fumbled the question. I knew they were “think on your feet” questions, and I’d find other ways to get them to open up a bit on the topic I wanted to hear about.

  33. Lyngend (Canada)*

    One time on a not interview call, I was trying to say 2 completely different things (same meaning but different words). So I just apologized and said I needed to take a moment to get the thoughts in line. Giving myself the permission to do so cut the time needed by like 90%.

  34. LittleMarshmallow*

    I was once asked in an interview “where does crude oil come from”. This was right out of college, not my field of study, and not relevant to the job I was interviewing for. I looked the interviewer straight in the eyes and said “the ground?”. He laughed… then I went into the 6th grade level explanation and we moved on. It was bizarre. But hey! I got the job and loved it. I’ve since worked with the company for about 15 years in a variety of capacities. That was still less awkward than later internal interviews with people I knew for new roles. “Tell me about a time when…” answered with “well, remember when….” And then you hope they remember it how you remember it! Haha.

    Side advice: use hypothetical answers sparingly in interviews. I’m ok if someone has 1, maybe 2 questions where they say “I’ve never encountered that but would probably handle it this way”. But if you answer all my questions with hypotheticals instead of real stories that happened, I will definitely question how much experience you actually have, and you won’t shine against a candidate who has real examples instead of hypotheticals. Basically everyone knows how to hypothetically respond to a difficult situation, but in practice in the moment rarely respond in a textbook fashion so hypothetical answers don’t necessarily give useful insight.

  35. triplehiccup*

    I used to really struggle with this! What helped the most was reframing the interview as a conversation about mutual compatibility, not some gauntlet to prove my worth. Taking off the pressure allowed me to think faster and more perceptively.

  36. Lizy*

    The biggest “lesson” I feel like I’ve learned about “tell me about a time when” questions – THINK EASY. My examples were so incredibly basic, but 1-I could remember them immediately and 2- I was able to expand on them based on how the conversation was going. I felt so much more confident and comfortable because of it, too!

  37. KD*

    I’m a children’s textbook writer/editor, so I would absolutely say Elf, because it has a terrible publisher, a good publisher, and makes it appear as a much better paid industry than it is.

    1. fhqwhgads*

      I am definitely overthinking what is a bad question to begin with, but I think that doesn’t really work when the question is “using a movie title”. It’s not saying “what movie”; it’s specifically about the words in the title.

    2. londonedit*

      Films always make publishing look far more glamorous than it actually is, and people can somehow magically afford to live in gorgeous flats in city-centre locations on their publishing salaries…*hollow laughter*

  38. Two Chairs, One to Go*

    If you’re uncomfortable with or not used to silence, check in with your mock interviewer to get a reality check on how long you actually paused. It might feel like a minute went by when it was only 15 seconds. Or maybe you really did pause for too long. But if you ask them to time any pauses, you can get the reality, not just the feeling.

  39. Elf*

    This is why I take a notebook and pen to interviews; for questions like this it lets me make notes / organise my thoughts, not forget anything, and have something to visibly be doing while thinking.

  40. Jeana*

    One company I interviewed with sent me a list of tips for interviewing and one was fantastic, for the “tell me about” questions: Make a list of some situations that you handled well, that you would like to share or highlight. You would be surprised how many of your best achievements can be applied in some way to one of those questions, even if it’s “This is not exactly, but it’s similar.”

    They also recommended having some notes ready, for these situations and other things that might come up. I had never though about bringing notes to an interview but when I did the interviewers didn’t seem bothered—in fact they acted a little impressed that I was so well prepared.

  41. Smilingswan*

    I had an interview last month where I was asked “how do you make an omelet?” I said I had never had that question before and started to answer it, and then said, “actually I don’t really care for omelettes. I’m more of a scrambled girl.” She said she had asked that so she could see my thought processes, so I went through how I make scrambled eggs.
    I had a job offer the next day.

  42. Smilingswan*

    I’d just like to say kudos to Alison and the OP for this letter. I’ve never laughed so hard at a comment thread before. This absolutely made my day!

  43. MAC*

    I was once asked what kind of candy bar I would be. To say I was dumbfounded would be an understatement. It was an internal position, transferring to a new group, and the questioner was the grand boss of the position I was interviewing for. I didn’t really have any knowledge of his personality and got none that day. He would have been a hell of a poker player, he was absolutely expressionless. To this day, I have no recollection of how I answered. I interviewed with that team twice that year, didn’t get the first one but did get the second job and I also don’t remember which one this was part of. Once I got to know the manager in question, I quite liked him and learned he had a subtle humor that took awhile to figure out. Sadly, he passed away from pancreatic cancer just a couple of years later, he was only in his 50s.

  44. Lucy Skywalker*

    I usually repeat the question, that is, I say, “Hmmm, a time that I had to deal with a squirrel at the office…” which gives me a few seconds to think about an answer to the question. However, this only works for people who are able to say one thing while thinking about something else, and I’m sure there are people who do not have this skill.

  45. Lucy Skywalker*

    Movie titles NOT to say when you are asked to describe your work style:

    Fight Club
    Liar, Liar
    Mean Girls
    Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
    Pulp Fiction
    The Boss Baby
    Dances With Wolves
    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
    Horrible Bosses

Comments are closed.