March 29, 2023

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).

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