The hardest question to answer during a job interview


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“Before I let you go, do you have any other questions for me?”

…Gulp.

Everyone knows this is the hardest question to answer. And in some seemingly evil twist of the knowable universe, it is clearly the easiest question to ask…and the one that is always asked at the very end.

Let’s assume, for now, that “Nope” is an unacceptable answer. Let’s also assume that this isn’t the reason you did or did not land the job. It’s still the final pivot to conquer–an open-ended query that can make or break the first impression (and quite possibly, the last) you’ll make during a crucial interview.

I won’t speak on behalf of other young profs, but I will say this: it is the one question that continues to trip me up. I have no qualms with presenting to clients, networking with industry folk, or performing with a group on stage. But somehow, this question is the one that kills my professional mojo… in a way that nothing else can.

It’s not because I have no questions. On the contrary, it’s usually because I have so many–some of which aren’t yet fully formed. Improvisation is hard enough as it is in music or in a social environment, that when the ball is in your court and you are all but cornered into the anticipation of a curve ball–things can get messy very quickly.

Of course, like many others I’ve come to terms with this awkward question. And over the years I’ve developed a few tactics. I’ll share my three-step solution with you now:

#1. Don’t ask every question you have prepared during the interview.

Ask the ones that are natural to bring up per the flow of the discussion, and the ones that are hugely important. If you have an outlier, however, it’s totally okay to save it. Hold on to it until the end, because you know they will always ask. And heck, it might help your confidence during the interview to know you have a solid response to the question at the end.

On the flip side: If you end up with a new question -as a result of the interview- save that instead. Take a brief note of it (especially if it comes up early on in the chat) so you don’t forget it. When you bring it up at the end, make sure to note why you’re asking it (e.g. “you mentioned that _____ is a crucial part of the role…”). This is even better, because it shows you’re learning to ask the right questions about the job already.

*win*

#2. If you forgot to save one question for the end, or had it answered in passing by the interviewer, ask instead a question that will still leave an impression and has a larger bearing on the interview at hand. If you can’t think of anything that is neither formulaic nor appropriately specific? I’d say: break the fourth wall. Just remember, the interviewer is an actual person. Someone who has been in your shoes, and only seems scary because they are the ones asking the questions.

Take this opportunity to ask them the very questions they asked of you.

For instance, I wouldn’t shy away from something appropriate but personal–e.g. “what’s your favorite part about working for ____?”

In my experience, interviewers who welcome this kind of question are a tell-tale sign of a good working environment.

#3. If #2 stills feels too awkward, ask if you can follow up via email. This might seem like a cop out, but in the end it saves face. Because if you are genuinely interested in the role and have a million questions as a result, this option means you can think them through privately and send an eloquent email once you’ve had time to process your thoughts and type them out.

This three-step strategy isn’t fail-proof by any means, but I think it’s a solid way to keep your cool when the end of the interview is looming and performance anxiety is a legitimate concern.

 

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