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Taking Notes in the Job Interview

Notes have a place in the job interview, but cheat sheets are unacceptable.

By Andrew Klappholz
FILED UNDER: Interview Questions.
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Job interviews are all about exchanging information − information about the job, information about yourself, information about your past and your industry expertise. At times, a job interview can feel like an examination. Better study.

There’s also a lot to take in during a job interview. More to study.

Since our school days we’ve been trained to take notes, to study them and refer to them in our discourse. It’s the best way to acquire and retain critical information. You might be inclined to take notes during a job interview. You might be inclined to refer to your previous notes when answering questions.

But is it appropriate? How does it look when a job seeker sits down for an interview and opens a notebook or sheets of data?

The answer, according to interview experts, is clear: taking notes is acceptable, even encouraged; referring to your notes when answering questions is unacceptable.

“If you're jotting down people’s names and positions, then absolutely it’s OK,” said Nancy L. Newell, a senior professional in human resources and the principal of Nth Degree Consulting, a human resource management and executive coaching company. She advises job seekers to bring a padfolio to an interview and stock it full of copies of your resume and work samples that can be shown or given out to everyone you meet during the interview. “I don’t think people show up to an interview empty-handed.”

The padfolio can also be used to jot down notes to capture key nuggets of information during the interview – the ones you really don’t want to forget or get embarrassingly mixed up in the future. You don’t want to find yourself a week later at the second interview referring to the wrong competitor in a strategic campaign or calling the president of the company by the wrong name. But don’t be overzealous, Newell warned. It’s still a conversation and you don’t want to appear like a reporter conducting an interview.

One trick Newell recommends is to collect business cards of all the key people you meet that day and categorize them within your padfolio. That way you’ll be well-organized after the interview and poised for an effective follow-up campaign.

Cheat Sheets

With so much on your mind, it’s easy to forget something during an interview. There might be a bright idea you wanted to bring up or a key selling point you can’t afford to skip. The temptation here is to rely on your notes – after all, notes are OK if you’re giving a speech, right? Wrong, said Newell. “Even if it’s just a quick glance, that’s a move that’s very ill-advised because it’s all up to the perception of the interviewer.”

The interviews are all about exchanging information, and above all it’s absolutely crucial to convey a simple message: I am an expert, I am good at this and I’m the right person for the job.

“The point is to appear competent, and a great way to do that is to appear as if you know what you’re doing.” Relying on notes, however subtle, demonstrates the opposite message: I have no idea what I’m doing here and can’t even remember what I’m supposed to say. “The possible downside consequences are so much greater than any possible upside.”

One concern of interviewers is that the notes and thus the statements aren’t your own, said Newell. “Who prepared the notes? Is that his knowledge or somebody else’s knowledge that they’re bringing in?”

The best course is to prepare, to study, to know the facts cold before you enter the interview. Take notes about the company during the course of the interview and while you’re studying, figure out what you want to say to present yourself as the right person for the job, write it down and rehearse. Then if you forget something important, either roll with it or bring up the point during the follow-up correspondence.

Andrew Klappholz is a general assignment reporter for TheLadders.

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