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How Long Should You Answer An Interview Question?

Why should you even worry about how long your answers are? Isn’t the point to give the most details possible so that the interviewers will think you know what you’re talking about?

This may look reasonable at first glance, but let me tell you a story.

I once put together an interview panel for a network engineer opening. We received quite a few applications and invited seven candidates for a first interview.

I remember vividly the first applicant we interviewed. We’ll call him Bob. Bob had an impressive resume that checked all the right boxes and at first glance looked to be a friendly and intelligent person.

And then we asked the first question.

That question was: “Tell us about yourself.” And boy, did he!

He started with his personal background including where he was born, how many times he moved, how many brothers and sisters he had, the house he had just bought and why he chose that house, his educational background including elementary school, middle school, high school, and college, his hobbies and his political affiliation.

Then he started in on his job experience, beginning with his first job. He went into excruciating detail about each job and every project he worked on in each job. He described the working environments, co-workers, and managers from each job.

After what I estimated was at least 10 minutes, I finally stopped him and said we needed to get on to other questions because we only had 45 minutes scheduled for the interview. On subsequent questions, it was the same experience. He would soar off into unrelated and meaningless details until we finally stopped the interview at about the 50-minute mark. He simply wore us out.

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This is admittedly an extreme example. However, it’s a good reminder that you need to be concise in your answers and confine them to a reasonable amount of time.

What’s a Reasonable Amount of Time to Answer Interview Questions?

This will vary based on the question and how complex it is. However, a good rule of thumb for most answers is they should be no longer than two minutes. One minute is better.

For complex or multi-part questions, up to three minutes may be needed, but few questions will justify this much time to answer. I would expect no more than one or two in an interview.

The most common one requiring a bit more time is the one in my example above: “Tell us about yourself”. Even this one should take no more than two minutes. If you’ve prepared your ‘elevator story’ in advance, this is what you should use.

The important thing is to give enough detail to answer the question. For most questions, this will take 60 seconds or less. The normal rate of speech is between 120 and 150 words per minute, with 120 being a slow speaker and 150 being a normal speaker.

150 words are sufficient to answer the most straightforward questions, such as your education, years of work experience, projects you’ve completed, and special skills you possess. These are typical first interview questions.

By keeping these answers to one minute, you’ll keep the interview moving along and make it easier for the interview panel to ask all of their questions. This helps you because the more questions you answer, the easier it is for the interviewers to evaluate you.

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It’s the ‘behavioral’ questions that may take a bit more time to answer. These are questions that ask you to describe a difficult situation you faced, how you resolve conflict, etc.

For these, you should still shoot for a two-minute time limit if possible, but it may be occasionally necessary to stretch out to three minutes. But remember – the longer your answer, the greater the chance you’ll wander off-topic. Take a lesson from my first example with Bob!

If you hit the three-minute mark, many Hiring Managers will be at the end of their patience and have stopped listening, or they will ask you to stop talking. This is a request that you never want to hear in your interview!

How to Manage the Time of Your Interview Answers

Now that you know the ideal time parameters for answering interview questions, let’s talk about some methods to help you adhere to these time constraints.

Time is of The Essence

In my post about items to bring to an interview, one of those items is a watch.

What I suggest is to take the watch off your wrist and place it in front of you, telling the interview panel that you want to make sure you don’t run over the time they’ve allocated for the interview. You can then glance at it occasionally if you feel your answer is taking too long.

Very few applicants do this and I always remember the ones who do and appreciate that they value my time.

Practice Makes Perfect

Practice answering some common interview questions before your interview and time yourself. This will give you a sense of how long your answers are and if you need to shorten them.

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You may even find that some of your answers are too short. Answers shorter than about 20 seconds or less are probably not long enough to answer anything other than a yes or no question. You do need to at least take enough time to address what the question wants to know.

Ask for Help

One thing you can do if you sense that you’re talking too long is ask: “Have I answered your question adequately or would you like me to continue?”

If you’ve overstayed your welcome on that question, the interviewers will likely say that you’ve sufficiently answered the question. If they want to hear more, they’ll tell you.

One thing, however, you should only use this technique once or twice. Any more than that and you’ll give the appearance of being unsure of yourself.

Stop Yourself the Right Way

An alternate method to use if you believe your answer is taking too long is to stop at the end of the next sentence.

Then, say something such as this: “You know, I could keep going because I love this topic, but let me stop here so we keep on track for the time allocated.”

If your instinct is correct and you have been talking too long, the Hiring Manager may have already begun to tune you out and will appreciate that you demonstrated good self-awareness. You’ll have stepped over the hole you dug for yourself and made a good impression.

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