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Advice / Job Search / Finding a Job

The Right (and Wrong) Way to Ask Questions When You're Applying for a Job

Getty Images/Hero Images
Getty Images/Hero Images

It’s one thing to prepare questions to ask at the end of your interview. You want to look thoughtful; you want to show that you’ve listened; and you may have a few burning questions about the way things are done around there.

But it’s a completely different story when you have a question before the interview even begins. For example, what should you do when the hiring manager asks for your availability on Tuesday, and then sends a calendar request for Thursday? Or what if you aren’t sure if a supplemental part of your application was received?

Not to make you (even more) nervous, but this can be a hit-or-miss situation. If you ask the question diplomatically, it will demonstrate that you could handle a tricky professional situation with ease. But if your email seems superfluous, over-eager, or condescending it will—not surprisingly—put a damper on your candidacy.

Read on for the dos and don’ts of asking a question during the application process.

Do Look for the Answer

In daily life, if you aren’t quite sure what someone means, it’s not uncommon to shoot him a quick email. But when you’re job-searching, something as innocent as a “Hey, how should I go about this?” email can reflect poorly on your candidacy.

Why? Because if the answer to your question is clearly listed somewhere on the website, you’ll look like you didn’t have the time, or interest, or initiative, or skills to solve your own problem. And that’s obviously not the impression you’re trying to make.

So, search high and low for the answer. If it’s not in your email correspondence, refer back to the website (or vice versa). If you’ve diligently looked for the answer and still can’t find it, then reach out—just be sure the question highlights your desire to find a solution (rather than your frustration). Think, “Could you clarify how I should submit this part of the application?” not “I’ve spent hours trying everything, but I just can’t figure out what you want, so could you please explain how you’d like this submitted?”

Don’t Show Off

Just as you shouldn’t ask a question when you could easily find the answer, you also shouldn’t ask a question simply to “show off.” Sometimes you have no choice but to ask for additional assistance or clarification (think: the hiring manager refers you to an attachment—and there is no attachment). However, inquiring about an obvious, benign typo highlights a lack of diplomacy (rather than superior attention to detail).

I understand where you’re coming from: You don’t want to ignore a glaring typo, because what if it’s some kind of test? You don’t want to look like you didn’t even notice!

The trick is to handle the situation graciously. You’ll probably sound rude if you write, “Are you sure you didn’t mean 12 PM, as opposed to 12 AM, which is what your email said?” Instead, just include the correct time in your response: “Yes, I am available at 12 noon. I look forward to meeting you!”

Do Ask a Critical Question

Before I scare you into thinking you should just figure it out, let me be clear that sometimes asking a question can make a big difference! Along with the times when it’s essential (e.g., it’s unclear whether it will be a phone, video, or in-person interview), there are also times when asking a question can give you a leg up.

Several years ago, I received an itinerary in a scheduling email that said the name of an alumni co-interviewer would be sent to me at a later date. I waited several days because I know how challenging it can be to negotiate the schedules of various stakeholders. But, when I still hadn’t received the name 48 hours before I was due to interview, I followed up and asked if it would be possible to learn his or her name (which I was sent shortly thereafter).

Armed with that information, I Googled him—and that actually came up in the interview! He said, “I Googled you, but all that came up was that you went to Franklin & Marshall [College].” And I said, “I Googled you too, and saw an op-ed you wrote!” which prompted an entire conversation.

Those bonding moments can go a long way—and it happened because I had the confidence to ask a question. So, if you have a question about something you were told would be clarified at a later time, or something that will change how you submit your application or prepare for your interview, don’t be afraid to ask. Just watch your tone: “Would it be possible to learn more about...?” comes off way different than, “I need to know...”

Don’t Bury Your Lead

So you have a relevant question, but how should you go about asking it? You may feel tempted to treat the email like a conversation and ease in—but this is not the best approach.

For example, you might think that writing, “Air travel is so unpredictable! The last time I flew my plane was delayed by two hours…” sounds warmer than, “I’ll be traveling on that day. Would it be possible to schedule the phone interview for the afternoon?” But burying your question won’t make you sound friendly; rather, you run the risk of your interviewer having no idea what you’re asking. And if that happens, you’ll have to reach out—again!

Keep it simple, keep it clear, keep it professional. And if you’re worried you’re being too long-winded, write out your email in a Word document, and then try to cut it by at least two lines.

The skills you display throughout the hiring process reflect on your candidacy. So, along with knocking your resume, interview, and thank you note out of the park; focus on intermittent communications like an email asking a clarifying question. It just could make the difference.

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