I remember my first time hearing “When can you start?” while interviewing for a job. I had finally gotten the call to meet with a prospective employer and spent hours beforehand practicing responses for the standard interview questions.
But I was totally unprepared for the interviewer to ask when I could start. Caught off guard and slightly panicked, I blurted, “Tomorrow!”
The interviewer smiled and jotted down my answer in her notes. Ultimately, I didn’t get the job. Whether it was because of my response on availability, I’ll never know. Yet I realized that as simple as “When can you start?” sounds, it’s a question that still requires strategy.
If you’re like me, you may be tempted to answer that you can start immediately. After all, most of us believe the best way to land a job is to be as flexible, eager, and accommodating as possible. But most of the time, that’s not a realistic option—in which case, it’s ideal to communicate in a way that shows your excitement for the job while still being thoughtful about the start date you have in mind.
“You can approach it from a couple different angles,” says Muse career coach Angela Smith. “Of course, you want to think about what works for you. But you also want to consider the employer’s perspective because they likely have a timeline and ideal date for when they would like a candidate to start.”
Smith points out that most employers are simply asking this question to get a feel for whether your timeline aligns with theirs. So there’s no one perfect answer to this question. But whatever your response, it should be as polished as your answers to other interview questions. Here are a few examples of what to say, depending on your situation.
1. When You’re Ready to Start Right Away
My rushed interview answer was partly due to being on the job hunt for a while and the desire to start ASAP. Still, there’s a fine line between enthusiasm to start a new job and desperation. It’s best to play it slightly cool, even if you’re available right now.
“They may want someone to start right away, but they don’t need to know all the details of your life, even if you’ve been job hunting for a while,” Smith says. “You want to give yourself a breather, and also set the expectation that you won’t be at the employer’s beck and call.”
If you’re ready to start a job sooner than later, it’s great to communicate that—calmly and professionally. Try this answer to convey your prompt availability:
“After learning more about this role, I am confident it would be a great fit for my experience and skillset. I can be available to start as soon as the beginning of the next work week.”
2. When You Need to Give Notice at Your Current Job
A common scenario is if you’re currently employed and need to give your notice of resignation prior to starting the new job. A two-week notice is typically the minimum amount of time to give your employer. However, depending on your position and responsibilities, you may feel you need to stay a week or two longer to help complete any major projects.
The interviewer probably expects that you will need to give notice at your current job, so it’s fine to let them know you will finish your last couple weeks there prior to coming on board. An answer in this scenario should go something like:
“I am excited for the opportunity to join your team. I have several projects to wrap up in my current role at [Company]. I plan to give them [number of weeks] notice to make a smooth transition for my co-workers and will be happy to come onboard with the team here after that time.”
3. When You Want to Take a Break Between Jobs
If you’re coming from a previous role, you may be looking forward to taking a few days or even weeks to decompress before jumping into the new one. While there’s nothing wrong with taking a breather between jobs, this one is a bit trickier than having a current job as the reason for delay.
“I would phrase it as needing a couple weeks to handle prior arranged plans,” Smith advises. “An established commitment, as opposed to just wanting time off, positions it a little better. Most employers understand that job searching doesn’t fit into life neatly and will be willing to work with your schedule.”
An example of this answer could be:
“I’m really looking forward to being part of the team. However, I do have some previously scheduled commitments to attend to after giving notice at my current job. My ideal start date would be [number of weeks] from a potential offer.”
Be prepared, though, that they may want someone who’s available more quickly. If they ask, “Can you start sooner?” (and you honestly could), you might say something like: “While my ideal start date is [date], I do have some flexibility, and I’d be happy to figure out a date that works with your timeline.”
4. When You Need to Relocate
Should your new job require relocation, it’s important to give yourself a realistic timeline for the move. Not only will you be preparing for a new job and finding a place to live in a new city, but you’ll need to make specific arrangements if you’re moving with a partner, kids, or pets (or all three!).
Relocation for a job is a huge investment—both professionally and personally—so you’ll want to do some research to figure out the estimated time and cost of moving from your current location. That way, if and when you do get the job offer, you’ll be prepared to ask for the time you need, and maybe even relocation assistance.
That said, before you have the offer in hand, the safest option is to ask the interviewer’s preference for when the role should start. So an answer to “When can you start?” might sound like this:
“This role sounds like a great fit for me, and I’m excited for the next steps. Because the role requires relocation to [city/state], what timeline do you have in mind for a candidate who is transitioning from another city/state?”
No matter your situation, the goal in answering “When can you start?” is to set realistic expectations for both yourself and your potential employer. This way, you propose a start date that ideally works for both parties and, should they make an offer, gets you on the right track for your new role.
Photo of person talking in an interview courtesy of kate_sept2004/Getty Images.
Quinisha is a freelance marketing consultant, U.S. Navy veteran, and part-time Staff Writer with The Muse. She writes about topics on career development, diversity and inclusion, and financial literacy for entry- and mid-level professionals. You can follow her on Twitter: @KWright0702.More from this Author