how important is it to answer every question perfectly during a job interview?

A reader writes:

I have been interviewing for a position in a nonprofit that I would consider my dream job. The interview process was extensive and consisted of two phone interviews, followed by being flown in to meet with 4 members of the staff in the department I would be joining and the HR manager. The interview took place over two days and I spent 5-6 hours in total with them, plus time exploring the organization.

Overall, I think I did very well and connected with the employees. However, I definitely flubbed two questions and it leaves me wondering how perfect do prospective candidates need to be in order to get the job? If all else went great and there was a feeling of cultural fit, how important is it to answer every question perfectly? What do hiring managers think when the candidate does 90% excellently, but 10% poorly?

It’s hugely dependent on what the questions and the answers were. There’s no formula here, because it’s so context-dependent.

Some questions are probing deeply into the substance of what’s needed in the role, and flubbing those would count heavily against you. Some questions don’t matter nearly as much or don’t have “right” answers or might give an interviewer pause without being a deal-breaker. On the other hand, a particularly bad answer to a minor question could trump everything else if it were bad enough.

Keep in mind, too, that there are different definitions of “flubbing” an answer, and they all count differently. Using imperfect wording, getting off to a stumbling start, or not organizing your thoughts perfectly are different things (usually less important) than an answer where the substance of what you’re saying is off-base.

So there’s no formula. And even when an objective observer would say you answered all the questions well, you still might not get the job — because your perfectly good answers might be different than what the hiring manager is looking for, or another candidate is just a better fit. And even when you think you didn’t interview well, you can sometimes end up getting an offer — because your assessment is off or because the hiring manager cares about different things.

It’s very hard to predict this stuff, and so in general you should stay away from trying to estimate how an employer thinks you did. The best thing to focus on is what you learned in the interview about the job and the employer: Is it somewhere you want to work? That’s the part that you’re 100% in charge of assessing, and it’s the primary thing you should be mulling. After all, do you think your interviewer is spending a lot of time second-guessing their own performance? Nope. They’re focusing on whether you’re the right match. And you should be doing the same.

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