How to answer the interview question “How do you handle competing deadlines?”

Yesterday we discussed how to handle salary questions. If you haven’t gotten a chance to read that one, I recommend checking it out “What are you looking for in terms of compensation?”. Today we are going to tackle the interview question, “How do you handle competing deadlines?” This is another question you will find yourself asked frequently.

I think it makes sense to discuss why this question gets asked first. This question gets asked because at some point, someone in the interview process thought it made sense to get an idea as to how you deal with multiple tasks. Now, they might be asking this because it is a big part of the job that you are interviewing for. Another reason is they want to get an idea of how detail oriented you are, how you schedule your time or how self-sufficient you are.

I have had hiring managers tell me they would like me to ask this question solely for the purpose of weeding out candidates they think will come to them with every little issue. They might want to avoid candidates who answer this question by saying something like, “I would ask my manager what task is more important”.

Now there are two ways you might get asked this question. The first is the way I phrased it in the title of this post. If they ask you how, then they are looking for your methods and strategies for handling those types of issues. However, they may also ask the question like this, “Give me an example of a time when you had to handle competing deadlines”.

Now if they ask the question the second way, they aren’t looking for hypotheticals, they want an example. As a recruiter, when I ask for a specific example but instead a candidate answers with a hypothetical, it is quite frustrating. It says to me that you can’t think of a time or are avoiding the question.

So, if you are asked in a way that allows you to answer hypothetically, make sure you give a clear, concise explanation that demonstrates your ability to both plan out your time effectively as well as make decisions yourself when appropriate.

If you are asked for a specific example, make sure you have one prepared. The example should demonstrate your strategies for staying organized, it should show your ability to prioritize tasks based on timelines or important and ultimately it should demonstrate a successful outcome. Bonus points if your example is something you can realistically expect to run into in the job you are interviewing for.

Well there you have it. If you can do those simple things you will nail this interview question. Come back tomorrow when we discuss how to answer the interview question, “Give me an example of a time when you had a conflict in a professional environment?”

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