Congratulations! You not only nabbed an interview at that company you've been dying to get into, it's also going really well. They they ask, "When can you start?" A simple question, maybe, but like other standard interview questions, there are right and wrong ways to answer. Let's break down why.
Why do interviewers ask this question?
Like every other part of your interview, this is a test. It doesn't even mean they necessarily like you for the job. In fact, "When can you start?" might be a question asked of every interviewee. Why?
When interviewers ask this question, they aren't just wondering about your actual availability (unless they really do need to find someone immediately). They want to see how you field the question. And while your answer to this alone probably isn't a make-or-break factor in whether or not you're hired, the way you answer can either help or hurt that good impression you've been trying to make.
What your interviewer is looking for in your response
A good candidate prepares for her interview, so this question should be one you've already been thinking about. For example, how much notice does your current employer require? Two weeks is fairly standard, but by no means is this the only length requirement you'll find. This and other particulars are ones you should know before you even begin your hunt for a new job.
This preparation will show in your response, and that's what your interviewer is ultimately looking for. She wants to see how you communicate information. Do you have an answer ready, or are you fumbling? Are you to the point, or throwing out a lot of unnecessary information along the way? These things will say a lot about you. As with every other facet of the interview process, the point here is to seem completely professional.
How to answer the question
1. Counter it.
A simple, "When would you like me to start?" should always be your first response to this question. For one thing, it's information you need to factor into your own considerations. For another, her answer might tell you not just about the company's needs, but also a bit about their attitude as well.
2. Do a 3-count.
It's okay to take your time in an interview. In fact, rushing into every answer probably won't make the best impression. When it comes to letting someone know your availability, give yourself a few seconds to think about their answer to the question above. Does it jive with the notice you need to give to your employer? Does it fall right in the middle of that family vacay you've been planning for six months? Factor everything in.
3. Adapt your script accordingly.
We've mapped out a few standard responses to "When can you start?" below, based on a few common work and personal considerations. Use these as jumping off points for your own answers, phrasing them in a way that feels comfortable and honest to who you are. It's okay to have a pre-planned answer to this or any interview question you might want to prep for. But the goal is to answer smoothly and naturally.
Sample responses to help you answer
When you can start right away.
If you're out of work and totally available, you might be tempted to jump at the opportunity to start immediately. Especially if your interviewer just said she needs someone to start ASAP. But being a professional means keeping a lid on that eager beaver, "Yes!"
Instead, try, "My schedule is fairly flexible. I could accommodate that start date."
When you need to give a two week notice.
Two weeks is, again, a fairly standard length of notice to be required to give, regardless of industry. If that's the case for you, simply saying, "My current employer requires a two week notice, so I would be available on [date]" should suffice.
When you need to give more than two weeks' notice.
Some companies do require giving more advanced notice. If this is the case, "My company requires X amount of time as notice" is quick and easy.
However, even with a standard two week agreement, consider any projects you want to tie up before you go, or if you'd like to train your replacement. Going the extra mile can do a lot toward getting a nice future reference from this employer, and also make a nice impression on your interviewer. In this case, "I don't want to leave my current employer at loose ends, so I would prefer to stay through [a project's end/new hire's training]" is fine, along with an estimated date of availability.
When you have personal obligations.
It's not just your current employer you need to think about. Life happens, too. If you're moving, going on a trip or have something else substantial going on, this will affect your start date. If so, rather than list all the things you have going on, try, "I have to give notice to my current employer. I'll be available [date]," factoring in the extended time you need for yourself.
Just because the reason you can't start sooner is personal rather than work-related doesn't mean you have to go into a lot of detail. If it does come up, "personal obligations" is a wonderfully neat phrase to employ.
When you just want a little space.
Giving yourself some breathing room between leaving one job and starting another is crucial. Leaving a job can be hard, especially if you've been there for a while. Give yourself some time to decompress. After all, you just landed a new gig, and you deserve to sleep in for a little while. Again, the easy "I have to give notice and see to some personal obligations. I'm available to start [date]" is great.
How not to answer "When can you start?"
By now you're (hopefully) feeling more comfortable answering this question. But before you head on out to your next interview, here are a few things to keep in mind not to say or do.
"I can start today!"
Even if you really are immediately available, as we noted above, find a way that doesn't make you seem desperate. That can be off-putting to an interviewer. Avoid any overly dramatic reactions, good or bad.
Too much information is going to drag down whatever excellent impression you've been making up to this point. Don't overload your interviewer with details she doesn't really need (or want) to know. When it comes to simple start date availability, stick to the essentials. Less is more.
"I can start on the 5th" and then... not.
In other words, basically lying. Sure, you want to be available and flexible and totally ready to work. But beware over-committing yourself before you've really factored in your obligations. Think about what's going on in your life, in order to avoid forgetting something that could really trip you up. After all, starting on a Monday, then suddenly needing off that Friday for the road trip that slipped your mind? Not a great idea.
An exciting interview can make anybody sweat. You sit there in the spotlight, feeling judged on everything from the font on your resume to the color of your nail polish. Let's be clear: you really are being judged, on that and more.
Really, though? This period of critique is also an opportunity to show them your nails aren't the only thing that's polished. And being able to knock the old "When can you start" question out of the park is just one of many ways to show off what a cool, collected pro you really are.