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What to Say When You Don't Know the Answer to an Interview Question

Many job seekers report that at some point during the interview they were asked a question they didn't have an immediate answer for. This can cause a moment of panic, which may result in the job seeker showing a lack of professionalism.

Knowing you may face this situation can be helpful as you think through the interview process and rehearse answers to questions. You can even practice how you would handle this nerve-wracking situation. Here are some suggestions Revision Resume has for what to do and say when you don't know the answer to an interview question.

Avoid Panicking

Interviewee taking a deep breath

Your automatic response may be to panic, but try to avoid it by taking a deep breath or drinking some water. It will be harder to think clearly if you are having a moment of high anxiety. Remind yourself that this is just one question of many, and that you can formulate a plan for how best to address this tricky question.

Ask for clarification

In some cases, you may have simply misheard or misunderstood the question being asked. Therefore, it is worthwhile to request the question to be repeated or restated. You could also repeat the question back to verify that you understand what they are asking. Requesting clarification can help you determine if it is something you actually don't know the answer to.

Asking for clarification also allows you some time to think through the question, since it is possible that your mind just went blank upon hearing it. This doesn't mean you don't know the answer or aren't capable of providing an answer, it just means at the moment you can't think of the answer. If, when you ask for clarification, they re-word the question in a different way, it may allow your brain to re-engage and provide a quality answer.

Request a Moment

Request a minute or two to think it over. If you feel uncomfortable asking for time, delay answering by taking a drink of water. This gives you a chance to determine how best to address the question. Can you come up with an answer that provides the information you do know about the topic, even if it doesn't fully answer the question? Could you admit you are not sure of the answer but offer ways in which you would gain understanding if you were faced with having to handle this topic once hired? If you don't have a work-related experience from which to draw for this topic, can you think of a volunteer or personal experience that might relate?

With a few minutes to think, you may be able to come up with a way to answer the question properly that didn't occur to you when it was first asked. For example, the interviewer may ask you to talk about a time you had to work with a difficult colleague and how you handled it. If you haven't dealt with a difficult colleague, it may be hard to figure out how best to respond. After thinking it through, you may remember a volunteer experience in which working with one of the other volunteers was challenging. You could use that to answer the question, providing the interviewer an example that relates to the experience she was seeking.

Ask to Come Back to the Question

Interviewee looking like she doesn't know how to answer the question being asked.

You have requested clarification and have taken a moment, but still don't have an answer to provide. What should you do? One option is to ask if you can come back to that question later in the interview. You could say you don't have an answer to that question right at the moment and would like the opportunity to return to it later on.

Always be Honest

It may be tempting to make something up on the spot so you still look like an expert. However, getting caught in a lie will undo any positive you gain from pretending to be knowledgeable about something you aren't knowledgeable about. So, always avoid the temptation to lie.

Instead of lying or saying "I don't know," indicate that you don't have an answer to that question right now. You can say you will think about it and let them know the answer when you have one, either later in the interview or by following up after the interview.

Answer in your Value Proposition Letter

If you leave the interview without answering that tricky question, consider following up with a post-interview thank you note, also known as a Value Proposition Letter (VPL). In addition to thanking the interviewer for their time and reiterating why you are the best candidate for the position, you can also provide the answer to the question that you were unable to answer during the interview. You can indicate that with more time to think about it, you have arrived at an answer that you would like to share.

Related Reading:

Looking for additional Interview tips? Click here.


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