Worried about being asked an interview question that you have no idea how to answer? Here’s what to say when you have no clue what to say – and come out ahead.
First, you need to fill that awkward silence with something, so…
Ask for clarification.
If you don’t understand the question, ask the interviewer to explain a bit more about a specific part of the question. This means that instead of saying a general “Can you please explain that question?” say, “Can you please expand a bit further on what you mean by X?”
It’s okay not to know the answer. Really. It’s not always about whether every answer you give is perfect, but about how you answer the questions, and your thought process. Even if you can’t come up with a good answer, think of it as a test to see how you handle a difficult situation.
Give the information that you do know.
Instead of simply saying ‘I don’t know how to answer that’ right away, give an answer that relates to part of the question. This shows that you know at least some of the answer, or part of the topic in question, even if you can’t answer the full question. You may find that the act of saying something may lead you to give the answer the interviewer is looking for anyway.
Say how you would find the answer.
Sometimes employers will throw a curveball question designed to see how you think on your feet. It’s okay that you don’t know how many mailboxes there are in Newfoundland, but you can list the steps you’d use to find out.
If the question is very technical or mathematical, where you don’t remember the numbers or hard data off the top of your head – say that you don’t have this type of thing memorized, but you know it requires X calculation, or Y resource. It’s ok not to know everything, and it makes you a more likeable and honest person to simply admit this.
DON’T try to make something up.
While it’s best to not jump straight to saying “I don’t know” it’s even worse to pretend you know something you don’t. If you honestly can’t come up with any kind of answer, it’s time to admit to that. “That’s a great question, and I’m sorry to say that I don’t have the answer right at this moment. I’ll follow up with this after the interview.”
Coming clean shows honesty and humility, and promising to follow up (whether this is doing research on your own, or providing an answer via email) shows you are genuinely interested in the topic.
You should always send a thank you email after an interview, and this offers the perfect opportunity to give a better response to a question you were unhappy about. For example, “I’ve had a chance to think about/look into/research the question regarding X and my opinion/answer/thoughts are that…” Do not apologize for not knowing the answer, focus on the fact that you are expanding or clarifying the answer you gave.
Keep this answer brief and confident. Following up shows you pay attention to detail, and don’t like to leave loose threads hanging. These are important qualities for any job. It also helps to redeems a poor interview answer, helping to raise your chances of being a contender for the job.
You don’t have to be perfect!
Being able to correctly answer every difficult question an interviewer throws at you is great. Clearly you are a smart and knowledgeable person. But employers aren’t just looking for smarts – they are looking for personality, enthusiasm and passion. They are looking for capable people who are willing to learn. So don’t stress if you are stumped by a question, use this as an opportunity to show your personality.