9 Tips on How to Handle a Job Interview When You Can’t Answer a Question

By Karin Jakovljevic

March 18, 2016   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Attending a job interview can be quite the intimidating process. The sheer fact that you’ll have an interviewer, or a group of them, on the other side of the table evaluating every word you say, every experience you’ve had, and every point in your resume can lead to sheer anxiety. On top of that, if it happens that during the interview you are asked a question to which you simply do not know the answer, you could face a disastrous ending to your interview. In order to prevent that, here are some useful tips you can follow so that you can be better prepared for such a situation.


Stay calm and avoid going into panic mode. The last thing you need when you don’t know the answer to a question is to start panicking. If you manage to stay calm when you hear a question that simply stumped you, your chances of success, even without fully knowing the answer, will be significantly increased. So keep calm, and start thinking about possible answers. You never know, it could be a trick question or the answer may just come to you after you give it some additional thought. Don’t spit out the first thing that crosses your mind. Avoid saying the first thing that crosses your mind if you’re not completely sure about your answer. Keep in mind that the interviewer probably knows the answer to the question, so answering it the wrong way – or even worse: answering it with something that doesn’t make any sense – can lower your chances of successfully passing the interview.

Ask for a moment to think about it. You should always try to avoid awkward silence from the moment the interviewer asks a question to the moment when you start answering. If you don’t know the answer right off the bat, then ask for a moment to think about the question. Something like: “Oh, that’s a good question, let me think about that” can do the trick. It is important to set expectations for your interviewer and state clearly that you’re thinking about the posed question. Ask for clarification if you’re completely baffled.
If the question caught you completely off guard, then buying some time by asking for clarification may be very helpful. While the interviewer is repeating his question, you may come up with an answer without even hearing it through to the end. Moreover, the interviewer may repeat the question in a different manner or throw in an example that can help you solve the question and answer correctly. If nothing else, you’ll buy an extra minute to think about it.

Think out loud. If you’ve spent your minute thinking about a possible answer and you’re still not sure, the time has come to start exploring the answer loudly. State what your thought process is when it comes to answering that question and while doing so the interviewer may perceive that your thought process seems accurate although you do not know the answer to the actual question. Sometimes the interviewer may even just ask a tough question to hear what your thought process is. So, if you’re lucky, the person sitting across the room may not even expect the correct answer from you!

Don’t admit straight away that you don’t know the answer. As mentioned above, your interviewer may not even be interested in hearing the answer as he would perhaps want to analyze your thought process and problem solving skills. So, if your first thought is to come clean immediately after hearing the question, you may want to re-think that approach. Give it some thought first and show that you do have some problem solving skills that may help you in such a situation instead of just blabbering that you don’t know the answer straightaway.

Point out what you do know. Since the chances are pretty slim that you can completely redirect your interviewer from the subject matter he wants to discuss, pointing out what you do know about the topic may be helpful. Make sure that your comment, not necessarily a direct answer, is at least somewhat close to the posed question. Avoid talking about something completely irrelevant in an attempt to talk your way out of the situation. Show off a positive attitude and mention things which you do know and which are close to the topic. This little trick may be just enough to get you over the hump.

Demonstrate a will to learn and improve your knowledge and skills. You are probably not expected to know everything. There are easier and more demanding questions for which none of the above tips may help. When that happens, putting a positive twist on the situation and pointing out clearly that you are extremely willing to learn and improve your knowledge and skills may suffice. Keeping a positive attitude and admitting that you are a work in progress with an obvious will to learn new things may buy you an extra point or two.

Follow-up with the correct answer. So, your interview is over but you didn’t know the answer to one or two questions? When you get home, try to do your homework and do the research on the question(s) that stumped you. Once you are sure you have the correct answer, follow-up with your interviewer to leave one last positive impression and mention that you’ve found the answer. Bottom line, not knowing all the answers to questions asked by hiring managers on job interviews is not an eliminating factor. On the contrary, it is how you act in certain situations that can impress them. Therefore, be honest, be prepared and be yourself. Good luck!

Karin Jakovljevic

Karin is the PR manager and content writer at NimbleSchedule, a leading provider of cloud-based workforce optimization software. Her main areas of interest are social media, SaaS and B2B.

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