What to Do If You Can't Answer an Interview Question
The thought of not being able to answer an interview question is a scary one for many job applicants. It happens more often than you might think. Sometimes, you don't know the answer. In other cases, you may know, but your brain freezes at the moment. Or, interviewers may deliberately try to stump you to reveal how you'll respond to challenging questions.
Being prepared for not being able to respond can help alleviate some of the anxiety and help you make the most out of a difficult situation.
Your mindset going into an interview is a critical ingredient for success. Many candidates assume that they must have a near perfect interview to land the job. In reality, it helps to recognize that other interviewees will also have difficulty answering all the questions to the complete satisfaction of the recruiter.
Often, a solid but imperfect interview is sufficient to move you on to the next step in the screening process. This realization can help stop you from panicking if you can't answer a question well. Take the time to review the most common interview questions employers ask so you will have an idea of what to expect.
Your reaction if you can't immediately come up with an answer can be more important than the ability to deliver the answer. Don't stress out. Maintaining a calm, confident posture when confronted with a tough question will help convince the recruiter that your inability to answer a question is an unusual occurrence for you.
If you fall apart and get upset, the interviewer may lose confidence in you. Consider saying something like "That's a very interesting question; can I take some time to consider it and get back to you later?" or "Great question, I can answer it in part but would like to consider it further and get back to you."
Buy Some Time
You can often buy some time to formulate an answer by rephrasing the question or asking for clarification. For example, you might say "Are you looking for an example of how I motivated an underperforming colleague in a team situation?" By the time the interviewer answers, something may have come to mind.
Or, you can also say, "That question is a bit of a stumper! Can I think about it, and come back to it at the end of our conversation?" It's possible the interviewer will forget to ask it again, and that will allow you to follow up in your thank you note.
Try to Clarify
Maybe you did not understand the question. In that situation, try to identify what you found confusing. Was it just one term or word? Ask the interviewer to define it. Or, you can say, "I'm not sure I understand what you're asking. Can you explain more?"
Don't Fake It
It can feel embarrassing not to be able to answer a question. But inventing something that might not make sense is worse than politely and briefly stating that you do not know the answer. If you are truly perplexed by the question and do not think buying time, defining terms, or asking the interviewer to rephrase the question will help, say you are not sure.
You can try to spin this to be more positive by saying that you'll be thinking about this question after the interview, or that you'll do some research, or even that you hope to learn more about the topic if hired. If you give that last response, it can be helpful to relate another time you were unfamiliar with a concept and were then able to master it. That'll make you look resourceful.
Answer When You Follow Up
Perhaps the most significant thing you could do if a key question has stumped you is to research a strong answer after the interview. You can then include that answer as part of your follow-up communication.
Very few jobs require workers to have all the answers on the spot. Demonstrating that you will be persistent, hard-working, and resourceful when you initially lack information can be impressive to employers.