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. Other times, interviewers may deliberately try to stump you to reveal how you'll respond to challenging questions and situations.
How to Handle it When You Don't Have an Answer
You won't be the first candidate, or the last, to have a stressful interviewing experience. Don't worry. Not knowing the best way to respond to a question probably isn't going to knock you out of contention for a job.
However, knowing how to respond to a question for which you don't know the answer can help alleviate some of the anxiety and can 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 of 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 keep 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 a response. Try not to 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.
There are strategies you can use to avoid job interview stress, which can happen to anyone regardless of how practiced you are at interviewing, and stay calm.
If you fall apart and get upset, the interviewer could lose confidence in you. However, most hiring managers know that nerves can get the better us and will be understanding. 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.
You could 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, or you aren't sure what the interviewer wants to know. In this situation, try to identify what you found confusing. Was it just one term or word, or are you confused by the entire question?
It's fine to ask the interviewer to define or explain their question.
You can say, "I'm not sure I understand what you're asking. Can you explain it in greater detail?"
Don't Fake It
It can feel embarrassing not to be able to answer a question, but that's better than making something up, especially when what you say isn't an appropriate response.
Inventing something that might not make sense is worse than politely and briefly stating that you do not know the answer.
If you are genuinely 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 into a more positive answer by saying that you'll be thinking about this question after the interview, 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. Such an answer will 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 of the answers on the spot. Demonstrating that you will be persistent, hardworking, and resourceful when you initially lack information can be impressive to employers.