7 Things To Do If You Can't Answer
An Interview Question

See also: Telephone Interviews

Job interviews are the gateway to your dream career. If you create a favorable impression, it can open doors to amazing growth opportunities.

However, you will often come across tough interview questions that get you sweating. Sometimes, you may not know the answer. Sometimes, you may know the answer and still freeze up due to the pressure.

But not to worry, I’ve been through it several times myself and am here to help.

Here are 7 things you should do if you can’t answer an interview question.

1. Calm Down

The first step is to stay calm and not panic. Most candidates think they need to answer all questions in an interview to get a job. That is not true. Sometimes interviewers deliberately throw a curveball to see how you deal with pressure.

The key is to remember that others will also find it difficult to answer this tough question.

If you panic, your body language will reveal this in many ways (for example, sweating, your tone, voice and posture) and you won’t be able to think clearly. Take a few deep breaths. Tell yourself that even though you don’t know the answer off the bat, you’ll figure it out if you spend some time on it.

Instead of aiming for a perfect interview, focus on delivering a solid interview with confidence. Spend some time going through interview prep sites like CareerCup to find out the most common questions asked by the employer so you will have a good idea of what to expect. Also read other people’s interview experiences on Glassdoor and Quora to understand if the employer asks many tough questions, or if it’s likely to be an easy one.

2. Don’t stall or make up answers

If you don’t know the answer, don’t try to make one up. Also, avoid stalling the interviewer by repeating or rephrasing the question, or even talking about the question.

3. Ask questions

Sometimes, it’s just that you haven’t understood the question properly. So ask the interviewer to provide more clarification. For example, you can say something like “Are you looking for an example of how I met the deadline under pressure?” Go deeper into the question to get more details that will hopefully help you figure out the answer.

4. Tell the Interviewer what you do know

Most candidates commit the mistake of keeping their thoughts to themselves when they don’t know the answer. This gives the perception that you’ve frozen and don’t know how to proceed.

Tell the interviewer whatever little you know about the topic, and what you’re thinking. This will help them understand that you’re trying and what’s going on in your mind. Consequently, they’ll help you arrive at the answer by giving you some hints (e.g. “Have you considered…”) or rephrasing the question (e.g. Let me ask it another way…) such that it becomes easier for you to find the answer.

5. Explain Your Approach

Not all interview questions are meant to be answered completely. Sometimes, the interviewers just want to test your thought process, ability to communicate, and think under pressure. They want to see that you can take the initiative and use the resources at hand to tackle new problems that you haven’t faced before.

For example, when I interviewed for Yahoo!, I was asked only one question in my first round. The interviewer started by saying, ”None of the candidates before you has been able to give me a complete answer to this question. So I don’t expect you to crack it either. I just want to see how you approach the problem and find your way out.” I was able to provide only a partial solution, and had given up all hopes. To my surprise, I made it through to the next round.

Explain how you would go about solving the problem. You can say, "I'm not entirely sure of an answer, but given my limited understanding of the topic, here are a few thoughts."

While solving problems, clearly mention the parts that you don’t know, or the assumptions you’re making. This will help you show your honesty. In fact, many times, the interviewers will provide you the missing information and help you shape the solution.

Similarly, during interviews, it’s common for people to make mistakes during calculations. So you can respond by saying, “I can’t do these calculations off the top of my head but I think they’ll give us the answer”.

6. Know when to say “I don’t know

Although it’s generally advised not to tell the interviewer that you don’t know the answer, there are times when it’s better to admit otherwise. For example, sometimes you may be asked a for definition that cannot be arrived at unless you’ve memorized it.

Just don’t say it immediately. Give it some time. Try to find the answer. Ask for hints. If nothing works, then tell them, “It’s a good question. I’m sorry I don’t know the answer off the top of my head but I will surely follow up with the answer after the interview.

This will show that you’re not trying to fake, lie or buy time.

7. Follow up

Send a follow up email after the interview to show that you’re hard-working and persistent, and that you deserve a second chance. To grab their attention, ensure that your answer really stands out. You can do this in a few ways:

  1. Provide an in-depth, data-backed answer
  2. Provide multiple ways to solve the problem. For example, if you were asked one way to create an infographic, provide them at least 10 different ways to do it - with pros and cons for each method.
  3. Now that you have the time to think, you can also provide creative out-of-the-box solutions that the interviewer may not have thought about.

The Skills You Need Guide to Getting a Job

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Getting a Job

Develop the skills you need to get that job.

This eBook is essential reading for potential job-seekers. Not only does it cover identifying your skills but also the mechanics of applying for a job, writing a CV or resume and attending interviews.

Wrapping it up

When you don’t know the answer to a question, the key is to try and arrive at an answer using a step-by-step approach.

Ensure that you proactively communicate what you are thinking. You’ll be surprised to see your interviewer drop hints that help you keep going. Even if you don’t get it completely right, your persistence, ability to think under pressure, problem-solving approach and logical thinking will surely impress the interviewer. In fact, many times, that’s exactly what they’re looking for.

About the Author

For more than 8 years, Sreeram Sreenivasan has worked with various Fortune 500 Companies in areas of Business Intelligence, Sales & Marketing Strategy.