How to React When You Don’t Know an Answer during an Interview

After preparing heavily for your interview, you’re feeling more confident than ever as you walk in. Things seem to be going smoothly until the interviewer blindsides you with a question you don’t know the answer to. *gulp*

Assuming you’re not a mind reader, it’s impossible to know every question the interviewer is going to ask. A part of interview prep that most people don’t think about is practicing how to react when you don’t know the answer. Here are some tips to handle this awkward interview scenario in a professional manner.

Stay Calm

The most important thing you can do when you’re thrown off guard during an interview is to remain calm. If you panic and let it embarrass you, you will become overwhelmed, throwing you off your game for the rest of the interview. Remember that this is only one question and there will be more questions to redeem yourself. Stay cool and keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you lost your chance at getting the job.

Ask for a Moment to Think

If you’re stumped on a question, ask for a moment to gather your thoughts. Hiring managers want a quality answer, not necessarily a quick one. Glance over your resume and maybe it will help spark an answer. Ask for the question to be rephrased or repeated to buy more time and try not to make a lot of nervous “um” or “hm” noises during this period of silence.

“I don’t know” is never the answer

If you don’t have an answer to the interview question, never just leave it at “I don’t know”. If you truly don’t have an answer after taking a moment to think it over, mention something you do know that relates to the question. For example, “I have never dealt with that situation in particular, but in a similar situation I…”

The interviewer will respect honesty. Making up an answer or lying is worse than not knowing. Rather than saying that you have done something that you haven’t, explain what your thought process would be if you ever were in that situation.

If it’s a definition based question, it’s a little more difficult to talk your way out of it. In this case, you should admit that you’re not familiar with the term, but are very interested in learning more about it. The interviewer will take this as you are ready for the next question.

Redemption Email

Let’s face it. Nerves take over and can sometimes cause us to draw a blank, even on the simplest questions. Whatever question it is that you didn’t know, or felt like you could have answered better, you can add a line or two about it in your thank you email to try and redeem yourself. Whether it was a term you researched after the interview or an answer you wished you elaborated more on, the interviewer will admire your effort and resourcefulness.

Interviewing for a new job is tough, especially when you’re not prepared for what could go wrong. Face the fact that you may not know some of the answers. Practice makes perfect! If all else fails, you will at least be prepared for the question that stumped you next time around.