What to Do When You Don't Know the Answer to Interview Questions
It’s one of the most dreaded, even if quite common, moments in the job interview: the interviewer asks some difficult interview questions and your mind goes blank. You simply don’t know the answer to the question, and any attempt to fake it will only make you look worse.
No matter how many hours you spend preparing for the job interview, you run the risk of being confronted with a question that you genuinely don’t know how to answer. In fact, it's more likely than not that this will happen at some point. To avoid being so stumped by an interview question that you can barely eke out a half-baked response to, spend a little time beforehand preparing a few “fail-safe” answers that will lessen the impact of your knowledge gap.
In fact, if you are thoughtful enough in your response to some difficult interview questions, you can even turn a potentially embarrassing situation into an opportunity to showcase your ability to think on your feet, create a positive dialogue out of something that could have been negative, reiterate your interest in the company and highlight your other valuable assets or skills.
If you are preparing for an interview or looking for a job, take a moment to review some of our prepared answers so you can put your best foot forward.
How to Answer Difficult Interview Questions
“I’m not very familiar with that concept, but… “
When you don’t know the answer to difficult interview questions, be honest and admit your lack of familiarity (the worst thing you can do is fake expertise when you really don’t feel comfortable with a subject), but don’t dwell on what you don’t know. Move on quickly by redirecting to an adjacent or related topic you’re more familiar with, and let your interviewer know you’re still able to bring some attractive competencies and skills to the table.
“That’s an interesting question. So that I understand exactly what you’re looking for, do you mind unpacking the question a little more?”
This is a tried and true “fail-safe” response when you don’t quite know how to answer a question. It’s very likely that by simply asking the interviewer to rephrase the question or explain it in more detail, he or she will end up touching on a topic that you would feel more comfortable speaking about. Listen for any area that you can latch on to and address, focusing your answer on that rather than the part of the question that you’re less confident answering. If you still can’t answer the question after they rephrase it, consider the following response…
“I’m so glad you asked about this. I have been wanting to learn more about it…”
This response is an excellent way to show that you’re not afraid of “not knowing.” Instead of appearing to shy away from a question that could make you uncomfortable because you don’t know how to respond, start off with a strong and enthusiastic, “I’m so glad you asked about that!” You’ll immediately set the tone for more positive dialogue and perception of your professionalism, even though you’re about to admit a skills gap.
Follow up these difficult interview questions by emphasizing how eager you have been to learn more about the topic you were asked about, and detail any plans you have for closing your skills gap. You can even go one step further here, turning the question around to the interviewer by asking what, if any, support they can offer to train you in this new area. Now, you’ve created a real back-and-forth that’s focused more on your professional growth with their company, rather than just a one-sided answer from you that identifies where your experience falls short.
“I haven’t had much exposure to that with my previous employer. In fact, one of the reasons I’m looking for a new opportunity is to expand my knowledge around…”
Reference your previous employer(s) here by explaining that a lack of professional development, support or training is integral to your new job search. Then, you can talk about the benefits of joining this potential new employer, showcasing your knowledge of the company and that you’ve done your homework, and why you’re so excited to join their team and get the support that you have been craving in past positions.
This response really is an interview "home run," because with one concise answer, you’re being honest about your capabilities and the skills you need to learn, and you’re explaining in more detail why you’re leaving your current position and seeking out this new employer. You can also convey enthusiasm about joining this new employer and highlight all of the benefits, resources or support they offer that you’re finally looking forward to being able to take advantage of.
“One of my strengths is being able to identify the best resources and leverage the company’s assets when we need it the most…”
This might not seem like such an obvious answer when responding to the difficult interview questions, but by letting the interviewer know you have the ability to find the right help from the right people or departments when you need it, you’re presenting yourself as a collaborator and someone who knows how to get things done even when faced with challenges or a skills gap. It's O.K. to not know everything 100% of the time (who does?), so from an employer's perspective, they want to onboard team members who know how to seek out the best people, departments, agencies, and resources when they need help so they can get the job done.