What to do When You Don't Know the Answer to a Job Interview Question

Published: Jun 19, 2018

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It’s one of the most dreaded, even if quite common, moments in the job interview. The interviewer asks a question and your mind goes blank. You flat-out, 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, 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 and knowledge about the company, and highlight your other valuable assets or skills.

“I’m not very familiar with that concept, but… “

When you don’t know the answer to an interview question, 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 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 (or an aspect of the topic) that you would feel more comfortable speaking to. 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 and am planning on…”

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 a more positive dialogue and perception of your professionalism, even though you’re about to admit a skills gap.

Follow this up 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 might give along the way in helping 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, growth 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 in one concise answer 1) you’re being honest about your capabilities and the skills you need to learn 2) you’re explaining in more detail why you’re leaving your current position and seeking out this new employer and 3) you're conveying enthusiasm about joining this new employer and highlighting 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 at first when responding to a tough interview question, 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, a problem-solver, and someone who knows how to get things done even when faced with challenges or a skills gap (which everyone is at some point in their career). It's ok 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. 

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