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Friday Forum – What To Do If I Don’t Know the Answer During an Interview?

Welcome to the Friday Forum!

Every Friday we take a question submitted by one of our users and have our professionals field it and provide advice.  We then encourage members of the Need a New Gig community to comment below and give their take!

Here is This Week’s Question:

Kelly asks:

“I had an interview this week and it was going great until I was asked a question that I didn’t know the answer to.  I tried my best to come up with something, but I was all over the place and didn’t really answer the question.  I received an email yesterday that they are passing on me and I am guessing it is probably because of how I handled that question.  Honestly, I was very prepared for the interview and that one question really derailed me.  What is the appropriate way to handle a question that you don’t know the answer to without ruining your chances of landing the position?”

As you know, there is never one set of rules when it comes to interviews.  Every employer is different and they may ask different questions in different ways for different reasons.  Interviewers aren’t always expecting a correct answer to all of their questions as they may be looking to see how you respond.  Sometimes they ask difficult questions to get a better sense of your problem solving skills.  With that being said it is important to understand how to read the situation and respond appropriately.

Prepare and Stay Calm

First and foremost it is important to be prepared for your interview.  This may sound silly and I have touched on this before many times in the past, but it is so important.  If you are well prepared for your interview you will not only have a better chance of answering majority of the interviewer’s questions, but you will also be more comfortable.

Be sure to research the company and review the responsibilities/expectations of the position.  This information will give you some great talking points that may assist during a tough question.  I also recommend practice.  Have a friend or family member conduct a “mock” interview.  If you practice answering the questions that you know the answers to, it will make it a little easier when that hard question is asked.

Finally, stay calm.  Once you are asked something you are unsure of your nerves will be off the charts.  Take a deep breath and try your best to think through the question, read the interviewer and give your answer.

Be Honest

In some cases being honest and informing the interviewer that you don’t know is actually the recommended route.  This may sound crazy because when interviewing for a job you want to have all of the right answers and land the position!  The thing to remember is that if you try to answer the question without actually knowing the answer it could hurt your chances more than just being honest.  We never recommend making stuff up or acting like you know the answer if you do not.  Interviewer’s can see right through that and if they question your integrity you will not get the job.

It is important to remember that you have to be careful with your delivery and you don’t want to tell them you don’t know right off the bat.  Initially you should mull over the question and think through it.  Sometimes after taking a second to think about it something may come to mind that is what they are looking for.

If you are still unsure you can also ask the interviewer to repeat the question.  There is a chance that you may know the answer, but you just misunderstood when they asked.  They may even reword the question or give you more clarification that can help you understand what they are looking for.

If they repeat the question and you still have no idea it is best to be honest and let them know.  Check out the next few suggestions as they will help you give an honest answer and tie it in with your experience, work ethic, and follow up.

Make a Connection

Relating the question to your past experience is another option when it comes to answering something you are unsure of.  You may not be able to speak directly to a certain skill, but you might be able to find commonalities that can carry over.

For Example: “How do you recruit for engineering professionals?”

Your response can be:  “I haven’t had any experience recruiting for engineering professionals, however I have done heavy IT recruitment which has a lot of similarities.  They are very intricate positions and I believe that my my recruiting methods and experience would carry over nicely to the engineering industry.”

You can also reiterate your interest by letting the interviewer know that you are excited to learn a new area and expand your knowledge.

Find the Answer

Another option is to explain how you would find the answer.  Interviewers will ask questions to understand your thought process and problem solving skills.  Sometimes your problem solving skills may be even more important then the actual answer itself.  They may be looking to see if you take the easy way out and just say you don’t know or if you show the initiative and drive to figure it out.

For example: “What was your turnover ratio while you supervised hiring?”

Your response could be: “I’m not sure what our exact ratio was, but we only had 5 individuals leave during my 3 year tenure.  I could look at our number of separations over the past 12 months versus our total employee count to get you an exact figure if you’d like.”

Follow Up

If you didn’t have any luck making a connection and had to give the honest answer you still may have one more shot.  Make a mental note of the question that was asked that you didn’t know.  Once you are home and have a clear mind think through the question, do some research and come up with your answer.  When you send your thank you note to the interviewer include the question and your answer.

For Example: “During out meeting you asked me about cutting down on turnover. After more time and thought, I came up with a few solid solutions.” 



In conclusion, try to answer the question as best you can.  If you don’t know the answer and can’t make any connections to your experience, be honest and let them know. Don’t dance around the question or make things up because it will only hurt your chances at landing the position.

Keep in mind that interviewers aren’t expecting you to have every answer.  Their goal is to find out as much as they can about your background, experience, personality, work style, etc.  You may be worried about not knowing the answer to a question and it may not even be a concern for them!

What are Your Thoughts? Comment Below!

Dan Metz is the Director of Executive Search and Employee Development at the Resilience Group, LLC, and Co-Founder and Contributing Author for Need a New Gig.  Follow his blog for more great tips like this!

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