What to Do If You Can't Answer a Job Interview Question
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Interviewing Pains: What to Do When You're Stumped by a Question

Want more interview advice? We've got a roundup right here.

Here’s some good news, straight from the mouth of a recruiter: no hiring manager expects a perfect candidate.

And guess what? Most interview questions don’t necessarily have “good” or “bad” answers, either. 

What it really comes down to is psychology. By watching an interviewee handle a complex, difficult, or unclear question, interviewers get to see how she works through real life ambiguity. So don’t fret if you don’t know—it’s all part of the process. The best candidates simply know how to lean into the discomfort.

Here are a few ways to handle the most common interview predicaments:

IF IT'S ABOUT A SKILL, TOOL, OR INDUSTRY METHODOLOGY YOU HAVE ZERO EXPERIENCE USING 

Basecamp. Agile Meetings. Slack. Every company does things differently so it’s entirely possible that you’re the perfect candidate for the job even if you’ve never worked with their particular software or tool before. These are things you can learn. 

So first and foremost, be honest! Faking your way through a question by suggesting you’re an expert in the area will only come back to haunt you. {click to tweet} Instead, a perfectly professional “I’ve never used it” response uses the following formula: 

  1. Admit that in your current role, you’ve not had the chance to use the tool (or methodology) in question
  2. Express how much you’d like to add this skill to your toolbox...
  3. ...And that you’re happy to study it on your own time to prepare for the new role
  4. Mention any relevant skills you do have that are similar or could assist you in acquiring the new skill
  5. Finish with a question to carry the interview forward (and away from your lack of experience). Think: How long would it likely take to get up to speed in the area? How often are you using ____? How often would this role need to interact with ____?

Transparency helps ensure you and the hiring team are on the same page, but it also demonstrates your desire to do whatever it takes to improve your proficiency and land the job. By answering this way, you’ve turned a difficult question into proof that you’re a self-starter and a go-getter.

If the question presents a difficult problem, of course you need some time to solve it. 

IF YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THE QUESTION, PERIOD

Don’t panic. Feel free to ask the interviewer to rephrase or repeat the question. Spoiler alert: Interviewers are only human. They can range in terms of their preparedness, precision, and aptitude. Plus, there’s a lot of pressure meeting a new person—chances are they’re slightly nervous, too. Both parties can sometimes use a little clarity. 

Your response question can range from a generic, “I’m sorry, I don’t quite understand the question, could you rephrase it?” or “I understand your question, but where would you like me to start?” to a specific clarification about a portion of the question you do not understand. You can also rephrase the question in your own words, “So, what you’re saying is ____, is that correct?”

Answer the question to the best of your ability, taking the opportunity to add in any valuable information about your background or strengths along the way. And if all else fails: redirect. By shifting attention to your applicable, value-add experiences, you’ll demonstrate dexterity in highlighting the positives at a moment of uncertainty (a great customer- or client-friendly skill, don’t you think?). At the end of your response, feel free to close with, “Does that answer your original question?”

IF YOU JUST NEED SOME TIME TO THINK

If you need a moment to think, take it. {click to tweet} An effective way to express your need for space is, “That’s a great question. Let me just take a moment to gather my thoughts.” 

Pause, breathe, and organize. This is a better strategy than spouting off a superficial filler response while you process the real meat of the question. The interviewer will appreciate your thoughtfulness. It’s especially useful for some of the unique questions popular with some companies lately. If the question presents a difficult problem, of course, you need some time to solve it. 

IF YOU REALLY, REALLY DON’T KNOW

Getting stumped on a question can feel awkward, but don’t focus too much on an answer you feel less than confident about. Give the best answer you can, then admit you need more time. Move forward, keep the conversation going, and pocket the question for further investigation after the interview is over. And this is where the major bonus points come in: when you follow up with the interviewer in your thank you email, include your thought-out, refined, 2.0 answer to the question you stumbled on. Proof positive that you're passionate about landing the job.

Nervous about your upcoming interview? We've got someone for that. Use our new Hire a Mentor service to work one-on-one with an expert on how to prepare for those dreaded questions.