Interviews

What To Do When You Don’t Know How to Answer an Interview Question

It’s the moment every candidate dreads. No matter how much you prepare, there’s always that one question you aren’t ready for. It may be something you just forgot to consider or a really unusual question, like, “What would you do if you were a pencil in a blender?” This list gives you the dos and don’ts for handling this tough moment with grace.

Do:

Pause. Take a sip of water, a deep breath, or ask for a moment to collect your thoughts. Many interviewers will appreciate you taking a moment to compose a thoughtful answer rather than rushing through a hollow answer. Then, reflect on your job history – even a less-than-exciting moment may be relevant. If nothing springs to mind, consider non-work situations – volunteer work, professional associations, college activities, or even social clubs.

Ask a follow-up question. For example, if they want to hear about a time you had a tough client, and you’ve been fortunate enough to never have one, tell the truth, and ask if they’d be interested in hearing how you handled a tough business partner or less than helpful vendor.

Use the power of the pen. Jot down the question to call out key phrases, or write out a few ideas to collect your thoughts. To prevent awkwardness, make sure to tell the interviewer what you’re doing.

Be honest. It’s OK to admit you don’t have an answer. Instead, ask a clarifying question. For example, “I admit, I’m struggling to answer that question. Are you interested specifically in how I repaired a work relationship or how I establish strong relationships?” If all else fails, share how you would react if you were faced with that scenario.

Don’t:

Make something up. It can look worse if you stumble or get caught in a lie. Most seasoned hiring managers can tell when someone isn’t telling the truth and you never know when one may ask a follow-up question that you can’t answer.

Say, “I don’t know.” While it’s certainly best to be honest, you’ll want to offer something beyond candor to demonstrate you are able to address the question. In addition, you don’t want to give the misguided impression that your work experience has been narrow or that you didn’t prep enough.

Fear silence. You are not being judged on how fast you can answer questions.  It can even work in your favor to show your comfort in an uncomfortable situation. If you’re worried that your silence is carrying on for too long, share the thought process that’s driving your answer. For example, “I’m considering which experience I can best relate to this question.”

Use fillers. Adding “ums” and “uhs” makes you appear less professional and polished. To avoid this, slow down as you speak, even though it feels torturous. Bonus – this allows your brain time to gather your thoughts.  

Devon Miller, Talent Branding and Recruitment Marketing at Vanguard, is a writer specializing in branding and marketing topics that create authenticity and engagement via social media channels. Vanguard is one of the world’s largest investment companies, offering a large selection of high-quality low-cost mutual funds, ETFs, advice, and related services. 

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