In many workplace situations, saying “I don’t know” does not really sound good. It can make you come across as unprepared, inexperienced, or unprofessional, especially during a job interview.
So we asked experts what to say instead of “I don’t know” in an interview.
Here are their insights:
Table of Contents
- Don’t say, “That’s a good question”
- Don’t start rambling
- Don’t fill the silence with fillers
- Don’t lie
- Be authentic
- Clarify the question
- Ask for time
- Mind your nonverbals
- Let the interviewer see your train of thought and overall approach
- Maintain composure and share what you know instead
- Clarify the industry-specific terms that you are not familiar with
- Ascertain whether you really don’t know the answer, or if the question is unclear
- Assuming that you really don’t know the answer, be truthful
- Take a breath
- Rather than say “I don’t know” or make something up, ask a question in return
- Tell your interviewer what you do know
- Tell them how you would problem solve, or find the answer
- Follow up with the answer after the interview
- Be thoughtful in your responses
- Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions
- The response would vary by the question that was presented
- Request for a specific time to get back to them for an answer
- Buy yourself sometime to gather your thoughts
- Try to buy a little time
- Never try to wing it and create an answer that isn’t truthful or honest
- Find a relatable topic to the question
- Ask for extra time to think
- Show them you’re willing to learn
- If there’s only one possible answer and you don’t happen to know it, don’t try to invent
- Seize an “I don’t know” moment as an opportunity to ask questions
- Describe the steps you would take to know the answer
- Start by acknowledging that it is a great question and that you will answer it to the best of your ability
- Don’t let it rattle you
- Ask for more time
- Please don’t start looking at your phone for the answer
- You’ll need to pivot into talking about the things you do know
- Demonstrate your thought process by asking clarifying questions
- Maintain composure and confidence
- Restate the question in a similar manner
- Display a self-starter attitude
- Respond with what you would do
- Pivot the unanswered question into displaying a strength or positive quality
- Ask the interviewer for a few moments to think of an answer
- Be honest that you don’t know but make your best attempt
- Tell the interviewer what you do know about the topic and express your willingness to learn further
- Be honest yet proactive
- Walk through the question out loud
- Cite parallel situations in the past in which you did something similar
- “I’m not sure but…”
- “That’s exactly what I want to know”
- “For all, I know”
- Answer with an anecdote concluded with what you learned
- Walk through your thought process
Distinguished University Lecturer of Career Development, The University of Toledo (College of Business and Innovation)
There are times when “I don’t know” is a legitimate response to a question. If someone asks you, “What are the four concepts of calculus?” when you barely made it through geometry, “I don’t know” is a pretty honest answer.
But, if you are asked, “Why did you take the car, stay out past curfew, and turn off the location tracker on your phone?” and come back with “I don’t know,” that’s a full-on lie that required calculated risk.
In a job interview, there are times when the interviewee may be in a position where they don’t know how to respond to a question, so “I don’t know” is a tempting response.
Depending on the circumstance, the way you handle the question is more at stake than the correctness of the answer.
Consider these dont’s:
Don’t say, “That’s a good question”
Of course, it is, that’s why the recruiter asked it. Rather than feel the need to respond quickly, maintain eye contact, and begin thinking about a response.
Don’t start rambling
Stress and fear are going to be part of every interview. There’s nothing like a good dose of nerves to launch a string of senseless phrases that will result in forgetting the initial question.
Don’t fill the silence with fillers
Fillers are “ums”, “uhs”, “likes”, and “you-knows”. You’re allowed to take time to consider your options, think, and deliver a well-reasoned response.
End of sentence and interview. Like your parents, recruiters always find out.
Related: What Not to Say in a Job Interview
Consider these do’s:
When first asked a question, you simply may not have an answer. Admitting you have not confronted a situation is not a sign of weakness.
It is an opportunity to promote your strengths, though. If given the latitude by the interviewer, you can respond,
“While I’ve never confronted that situation before, I am confident in my ability to collect facts, weigh options, and implement a solution that considers the best outcome for all involved.”
Clarify the question
If you find yourself questioning what the recruiter is after, do yourself and the recruiter a favor by asking for clarification or if perhaps they can reword the question.
You don’t want to go down the wrong path if you can avoid it. They will value your thoughtfulness and intention versus just providing some answers.
Ask for time
Rather than cutting yourself off at the knees and saying, “I don’t know,” when you actually might, could indicate that you lack perseverance, tenacity, or diligence.
Better to say, “That question and you deserve a cohesive response. May we come back to it in a bit?”
Chances are, you might not get back to that question, or if you do, you’ll have had time to respond to some others that may fuel your ideas for the stumper.
Mind your nonverbals
Our expressions and body language speak louder than our words when we feel challenged.
Revealing your discomfort with a “deer in the headlights” expression, darting eyes, or shifting in your seat will leave them questioning your ability to maintain composure and professionalism, not just in the interview, but in the future interactions with clients.
Related: Why is Body Language Important?
Ron Auerbach, MBA
Educator | Career Coach | Job Search Expert | Author, Think Like an Interviewer: Your Job Hunting Guide to Success
A lot of it has to do with context. In other words, there’s no single answer because it depends upon the situation.
For instance, if you are given a scenario and don’t know exactly how to handle it because you lack first or second-hand experience, then use your best judgment to provide how you believe you might react.
Let the interviewer see your train of thought and overall approach
So although you haven’t personally been in or faced that situation, you could still talk about how you might react if faced with that scenario. You can also highlight your knowledge of a scenario like that actually occurring on the job if it seems plausible.
This way, the interviewer will see you have a pretty good sense of what someone in that role might encounter. So use your own professional judgment, schooling if you have any, and/or outside research you’ve done to answer it.
For example, you read or saw something about that situation or something very similar. Mention it and use it to help formulate how you might approach things.
Let’s now suppose you were asked a question like, “Where do you see yourself in 3 years?” Instead of saying, you don’t know, what you need to do is provide a clear vision of your future.
So it’s very important the interviewer sees that you’ve given your future, immediate and more distant, some thought. And more importantly, that you’ve thought about how you’d get there.
So your answer needs to show you have a clear sense of where you’d like to be. That could be seeing yourself in a particular role. Or it could be envisioning yourself having a certain level of responsibility.
What if an interviewer asks you, “Do you have any questions for me?” Saying you don’t know will not remotely impress and make you look good! Neither will be answering with a no.
So you must ask at least a few questions after the interview because interviews cannot possibly answer everything.
One very helpful strategy I like to recommend for those who really don’t have any idea what to ask or for when you get very nervous is this. Repeat something that was said during the interview and ask for confirmation. In other words, you want to verify that you have it correct.
Double-checking the facts is a good thing in business! You can also ask what the next step in the process would be. And when you can expect to hear back from them.
Suppose an interviewer asked if you’d be willing to learn something on your own or be put through training. Responding with your not knowing is not good.
Training and learning are things that are part of one’s employment. So there may come a point where you need to go through training or need to pick something up on your own.
It’s important an interviewer see you’re open to this and find with it! Those who aren’t willing to be trained or learn will stagnate and be left behind. Those willing to do these will grow and advance!
When faced with questions in an interview that you’re not sure how to answer, the most important thing is to maintain your composure and share what you do know.
In order to give yourself some time to think about the question, you can say, “That’s a good question. Give me a moment to think about it.”
If the question relates to an area of your profession that doesn’t have a definitive answer, you can share information on what you DO know.
For example, you could say something like, “Some people believe x and there are also those who believe y. In my experience, this is what I’ve seen.”
Clarify the industry-specific terms that you are not familiar with
If you’re faced with the interviewer using vernacular or acronyms that you’re not familiar with, ask them what before it stands for.
There is often industry- or company-specific lingo that people will use without realizing that it’s not a common term outside their company or industry.
It absolutely okay to say, “I want to make sure I understand you before answering your question… In your company, what does “XYZ” stand for?”
Laurie D. Battaglia, MSOD, PCC
CEO, Aligned at Work®
Ascertain whether you really don’t know the answer, or if the question is unclear
Explore this by asking, “Can you tell me a little bit more about what you’d like to know? I’m not sure I’m clear.” And then listen carefully, take notes to remind yourself of what they are asking, and breathe.
Many times, in an interview, our brain races ahead and we either misinterpret what is being asked or said, or we miss it entirely.
It’s OK to ask for clarification and to pause and think. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get you restarted and you answer the question successfully.
Assuming that you really don’t know the answer, be truthful
Say something like, “That’s a really good question. I’m not sure I know the answer to that, but I’ll give it some thought. Could we move on to the next question?” Again, take notes and breathe, it’s not the end of the world.
Executive Recruiter | Director, Path to Promotion
It’s important not to make up any information or give any data that is not accurate in an interview.
If you are asked a question and you don’t understand what they are looking for, or don’t know the answer – the best way to respond is to ask a question in return or reframe the question.
I recommend the following five steps:
Take a breath
It’s very important to keep calm in an interview and in order to stop yourself from getting flustered, taking the time to take a break and a breath makes a huge difference.
If you start to panic, your body will start to react physiologically. You don’t want your body to start the fight or flight response where your heart starts to race, and your blood starts to flood to your extremities.
Once you move into a stress response, it will be harder for you to think clearly and focus on other questions.
Rather than say “I don’t know” or make something up, ask a question in return
This will achieve two things, it will give you extra time to think and it will let the interviewer know that you can demonstrate effective listening. For example, you might say “What I think you are asking is XYZ, is that correct?”
Asking for clarification or going deeper into the question to see if you can get more details will assist you in framing your answer.
Tell your interviewer what you do know
Outline what you do know of the situation or project that they are asking about. Highlight your contribution using the STAR response method. This is, outline the Situation, your Task, the Actions that you took, and the Result.
Tell them how you would problem solve, or find the answer
“Although I don’t have the exact details of X, here is how I would go about finding that information…..”
Outlining the steps that you would take to find the answer will demonstrate your thought processes and how you would take the initiative. Being honest and upfront is so important in an interview.
Follow up with the answer after the interview
Following up with an email where you outline the correct answer after the interview will show that you are diligent and that you follow through on things.
Contributing Author, Forbes Communications Council
Many, many former members of the workforce are now, sadly, job seekers, thanks to the negative impacts of this pandemic on the global economy.
That said, it’s important these job seekers, especially less experienced ones who may be uncomfortable in an interview setting, remember that an interview is not a game or unless it’s actually an assessment portion of the process, a test.
While it’s possible you’ll be engaging with some sub-par recruiters or an organization with bad hiring practices that treat it as such, you can’t worry about that and can only control your own approach to the interview process – and, if that’s how they handle hiring, odds are you’re better off not working there (honestly).
Instead, interviews are a two-way conversation, where the candidate is learning more about what types of experience the organization is looking for and what the job opportunity is like, and the hiring team is learning more about your fit for the position and ability to have a positive impact on the company’s bottom line.
Therefore, you should approach it as just that – a conversation, which means “I don’t know” isn’t necessarily a wrong answer…as long as it’s just your starting point.
In my many years in the talent acquisition space, there were a few reoccurring constants, one of them being, somewhat paradoxically, few recruiters, hiring managers, or potential colleagues/bosses, want to hire someone who has a perfect answer for every question posed.
At best, you come off as overly practiced which, while not inherently bad, means you aren’t having a true conversation and the recruiter isn’t getting to know how you would really be on the job. At worst, you come off as a know-it-all or, even worse still, a fabricator or liar.
Be thoughtful in your responses
Rather, it’s important to be thoughtful in all your responses, but especially those you don’t have an answer for. So while you may not want to use the exact words “I don’t know,” it doesn’t hurt to start with something along the lines of:
“I haven’t had experience with that, but much of my career has been built on learning to handle situations I previously had limited experience with. While I don necessarily have an answer for that…”
Then provide some considered thoughts, or best parallel but still related examples, you may have instead.
In this way, you can use the question you don want to, or can’t, answer as an opportunity to pivot to a topic you do want to discuss – as long as it’s relevant to the role.
Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions
In addition to that approach and in keeping with the fact that, again, this is a conversation, don’t be afraid to ask questions back.
“That’s a good question, and I’m not sure I have an answer for it, but maybe if you could provide me with some understanding of why you’re asking that and perhaps that will help me provide you with a relevant answer?” or something along those lines.
Done politely and genuinely, a good interviewer will be open to these approaches and much prefer it to you simply making something up in order to have an answer or regurgitating a non-applicable, but pre-rehearsed, answer. Truly.
Career Optimization Strategist | Employee Engagement Trainer
The response would vary by the question that was presented
When I think of the times when I may have heard this phrase most, it was mostly in technical interviews or in relation to software or systems.
If there was terminology or software that was used that you’re not familiar with but lends itself closely to a term or topic that you are familiar with you could respond with something such as:
“I am not familiar with that system, is that your organization’s proprietary software and what is it traditionally used for?”
Then consider what programs you have utilized that perform similar tasks and you can respond with “That seems to be closely related to XYZ software which I am extremely familiar with.” (then state the things that you like, how you may have interacted or engaged with it as well as any additional information you would like to share).
When you close out, you can make mention of the fact that you’re aware that many companies utilize their own proprietary software/systems and while you may not be familiar with that system, you’re able to grasp alternative technology quickly.
Request for a specific time to get back to them for an answer
The best thing to do when you don’t know the answer is to say, “I don’t know” and then go one step further and tell your interviewer, “but if you give a day (or an hour or a minute depending on the complexity of the question), I’ll get back to you with an answer.”
This signals to the interviewer two things:
- You’re not afraid to admit you don’t know something, even when you have the chance to make up something to save yourself from looking bad.
- That you’re the type of person who won’t be satisfied with not knowing, and that you’ll actively search for the answer until you find it.
The key to making this work, of course, is getting back to the interviewer with an answer! Don’t say that you’ll get back to them if you don’t intend to.
But doing so, even if it means calling them the next day, will leave a memorable impression and they’ll associate you with an honest person who follows through.
Sara Jane McDonald
Director of Talent Acquisition for North America, Lionbridge
When you don’t know the answer to an interview question, it can really derail the conversation’s momentum. Even if you don’t know the answer, it’s how you react and respond that matters.
Buy yourself sometime to gather your thoughts
If you’re given a situational question you’re not sure of, for example, you could say something like “Would you mind repeating that? I want to make sure I understand.”
If you still are truly at a loss, be honest and say something like “That is a tough question and to be honest with you I haven’t been in that situation before.”
Instead, try comparing the question of how you worked through a similar situation. Remember it’s ok to show humility, and demonstrate with your answer that you would lean on others for guidance and expertise to grow your knowledge base.
Head of Growth & Marketing, AdQuick
After being on both sides of the desk during an interview, there are some actionable tips that rise to the surface when trying to avoid a simple “I don’t know,” without appearing to skirt the question.
Try to buy a little time
The first thing that needs to happen is to buy a little time, and the best way to do that is by saying, “That’s a great question!”
Those few seconds can help you organize your thoughts and provide a better answer. We can’t all be expected to know the perfect answer to everything, but what can be most convincing is to always answer in confidence, no matter what your response may be.
Never try to wing it and create an answer that isn’t truthful or honest
An interviewer will see right through any hesitation that you may have. If you’re hinging on almost answering with an “I don’t know,” instead say, “I haven’t encountered that situation, but I think well under pressure and would assuredly meet any challenges with determination.”
Sales and Operations Strategist, People Managing People
Find a relatable topic to the question
For example, let’s say your interviewer for a marketing position asks you how familiar you are with Google Analytics. Instead of drawing a blank face and saying, I know nothing about it, think of related things you do know.
For example, you may have used Insights on Instagram to see the demographics of your viewers or something like that.
Ask for extra time to think
If you get a question that throws you for a loop, it’s acceptable to say, “give me a moment, please,” while you think of an answer.
Be careful not to take up too much of their time, however, as you may come across as inconsiderate or clueless.
Show them you’re willing to learn
If all else fails and you can’t think of anything to say—try something like, “honestly, I haven’t dealt with that before, but I would love to learn.”
If there’s time, ask them to quickly explain it to you, if not, you can follow up and ask about it at a later stage.
Chief Marketing and Sales Officer, ServGrow
There is nothing wrong with the fact that you do not know the answer to some questions.
The ability to admit that you do not know something is precious. You need to distinguish the questions by checking your knowledge and way of thinking.
If there’s only one possible answer and you don’t happen to know it, don’t try to invent
This approach will show your future employer that in real-life situations, you won’t make costly mistakes trying to hide your knowledge gaps.
Sometimes, interviewers ask hard questions because they want to see how you can take the initiative and come up with a creative solution, instead of asking someone to help you.
So you can tell the interviewer the steps you would take to figure out the problem and find the answer to demonstrate your thought process.
Professional Coach | Managing Director, Queen & Co.
It happens to the best of us, you’re in an interview all is going great and then you get hit with a question that you don’t know how to answer. The natural reflex answer is to honestly say “I don’t know” but I’d rather encourage you to try something different.
“I don’t know” is a limiting statement and is an interview killer. An interview, although seemingly one-sided, is actually a participatory engagement for both sides if done right.
Seize an “I don’t know” moment as an opportunity to ask questions
Learn more about the circumstances around the question, clarify what authority you’ll have.
It’s normal to not know the answer to every question, some questions are role and/or company-specific. Some questions shouldn’t have a specific answer until you better know the responsibilities within your role.
An employer wants to know that you are resourceful and willing to learn, as well, that you won’t overstep your responsibilities. A better answer than “I don’t know” would be to say alternatives like:
“I haven’t firsthand experienced this and would rather familiarize myself with your policies and procedures before answering” or “I would like to know more about my role and daily responsibilities, I’m not sure how to best answer this without having that understanding.”
It is more important for you to relay your curiosity and interest to learn company specific protocol.
One of the biggest misconceptions about leaving a good impression on a hiring manager in an interview is that knowledge is what is going to get the applicant the job.
This is the Information Age, not the Industrial Age, so gone are the days of looking up facts in a World Book or Encyclopedia Britannica.
Describe the steps you would take to know the answer
Therefore the most qualified candidate isn’t the one who knows the most but rather is the most agile problem solver. And not knowing the answer to a question is an opportunity to solve a problem.
If an interviewer was to ask you a question that you don’t know the answer to, simply acknowledge that you don’t have that information on hand but describe the steps you would take to find it and offer to follow up with a response if that would be of value.
If they take you up on that, then, of course, that’s a great opportunity to show your ability to follow through. But if they suggest that it’s not really important, you’ve still used this exchange to demonstrate that you are transparent, proactive, and present.
These are qualities that are remarkably rare in the American workforce, and a savvy hiring manager will see how exceptional you are in comparison.
Co-Founder, Undergrads Moving
Honesty is always the best policy when it comes to admitting there are things that you do not know during an interview.
While it is good to be transparent about your skills, there are ways to communicate that you are lacking knowledge somewhere, while still proving your value and expertise.
Start by acknowledging that it is a great question and that you will answer it to the best of your ability
Talk about what you know surrounding the context of the question and then close your comments by noting that you aren’t as skilled or knowledgable in that specific area but that you hope you’ve effectively answered their question.
If you truly aren’t able to answer the question at all, just be straightforward and say, “I’ll be entirely honest, that question falls a bit outside of my expertise”.
CEO and Founder, Transcription Outsourcing, LLC
While saying “I don’t know” in an interview can seem bad initially. If you say it the right way and follow up with something like “can I get back to you with the answer” or asking the interviewer if you can come back to the question later will minimize you not knowing the answer.
Don’t let it rattle you
Don’t let it rattle you though either, it happens all the time in interviews. Do your best to roll with it and be prepared to have this happen to you. With a little practice in the mirror or with a friend, you can easily pull it off with grace and poise.
Ask for more time
Practice saying something like “I’m sorry I can’t think of an answer to your question right now, can we come back to this a little bit later.” That way you can have more time to think about it while the interview is allowed to keep moving along.
Please don’t start looking at your phone for the answer
One thing I want to make sure an interviewee does not do when they don’t know the answer to a specific question is to grab their phone. This is not a good look and will make you look nervous and way too reliant on something or someone other than yourself for answers.
You want to be seen by your interviewer as someone who can roll with the punches and keep going regardless of what happens to you.
Be self-reliant and use your own moxy and gumption to get through things without needing someone else’s help every time you get stumped and the interviewer will take notice.
Trust me that we can tell when someone is good on their feet when we ask them questions they may not have been ready for.
President, Executive Search
Not knowing the specific answer can be fatal obviously if the question is very much related to job performance. For example, you can’t fake it if you can’t read a balance sheet when you’re applying for the job of a controller.
However, most interviewers are really trying to determine your overall ability to fit into their team framework.
You’ll need to pivot into talking about the things you do know
Take the opportunity to demonstrate your ability to think on your feet. Ask more questions. Build on the flow of the conversation so you can expand into territory that is more familiar.
You can turn your lack of specifics into an example of how you are a creative problem solver. This is a time to show that you can think outside the box.
Make the point that you like to collaborate with others and value the strengths that come from working as a team member.
Demonstrate your thought process by asking clarifying questions
If you get a question that you don’t know the answer to, realize that beyond having the perfect answer, you can also demonstrate your thought process and how you think.
This is similar to getting a brainteaser question on a scenario that would never happen – a company like Google just wants to see what your thought process is, not whether you can actually get to the answer.
You can demonstrate your skill by asking clarifying questions, as well as stating what your assumptions are and confirming that those are correct. And then you can think aloud in terms of the steps that you’re taking to answer the question.
Also, if you’re completely stumped, rather than ending with “I don’t know”, you could ask for a hint.
Maintain composure and confidence
Finally, showing confidence and not getting completely flustered will go a long way too. Some interviewers want to see how you handle pressure and being put on the spot, so it’s important to show them what you’re made of!
Restate the question in a similar manner
When asked a question where an immediate answer is not readily available, I always suggest slowly saying “That is a really good question.” The person might follow that by restating the question in a similar manner but changing the question and then providing the answer to his or her question rather than the original question asked.
The ability to restate the question and then answer the restated question instead of the one asked is an art and the person needs to be practiced at doing this in order to pull it off effectively.
When asked to describe an experience where a person might not have specifics, it is best to deflect by describing his or her experience in general terms without specifics.
Use intangible attributes (such as character, honesty, dedication, selflessness, etc) to tie an unrelated experience to the situation about which the interviewer asked.
Display a self-starter attitude
As both an entrepreneur working with various organizations and the CEO of a mental health telehealth platform, I’ve interacted with a lot of people interested in working with my companies. And with all of these people comes the need for asking each of them a lot of questions.
This is even more important because I work fully remotely. This is what makes the hiring and interviewing process so important, though — we need to know we’re hiring self-starters who can take initiative and work effectively on their own without much direct supervision.
So, interview answers become a little more nuanced if not also more important when I’m vetting people. I don’t always expect every candidate to know the answer to every question I ask, but I would like to know that they have a positive attitude about tackling the job.
Instead of saying “I don’t know,” a great pivot is, “I’d love to figure that out!” Some variation of “I’m sure I could find the answer” would show they’re willing to admit a lack of a definitive answer while displaying a self-starter attitude toward tackling problems — two great qualities in an applicant.
This shows that they aren’t necessarily going to make up an answer if they don’t have one, but that they have a willingness to dissect and fix problems.
And we all know problems are going to arise at some point; I want to know that team members can figure out how to solve the actual problem, not just the problem of not having an answer right now as I’m asking a question (thus defaulting to just making something up).
Lauren Jackson, MPA
Life Coach | Founder, Organize PiNK
When faced with interview questions, use the acronym STAR which stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result.
This is a very quick way to answer most behavioral questions that are commonly asked by recruiters and hiring managers.
Respond with what you would do
In the event you are asked a question and are unable to provide a situation, simply respond with an answer to what you would do.
Interview questions are meant to probe and get a feel for an individual’s personality and also how they might respond or react in certain situations, it provides insight into how well they may get along with the team. 100% do not respond with IDK!!
If you need time to think about the answer let the interviewer know you need a little time to think about the question. If you are still having difficulty, ask to circle back to the question later (and make sure you do, even if the interviewer forgets).
Pivot the unanswered question into displaying a strength or positive quality
Oftentimes, when you don’t know the answer to a question, trying to make up an answer can be a risky move, because if your answer is totally wrong, it can be a bad look.
If you really have no idea, try pivoting the question into talking about the strength of yours, or positive quality.
For example, if an interviewer asks you a tough question, instead of just saying “I don’t know”, you can answer with something like, “I’m not really sure, I haven’t learned that yet – but, I’m so passionate about this position that I’m sure I’ll be able to learn and master it quickly”.
An answer like this takes the attention away from you not being able to answer the question, and pivots the conversation towards showcasing your strengths; in this case, it would be your passion for a position and your ability to learn and master complex skills and concepts quickly.
This is a great way to make up for not knowing an answer, and possibly even leave an even better impression on your interviewer.
Personal Finance Expert | Co-Founder, Investing Simple
The job interview process is no walk in the park. In fact, according to Thrive Global, starting a new job is the fourth most stressful event you will experience in life. This comes as no surprise to many.
In fact, I believe the interview process has a lot to do with the stress. So, let’s consider what for many is a worst-case scenario. You are in the middle of an interview… The interviewer asks you a question and you draw a blank.
The first thing to consider is whether you do not know the answer to the question or if you are simply too nervous to answer the question.
Often times, during an interview our nerves get the best of us. Have you ever drawn a blank at the deli counter, or while speaking to a group of people? Often times, in these stressful situations, our brains become overwhelmed with stress.
So, let’s cover these different scenarios so you are prepared for them!
Ask the interviewer for a few moments to think of an answer
Scenario 1: You know the answer, but you are too nervous or stressed to answer.
If you feel that you do know the answer to the question, but need a moment, you should simply ask the interviewer if you can have a few moments to think about it.
Believe it or not, this strategy can work in your favor sometimes! It may impress the interviewer that you are putting this much thought into the answer.
Another option is to ask them if you can circle back to it later. Answering some easier questions first can help with the interview jitters or nerves.
Here are a few responses to keep in mind!
- Interviewer: “Asks a question.”
- You: “Hmm, I would like to give that some thought. Could I have a moment to think?”
- You: “That is a great question. Do you mind if we circle back to it later? I would like to give it some thought.”
- You: “Sorry, I am a little nervous. Could we start with something else and circle back to that?”
Be honest that you don’t know but make your best attempt
Scenario 2: You don’t know the answer to the question.
If you truly do not know the answer to the question, you should be honest with the interviewer but still, make your best attempt.
Tell them that you are not 100% certain, but would like to give it a shot. The worst thing you can do is beat around the bush by giving a non-answer or tell the interviewer that this is a bad question.
Here are a few responses to consider!
- Interviewer: “Asks a question.”
- You: “I’m not 100% sure of my answer, but I would like to give it my best attempt.”
- You: “I’ll be honest, I don’t know. Can I give it my best guess?”
Remember, the worst thing you can do is beating around the bush and providing a non-answer. I would much rather have someone be upfront and honest with me rather than trying to convince me that they know the answer to an interview question.
Interview jitters are very common, but by preparing ahead of time you can alleviate some of that stress. I hope these tips are helpful if you find yourself stumped during a job interview!
Founder, EpicWin App
When you are stumped during an interview and no idea how to answer an HR question, never say the words “I don’t know”. Instead, turn it into something advantageous.
Tell the interviewer what you do know about the topic and express your willingness to learn further
Sell your characteristics such as your curiosity and your natural thirst for knowledge which all can make up for the things you may not know right now.
More importantly, lay down an actionable plan on how you would proactively overcome this shortcoming.
Founder, SaaS Design
Be honest yet proactive
Even if you don’t know how to answer a specific question in an interview, explain your thought process.
Interviewers know that you won’t always know the answer to every question. In fact, they usually expect it. Knowing that no interview is perfect will help you relax.
Instead of panicking in this scenario, treat it as a unique opportunity and a learning experience — the interviewer will be evaluating your sense of ethics and problem-solving.
It’s always best to be transparent and admit when you don’t know the answer to a question, but you shouldn’t stop there: after that, explain how you’d find the right answer.
Explain your general approach, including how you came to that conclusion, and ask qualifying follow-up questions if you have to.
By explaining your thought process and approach with honesty, the individual who is interviewing you will get special insights into how you solve problems.
They’ll also know that despite the fact that you were uncertain of the answer, you were upfront about it and still showed a genuine interest in solving the problem.
Interviews are aware that candidates may not know the answer to every question, but what they’re paying attention to is your thought process and how you handle uncertainty. Use this as an opportunity to show them how you think about problems.
HR & Brand Strategy Specialist, Good Vibe Designs
It doesn’t matter as much if you don’t know. What matters is why, and what you are going to do about it.
Walk through the question out loud
If an interviewer asks you a question testing your sector- or role-specific knowledge, rather than saying you don’t know, work through the question out loud.
Either, walk the interviewer through the steps you would take to determine the correct answer, or explain your private internal brainstorming process on what you might think the answer could be.
You can tap into your own experience, knowledge, or unique characteristics to show the interviewer how you would tackle a problem in which you truly don’t know the answer, which can add value itself to the interview.
Cite parallel situations in the past in which you did something similar
Outline a time that you were confronted with an unknown variable, and show how you efficiently worked through it to achieve a positive result.
Maybe you exercised humility to ask those around you for help, or thought outside the box and came up with an untraditional solution, or you showed ingenuity in the forward-thinking mindset you applied to the problem.
This approach shows much more than the fact you don’t know the answer. It shows the interviewer why it doesn’t matter that you don’t know because you can and will still execute efficiently to find the solution.
CEO, WebSpero Solutions
“I’m not sure but…”
Don’t make stuff up but also don’t say ‘I don’t know’. Try to relate the question to something you know about the topic.
For example, if you have been asked to solve an equation that you know you cannot solve, then try to respond with ‘I am not sure, but let me try and attempt it’. This will give a message that you are not someone who easily gives you.
“That’s exactly what I want to know”
When an interviewer asks questions like ‘What does your current employer think about you?’ or ‘Did all your clients like your projects?’, then try to answer them with ‘That’s exactly what I want to know’. This shows that answers to such questions are forthcoming.
“For all, I know”
Talk about something related to the topic and show that you are aware of the subject. Instead of ‘I don’t know’, begin with ‘for all, I know’.
This creates an impression that you are keeping an eye on the matter and wish to know more about it.
Founder and Director, noodPR
Answer with an anecdote concluded with what you learned
Instead of “I don’t know,” one should be able to give an anecdote, expose vulnerability and then conclude it with what they learned from the situation.
For instance, when asked “what critical feedback do you most often receive?” an ideal answer would be:
“In the past, I’ve been told that I interrupt others in meetings. I get really enthusiastic about projects I’m working on and absolutely love collaborating with others. Now, I understand the value of active listening and using the plethora of ideas in the room. I’ve formed a new habit of listening actively by taking notes and making myself the last one to contribute in a group setting.”
Public Relations is all about being able to tell a story that is authentic, and positioning the client (or yourself) in a way that behooves the audience to be able to connect with you.
So not only does answering difficult questions in this manner prepare you to ace an interview for any role, it’s preparing you to become a PR superstar!
Being able to answer a question with 1) an anecdote 2) exposure of vulnerability and 3) ending with a learned lesson shows both humility and a willingness to learn.
This is key for any organization looking to bring on new talent to cultivate a healthy work culture.
Jen Oleniczak Brown
Founder, The Engaging Educator
Walk through your thought process
There are two ways you can approach a question that you don’t know the answer to in an interview. You can simply say, “that’s a great question, I’m not sure – and if it came up in a work situation here’s how I would figure out the answer.”
You’re showing that you’re not giving up on the question just because you don’t know at the moment – and you’re admitting that you don’t know!
The other way to approach a question you don’t know – and it’s a question that you might know the answer to, but maybe are blanking on – you can walk through your thought process.
If you narrate your thoughts and logic, and you get to an answer or a point where you’re thinking “ok, here’s the moment I would ask for help” you’re showing reasoning and how you think – which is a valuable tell into your work style.