What to do if you can’t answer a question in a job interview

July 3, 2018

We’ve all been there. You landed the interview and then you are asked a question that you did not expect. Hiring managers ask questions to get to know the way you think. By watching an interviewee handle a complex, difficult, or unclear question, interviewers get to see how she/he works through real life situations. In order to be the best candidate, you need to know how to think strategically and on your feet.

Here are three common interview question scenarios and how to work through them.

If you don’t understand the question: Ask the interviewer to rephrase or repeat the question. 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 skill in highlighting the positives at a moment of uncertainty.

If it’s about a skill or tool you have no experience with: Every company does things differently and not every candidate for the job will have exposure to every single tool or skill needed for the job position. So firstly, be honest. Don’t fake your way through a question by suggesting you’re an expert in the area; that will only come back and haunt you. Instead, try a perfectly professional “I’ve never used it” reply paired with the following response:

  • Admit that in your current role you’ve not had the chance to use the tool but express how much you would like to learn and develop experience with it. Even offering to study about it more in your own time to prepare for the role can show you are a self-starter and a go-getter.
  • Reiterate the relevant skills you do have that are similar or could leverage you in acquiring the new skill.
  • Finish with a question to carry the interview forward (and away from the lack of experience). Transparency helps ensure you and the interviewer are on the same page, but it also demonstrates your desire to do whatever it takes to improve your proficiency to land the job.

If you really don’t know: Give the best answer you can, then move forward. Keep the conversation going and pocket the question for further investigation after the interview is over. If you get a chance to send a follow up email or get to meet with the hiring manager include your thought-out and refined answer to the question you stumbled on.

Brynne Thurston, Recruitment Associate