You’re in the interview. Things are going well. You’re almost to the promised land. And then… it happens. You get the question you can’t answer. A total stumper. What to do?
Luckily, you can rely on the following super useful strategies to pull yourself out of this dreaded situation and exit the interview with your pride and job prospects in tact.
Take a Moment
You may fear nothing more than the sound of silence in an interview situation, but sometimes that silence is your friend. Try a simple, “That’s an excellent question; let me think about that one for a second.” Then compose yourself, dig deep, and try to come up with something good to say. No one will fault you for taking a minute to compose yourself.
Think Out Loud
Half the time, your interviewer asks tough questions because they’re curious to see your problem-solving skills in action. You want to spit out a perfectly worded answer every time, but in these cases it might even be to your advantage to let them see your math, so to speak. Talk through the question as you would the problem. Most times you’ll arrive at the answer and the interviewer will have had the chance to see your mind in action!
There’s no rule that says you can’t just redirect the question. If you’re asked about a skill you don’t have, try to steer the topic onto a skill or skills you do have, and discuss how, when put together, they put you in a prime position to solve the problems the company needs solved. Tell them what you do know as a way of distracting them from what you don’t.
Have a Few Sound Bytes
Say you get asked to define or discuss an industry term you just don’t know. Don’t panic. Turn this moment into an advantage. Simply say: “That’s not a concept I’m completely familiar with yet, but I’m very excited about (field) and have been actively learning more and more about it.” Then pivot to something you’ve just learned that’s relevant to their concerns.
Try rephrasing the question or clarifying that you understand it before answering. That will give you enough time to start thinking through your answer on the sly. It could also be that the question wasn’t clear,. i.e. you know the answer, but you just didn’t quite understand the drift of the question itself. If not, it should go without saying that you shouldn’t lie. Fess up. But don’t say “I don’t know” until you absolutely have to.
Answer in the Follow-Up
If you really fluff it, or simply have to admit you just don’t have an answer at the moment, you can always answer it in greater depth when you follow up. A simple: “I wanted to clarify my answer to your question…” will suffice, and could just dig you out.
Emphasize Your Learning Curve
What you don’t know, you can learn! Tell your interviewer how you would go about figuring out the answer, and how you would equip yourself to be prepared to solve it by the time your start date rolled around. Emphasize your eagerness to know all there is to know about this company or field.
Perhaps the most important bit of advice: stay calm. Falling apart is not an option. Being surly or upset isn’t either. Stay cool and rely on the tools above.