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What to Do If You Can't Answer an Interview Question

What You Should Do If You're Stumped During an Interview

When you don't know how to answer a question during an interview, the silence can seem excruciating. You might even wish the floor would open up and swallow you whole. Not to worry, though — keep these tips in mind the next time you're strapped for an answer.

1. Calm down.

First of all, the most important thing to do is stay calm. If you start freaking out, your body will begin reacting physiologically. For example, your blood pressure will start rising, and your heart may race. Once you start a stress response, you won't be thinking clearly, and you may throw out answers without thinking. Take deep breaths, and tell yourself that it's OK to not know the answer to the question. You'll just have to work through it; there's nothing you can do to change things, but you need to stay calm to find the right answer.

2. Don't say, "I don't know," off the bat. And don't make stuff up.

You should not tell the interviewer you don't know the answer without mulling it over. Then again, be careful not to make stuff up, because your interviewer can see right through that.

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3. Ask questions.

Maybe it's the question you don't understand. Ask your interviewer to clarify what she said. Go deeper into the question to see if you can get more details that will help you figure it out.

4. Tell your interviewer what you do know.

If you do have some knowledge of the question, then take the time to tell your interviewer what you do know of the situation. Saying everything out loud can start you on the process of figuring out the problem.

5. Tell them how you would find the answer.

Even if you don't know what the answer is, you can tell the interviewer the steps you would take to figure out the problem. Interviewers ask you hard questions because they want to see what your thought process is. Sometimes, the thought process may be more important than the actual answer. They want to see that you can take initiative and have the resources to come up with a solution on your own, instead of needing someone to hold your hand through problems. While you're trying to find the solution, you can admit to not knowing certain parts; this way, you come off as being honest, and the hiring manager will know you are not trying to fake it. For example, if you need to calculate something and you're not good at math, you can respond with "I can't do the calculations off the top of my head, but I think these calculations will give me the answer. And what I can do is use a calculator to find that answer." Showing a little honesty shows vulnerability and transparency. It also makes you more likable.

6. Know the right time to come clean.

Although we mentioned not admitting to the interviewer that you don't know the answer, there is an exception to this rule. If the answer is something that you will only know through memorization, such as a definition of the word, then it's probably best to admit that you don't know the answer, as it may be impossible to figure it out independently. Here's what you can tell the interviewer: "It's a good question, but I'm sorry, I don't have the answer off the top of my head. I will be sure to follow up with the answer after the interview."

7. Send a follow-up email.

The follow-up email for an interview could become your second chance. Try to talk about the answer you were stumped on, but be smooth when you're talking about it. And make sure you're only naming the mistakes your interviewer caught and not drawing attention to the ones she did not catch. Don't say something like "I'm sorry I did not know the answer to that question." Instead, tell her that after more time and thought, you managed to come up with a couple of solutions that could work for the problem.

Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Matthew Barnes
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