Careers advice

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

Breathe, and follow the tips below.

What you’ll learn:

  • How to stay calm.
  • How to buy time (without being obvious).
  • How to take back control of the situation.

We all have mind blanks from time to time – however, forgetting the name of the film we watched last week is a little less frustrating than spacing on the answer we’d prepared for a job interview question.

Even if you think you’re going into the interview perfectly prepped and ready to handle whatever is thrown at you, curveball questions and tricky topics have a way of rearing their heads when we least expect them.

If this happens, it does NOT mean you’ve blown your chances – good job interviewers now these situations are stressful and they aren’t expecting you to be word perfect all the time. However, it’s a good idea to have a read of the following tricks and tactics for when you can’t answer a question, so you can style it out.

Tactics for when you can’t answer a job interview question

1. Stay calm

Okay, so this is easier said than done – job interviews are inherently nerve wracking – but panicking isn’t going to help you get your thoughts in order.

People often think they need to start answering a question the minute the interviewer stops asking it. This isn’t the case. It’s more than okay to take a couple of seconds, breathe and order what you plan to say in your mind, before it starts coming out of your mouth. When it comes to a question that you’re finding particularly difficult to answer, you might need to extend this time a little bit, and that’s not a problem either.

In fact, you might want to explicitly ask for some time to think by saying something like: “That’s a good question, let me just take a second to think about it.”. Depending on how formal the interview is, and the type of role you’re applying for, it’s even okay to call out the fact that you think it’s a trickier question (the job interviewers will know this anyway!) by saying something along the lines of: “Ooh tough question, give me a minute to come back to you.” In the right circumstances, this little bit of humour can help to defuse any awkwardness.

Don't panic.

2. Ask for clarification

People worry that asking for interviewers to repeat or reword a question will make them look silly, but it’s important to remember that interviewers often find job interviews nerve-wracking too (unless they’ve been doing it a long time), and can stuff up their phrasing too.

Therefore, you really shouldn’t worry about asking to hear the question again, perhaps in a different form. This is far preferable to you taking a stab at what you think they were asking, only to find out you’ve gotten completely the wrong end of the stick.

If you do this, try and be specific about what exactly it was you didn’t understand. For example, perhaps the interviewer was asking about your contribution to a team effort, and the result you saw, and you weren’t sure if they were asking about the team result, or your particular contribution. Rather than simply responding with, “I’m not sure what you mean?”, ask for direct clarification of the point you were struggling with.

Hopefully, as the interviewer rephrases their question, the lightbulb will switch on and the perfect idea will pop into your head.

3. Don’t make something up

It can be very tempting, particularly when answering behavioural interview questions – which require you to describe and reflect upon a past scenario you’ve dealt with at work – to invent something when you can’t think of a real experience to use. We’d highly recommend avoiding this tactic, as, if the interviewers start asking follow up questions, your story can quickly start to unravel.

A common question for this to happen is,”how do you deal with workplace conflict?”. Unless you’ve had an out-and-out bawling match with a colleague at work, you might struggle, on the spot, to come up with an example.

Here, you really have two options. Either, you could say , “I’ve been quite lucky and have gotten on very well with most of my colleagues, but if it was to happen I would do X”. Alternatively, you could say something like, “Well, I haven’t really had any direct conflicts with my colleagues, but there was a time when my coworker and I had different approaches to a project, and we did Y to come to a mutual agreement”.

If you're really stuck, ask to return to the question later.

4. Ask to come back to it

If you’ve asked for clarification, taken your time to answer and you still can’t come up with something that you think is adequate, you can always ask to return to the question in the interview.

Again, it’s important not to see this as a huge failure, and there’s no need to apologise, as that will only make it seem like a bigger deal than it is. If you decide to go this route, your best bet is to say something like: “I’m struggling to think of a good answer/example at the moment, would it be possible to come back to this question at the end?”.

Similar to the tactic in Point Two, this gives you a bit more time to think about your answer, rather than rushing through something that only half ticks the box. A great way to really take back control of these moments is if it’s you, rather than the interviewer, who remembers to return to the question once you’ve thought of a response. This could be just before you ask your questions to the interviewers, or at another moment that’s relevant to the answer you’re going to give.