How to Respond When You Don't Know the Answer to a Question

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 21 August 2022

Published 2 May 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Hiring managers may ask various questions during an interview, including questions about your technical knowledge or specific details about the field. You may face situations where you don't know the answer to the question the interviewer posed to you. Learning how to respond in such situations may help you succeed in the interview. In this article, we provide steps on what to do when you don't know the answer to an interview question and outline some tips to succeed in an interview.

Related: Stepped Guide on How to Ace an Interview: Tips and Examples

How to respond when you don't know the answer to a question

Follow these steps to learn how to handle a question when you don't know the answer:

1. Stay calm

Interviewers may sometimes ask a difficult question to assess your response, rather than to test your knowledge. They may want to observe how you react under pressure because this may be necessary for the position. You can stay calm and composed by reassuring yourself that it's fine not to know the answers to every question. Remind yourself that there may be other questions that you know the answers to.

Keep smiling and continue to make appropriate eye contact with the interviewer to maintain a professional appearance. Displaying confidence can show the interviewer that you can work well in stressful or unexpected situations.

2. Ask clarifying questions

You may not understand the question due to a lack of context and details or because the interviewer isn't clear about the answer they're seeking. Pose some questions to get more information about the context or consider rephrasing the question to check that you've heard it correctly. By doing this, you can understand the question better and gain some time to think about a suitable response. While they're providing more details, you can brainstorm and organise your answer. Here's an example of a clarifying question you may ask:

Interviewer: 'What do you think our company can do better?'

Candidate: 'There's a lot that I can say about that question. Would you like me to share about the manufacturing process, customer engagement, company culture or any other specific aspect?'

3. Share what you do know

The interviewer may ask you a technical question about the parts of a specific machine, coding techniques or current affairs. You may not have an in-depth understanding of the topic, but you can share what you do know at a more general level. Remain focused on the topic and try to include details that are relevant to the question. Here's a sample response that you can review:

Interviewer: 'Differentiate between univariate, bivariate and multivariate analysis.'

Candidate: 'From my module on data analysis, I do remember some details about the univariate analysis. I learnt that univariate data only contains one variable and that the purpose of the univariate analysis is to describe the data and identify the patterns that exist within it. '

Related: 8 Buzzwords for Interview Questions (Plus Interview Tips)

4. Be honest

It's essential to be truthful about what you don't know. You can tell them that you're not familiar with the topic or term. Employers may appreciate this quality as it shows that you're humble enough to acknowledge your shortcomings. They may see this as a strength instead of a weakness because they may want you to seek help regarding your duties if you're unclear about them. Here's an example of how you can respond appropriately:

Interviewer: 'What are the differences between HashMap and HashTable in Java?'

Candidate: 'Actually, I'm not very familiar with those terms. I just began an online course on Java last month, but I haven't learnt about HashMap and HashTable yet. I plan to improve my current coding knowledge and experience by spending more time reading up about this topic and watching videos online.'

5. Express your desire to learn

You can use this situation to your advantage by showing your teachability. After admitting that you don't know the answer, you can share that you're willing to learn about this topic. Tell them about the steps you plan on taking to improve your skills and knowledge. This demonstrates to the potential employer that you have a positive attitude towards learning. Use this example to craft your own answer:

Interviewer: 'Can a company have a negative book equity value?'

Candidate: 'I'm afraid I'm not familiar with that concept. I do plan to learn about this by subscribing to financial magazines and attending conferences on banking and finance. I also have a friend who's a banker so I intend to ask them this question after the interview to understand the practical applications. If I get selected for this job, I look forward to learning about investment banking from my colleagues and supervisor. I believe that one of the best ways to acquire knowledge is through conversations with experts in the field.'

Related: How to Prepare for These Competency-Based Interview Questions

Tips to succeed in your interview

Outlined below are tips to help you succeed in your next interview:

Be punctual

Employers may greatly value punctuality as it can indicate other positive attributes. They may form an impression of you as a well-organised candidate with good time management skills. The interviewers may also be ready before the given time, so it's helpful to arrive 10 to 15 minutes early. Review the exact location of the interview and allocate extra time to take escalators, climb stairs or use lifts.

It's also beneficial to leave your home much earlier than suggested as you may face unexpected situations such as heavy rain or a traffic jam. These events may cause your journey to take longer than usual.

Related: How to Sell Yourself in an Interview (With Interview Tips)

Prepare copies of your resume and cover letter

Some interviewers may refer to your resume and cover letter on their device but others may request hard copies. As there may be more than one interviewer, it's useful to bring several copies of your resume and cover letter. You may want to keep them in a separate file so that you can take them out of your bag quickly. Doing this demonstrates that you're well-prepared and possess the ability to anticipate situations.

Make a list of questions to ask the interviewer

You may want to prepare a list of intelligent questions regarding the job scope, company culture and opportunities for advancement. You can also consider posing questions to the interviewer about their experience in working for the company. This demonstrates your seriousness about getting employed at the firm and shows that you've done research. Here are some examples of questions to ask:

  • Can you show me examples of projects I'd be working on?

  • Is this a new role that has been created?

  • How long would the training be?

  • What are the performance expectations of this position over the first six months?

  • What are the common career paths in this department?

Bring a pen and notebook

You may want to have a reliable pen and notebook with you to write down any meaningful information during the interview. It could be the answers to your questions or some details about the job that the interviewer provides. The interviewer may perceive you to be organised and highly interested in the role when they see you jotting down key points in your notebook.

Use the right body language

Your body language can convey many ideas about your character and personality to the interviewer, so it's important to be aware of your posture, gestures and facial expressions. Make eye contact upon meeting the interviewer and give them a firm handshake. It's also essential to maintain a good posture throughout the interview to project confidence. Show that you're listening attentively to the interviewer by smiling, nodding and leaning forward when they're speaking. If you're sitting at a table, ensure that your hands are visible as this demonstrates that you don't have anything to hide.

Related: How to Tell if a Job Interview Went Well (12 Positive Signs)

Build rapport with the interviewer

Recognise that the interview is an opportunity to establish a connection with your potential employer. Even though the interviewer may spend most of the meeting time asking you questions, you can still use each question to turn the interview into a more comfortable conversation. It's beneficial to make a personal connection with your interviewer while remaining professional. This can help the interviewer to remember you better and have a positive feeling about you. Moreover, they may get the impression that they feel comfortable working with you in the future, giving you an advantage over other candidates.

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