What To Say When You Don't Know How To Answer A Job Interview Question

Don't be evasive and think you can get away with a lie.
Here's the best way to communicate "I don't know" in a job interview.
calvindexter via Getty Images
Here's the best way to communicate "I don't know" in a job interview.

You can prepare all you want for a job interview, but still be asked a curveball question that leaves you stumped for how to answer.

Should you say “I don’t know” when you actually don’t know?

The stakes are high. How you decide to respond when a hiring manager is watching can say a lot about your ability to handle questions under pressure.

Experts say transparency will go a long way. Here’s how to score points with an interviewer when you are uncertain about how to answer a question ― plus the missteps that may make them remember you in a negative light.

1. Whatever you do, don’t lie.

Daniel Space, a human resources consultant with business partners in strategic staffing, said that if you can’t draw from personal experience to answer a question, it’s alright to draw a similar comparison and say something like, “I haven’t been placed in that situation specifically yet, but here’s how I think I would handle it.”

The biggest mistake he sees is when candidates attempt to lie instead of acknowledging what they don’t know.

Space said he observed this firsthand when a job candidate interviewing to be an HR manager was asked to explain how they would handle a specific employee relations situation.

The candidate shared a story that was supposedly based on her experience, but “the details kept changing,” Space said. “The more that my manager was asking questions, the more it fell apart, to such a degree where it was just very clear that she had made up a story.

“That worked so much more against her than had she said, ‘I don’t think I’ve dealt with an [employee relations] situation of that type. Can I give you a different example of something that I have dealt with?’”

2. Don’t ramble and hope for the best. If you don’t understand what they’re asking, request clarification.

Rambling is the worst mistake a job candidate can make when they don’t know how to answer, according to Mary Abbajay, president of the leadership development consultancy Careerstone Group.

“They think if they talk long enough ... people will think they are answering the questions. Don’t do that,” she said. “When you are rambling, it shows you are a poor communicator. The sense is you are just trying to overwhelm me with words because you don’t know what you are talking about.”

Lawrese Brown, the founder of C-Track Training, a workplace education company, pointed out that not all interview questions are clearly worded and it reflects better on you to ask for clarification when you need it.

“It demonstrates a confidence and assertiveness to say, ‘Hey, can you clarify? ... Because I want to share the right insights with you, I want to share the most relevant information,’” she said. “What’s the point in going down a rabbit hole that’s entirely irrelevant to what’s the person is asking for?”

Asking for the question to be repeated might also buy you time to think of an answer, Abbajay added.

If you do find yourself on a nervous tangent, Space said, you can also use humor to your advantage and acknowledge that you need a do-over.

Space once chatted with a job candidate who was rambling, and “halfway through, he was like, ‘I’m just going to stop because I have no idea where I was going with that and I’m just talking for the sake of talking and I think we both just know I flubbed that.’ That removed all of the tension.”

The candidate answered the questions much better after acknowledging his nerves.

3. Don’t give up and just say “I don’t know,” either. Advocate for the person you are.

Beyond basic qualifications, forward-thinking companies know that you’re not going to have every single answer, so it’s OK to admit you have not yet acquired a specific skill or faced a certain problem, said Tejal Wagadia, a recruiter for a major tech company.

“There is this weird perception that every company is looking for a candidate who meets all of the qualifications all of the time,” she said.

But don’t just say “I don’t know” when you are stumped. You want to communicate that you are engaged and are eager to find out and learn. Saying something like, “I don’t know that yet, but I’m willing to learn that skillset,” shows your willingness to learn new things, Wagadia said.

The point is to make the case that you are the best candidate for the job and to link your past experiences and skills to what the job requires.

“Never say ‘I don’t have that experience’ and leave it at that,” agreed Ashley Watkins, a job search coach with corporate recruiting experience. “You have to advocate for yourself and connect the dots between what you’ve done and how it relates to the new role. Be honest and don’t lie about having the exact experience. Redirect your answer and share how the skills you’ve gained in another capacity have prepared for the target opportunity.”

For example, Watkins said if you’re asked a question about developing a human resources policy but you’ve never officially worked in an HR capacity, you can demonstrate your transferable skills. Your response could be something like, “That’s a great question. While I didn’t have an official HR role, I’ve managed several HR responsibilities during my time as an office manager for a start-up company ....”

Don’t forget they’re in the hot seat, too.

And remember: You are interviewing a company, just as they are interviewing you. How they respond when you acknowledge needing help or clarification on a question can tell you a lot about their values.

“If a hiring manager or company is not receptive to you being vulnerable, that’s a good thing,” Wagadia said. “Now you know it’s not a company you want to work for, because who looks for employees that are 100 percent perfect?”

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