What To Do When You Don’t Know The Answer

Don't Know The Answer
Don’t Know The Answer

We’ve all been there. Were asked an interview question that we don’t quite know the answer to. Sure we could make a guess, but is it worth it? Are they going to call you out or will they be impressed that you were courageous enough to give it a shot? How should you answer a question when you don’t really have a good answer?

It’s always better to be straightforward and honest with the interviewer, letting them know that you’re not sure of the answer at this time. You never want to guess or make up an answer, as the interviewers will see through this and you’ll lose any credibility you might have had.

How To Answer A Question You Don’t Know The Answer To

We all get those questions, sometimes they’re technical in nature or more industry-specific. “What do you see as this industry’s biggest challenges in the next 12 months?” Sure, inflation might be a safe answer right now, but they’re probably looking to hear more about your interest, preparation, and knowledge of the industry that you’re applying to.

So how do you answer a question that you’re not quite sure of? Well, there are three good approaches that I’m going to go over to make sure you’re not blindsided if this happens to you.

Strategy 1: “I Don’t Know, But I Can Find Out”

The first strategy is probably the one you’re expecting, “I don’t have a good answer for you at this time, but directly following this meeting I’ll look into it and get back to you with a response.” We’ve all heard this one, and for good reason as it’s the safest approach. Although you might feel discouraged that you couldn’t answer a question right away, letting the interviewer know that you’ll get back to them with an answer lets them know that you’re being honest and not the kind of person to make things up.

You also give yourself a great opportunity to follow up with the interviewer and show them that you’re the kind of person to follow through with the things that you say. These are the kinds of golden opportunities to look for in interviews because how you act in an interview gives them a glimpse into how you’d act if you were hired into this new job position.

Even if you don’t have the issue of not having an answer in the interview, sending a follow-up email to the interviewer is one of the best things you can do to stand out from other candidates. If you’re looking for help putting together that perfect follow-up email, I’ve created a simple, yet powerful, template that you can use in every situation. You can access that free template here.

Strategy 2: “I Don’t Know, But This Is How I Would Find The Answer”

Often times we’ll be asked a question that has a definite answer. In these situations, strategy 1 will work just fine; go find the answer and get back to the interviewer. When it comes to more technical questions, however, one of the things that we can do (sometimes in addition to strategy 1) is discuss how we would find that answer.

As a software developer, there are plenty of things that come up that I don’t always know the answer to immediately. The thing that differentiates me from a less experienced developer is that I know exactly where to go to find the answer to the question I have and how to implement that answer. This means that I don’t have to memorize countless facts or lines of code, and I can focus my efforts on things that really matter.

One of the things that can cushion the blow of you not immediately knowing the answer to an interview question is knowing exactly how you could find the answer if you needed to. In the “real world”, you’re going to come up against things you don’t know frequently. Flexing your problem-solving skills by sharing your technique to finding the answer and getting the end result when you don’t have the exact knowledge at your fingertips is something that is going to impress the interviewer. Sure knowing the answer off the top of your head is good, but knowing how to find the answer is the next best thing.

Strategy 3: “I’m Not Sure, But Here’s A Related Answer”

The third approach is to give a related answer that still displays your knowledge and experience, even if it’s not exactly what they asked. For example, if you were asked to discuss a time when you’ve provided excellent customer service, and you’ve never been in a customer-facing role, you might feel like you’re up the creek without a paddle. While you might not have direct experience providing excellent customer service, you have likely been in a position where you’ve witnessed or received excellent customer service.

If you’re looking for some extra tips on how to answer questions about how you’ve dealt with a difficult customer, check out this video here.

Most interview questions that the interviewer asks have one or more things that the interviewer is attempting to gather. In the example of asking for your customer service experience, they want to know not only if you have experience, but also if you understand what makes great customer service. Giving an answer of a time that you received excellent customer service and identifying the things about that scenario that made your experience excellent as the customer directly applies to this question.

When explaining your story, you can point out the key components that led to you feeling it was such a good experience. The one-on-one focus, the patience, and the relatability of the service provider. Anything that shows that you understand what good customer service truly is and that you could provide it if given the opportunity.

Just because you didn’t provide customer service, you still have a good understanding of what makes great customer service, and that matters. It might not be the exact thing that they asked for, but the idea here is that you’re taking what you think the core question is, and attempting to answer that. This type of response is great when you’ve had a related experience, but might not be a good fit if they’re asking a technical question you don’t know the answer to.

What To Avoid When Answering A Question Where You Don’t Know The Answer

Regardless of which one of these approaches you’ve decided to take, there are some pitfalls that you’re going to want to avoid when answering this question. The first of these pitfalls is making something up. This is absolutely the WORST thing you can do. When you make something up, you run the chance of being wrong. Sometimes that’s slightly wrong, and sometimes that’s spectacularly wrong; you don’t want either of these.

More importantly, when you make something up, regardless of how right or wrong you may be, the interviewer is likely to recognize that you’re making it up. Sure there are situations where the interviewer is simply asking for your opinion that you can generate on the spot, but for the most part, interviewers have a general expectation of what the answer to a question should be before they even ask it. When you just go around making stuff up, the interviewer is generally going to sniff that out. In these situations, the interviewer is going to see you as the kind of person who will do this in every area of your job. I don’t think I need to say this, but that’s not something that’s going to bode well when it comes to your chances of landing the job.

You’re also going to want to avoid simply saying “I don’t know”, and just leaving it there. The interview points that we win for being honest are really only beneficial because we offer up something in addition to “I don’t know”. I will say from my experience that “I don’t know” is still better than a made-up bs answer though. We’re not simply looking for the answer that’s good enough, we’re looking for the best answer possible, and “I don’t know” alone isn’t that.

Key Takeaways

We all eventually get an interview question that we’re not sure the answer to, but if you take a second and respond thoughtfully, you can still manage to impress the interviewer and get back to the interview relatively unscathed. Whenever you do get these questions you’re going to want to:

  • Be honest about what you do and don’t know.
  • If it’s a technical question, explain how you would find the answer.
  • Be ready to find an answer and follow up with the interviewer after the interview.
  • If they’re asking for an experience that you don’t have, give an answer that shows you understand what they’re really asking through a related experience.
  • Avoid making up an answer that you think they want to hear, or worse, guessing.

Handling difficult situations well is just as valuable of a skill as anything you’ll share with the interviewer, so when a question comes up that you’re unsure of, don’t panic, it’s an opportunity to show the interviewer that you can handle these types of tough situations. When you take this approach, even coming up against where you don’t know the answer can end up working in your favor when it comes to impressing the interviewer and landing your dream job.


James is an Air Force veteran and software developer. He's passionate about personal development and sharing that knowledge with those who want to learn. He loves to mentor students to land their dream job, and excel once they’ve got it.

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