5 Things to Say After “I Don't Know”

What To Say When You Don't Know The Answer To An Interview Question

I really hate not knowing the answer. I also hate not knowing what to say. But, it really doesn't matter how much you prepare for your interviews beforehand. The situation is bound to come up. The interviewer asks you a question and you simply don't know the answer.

Do you know what I do in that situation? I get very flustered, probably throw in a nervous giggle or two, and then respond. It's not pretty. However, something I keep reminding myself, an interview is a conversation. By following up the “I don't know” with more context you can help direct the conversation in a more favorable direction. You don't know what you don't know but you can take control.

Here are some ways to follow up the “I don't know”:

The best way to approach a question you don't know is by responding with more questions. Ask for clarification or more information. Even if you don't give them the correct answer is may show your ability to break down larger problems. It might also just buy you some time to think about a problem longer. This can be great for a technical challenge. If you are lucky, the interviewer can help guide you to the answer.

The interview isn't the only time you won't know something. Chances are when you start the job there will also be times when you come across something you need to learn. So, instead of solving the problem, you could explain how you would do it. What sort of research would you do? Where would you look for the answers? What sort of things would you try first? Showing the interviewer how you would go about figuring it out shows you are a problem solver. Not someone that gets stuck.

Before the interview is over, try to get the answer to the question. This has two main benefits. Firstly, you will have learned the answer and no one will be able to stump you with that one ever again. One less question to worry about, phew. But secondly, and more important to the current situation, it shows interest. If you don't know and don't care, that's not good. Expressing a desire to learn and interest in the topic will better your chances.

Ok, so we don’t know the exact answer but maybe we know something super close. Or this problem reminds us of something else. Talk about what you do know and try to apply those experiences to the question at hand. Take control of the narrative and move it towards something you are comfortable talking about.

Or just leave it! Hey, saying I don't know is already better than lying. You are being honest and depending on the question, the employer might just move on and continue with other questions. There's no need to apologize and no need to dwell on what you don’t know. You couldn't have known it all!

Conclusion

It's so disappointing when I’m in this situation. I've prepared, I want the position, and not knowing the answer to an interview question feels like losing points. But it happens and will continue to happen.

After the interview, you can always send a follow-up email with the answers. It can't hurt. One time, I was asked about dogfooding at an interview, and at the time I had no clue what that was. I went home and researched and learned all about it (I even wrote a blog post about it!). I followed up in an email with what I had learned. Did I get the job? No. But it didn't hurt to learn something new. After all, you will only learn and grow once you acknowledge and identify what you don't know.

References

I love seafood, exploring new cities, board games and learning to love to code. https://github.com/sarakhandaker/portfolio