Picture this: you’re sitting there, staring across at someone who represents everything you want. Everything you need. You are desperate to let this person know how you feel. You watch their mouth move up and down, forming a question you just can’t wrap your mind around. You search deep into their eyes, your mind lands on the only thing bubbling to the surface at that moment, and you blurt out those three little words that can get you into a lot of trouble. “I don’t know.”
Essentially, what you’ve just told your interviewer is you are unprepared for this interview and therefore it’s reasonable to assume you will be unprepared for the job. Now, the interviewer probably has a few questions up his or her sleeves meant to challenge each candidate — things the average person wouldn’t think of when getting ready. But in this interview, you’re also supposed to be showing how quickly you can think on your feet, a valuable skill in any job.
So it’s important to have a series of strategies so those three little words never cross your lips.
1. Ask a question
Perhaps you don’t know the answer to the question being posed simply because you don’t have enough information or haven’t understood what’s really being asked. First, try to inquire more deeply into the question. Not only will this give you more background into what kind of response they’re looking for, but it will also buy you more time to think of a meaningful answer to demonstrate your abilities.
If there is part of the question you do understand or touches on a specific skill set you would like to highlight, take this opportunity to shift the conversation. Tell the interviewer what you DO know. They may follow you into this new thread and be happy to discuss the redirected topic, or it could give you some much-needed time to work through the question out loud.
3. Tell a story
The interviewer probably knows every job requires you to do new things that take a certain amount of research and help before executing for the first time, regardless of your level of experience. Ultimately, what they want to know is, how are you going to make it happen? Use an example from a previous job, where you’ve had to try something new and figure it out for yourself. Tell that story.
And remember: all good stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Start by describing the problem or situation, outline your method to solve it (research, asking colleagues, reading case studies, etc.) and finish by explaining the outcome. Then, relate your story to the question at hand and how you would use a similar method to come up with a suitable answer to the question. This shows you can think through a problem and aren’t afraid of a challenge.
If what they’re looking for is very specific (i.e. some fact you’ve either memorized or not), know that it’s better to admit you haven’t come across that information yet, but you want to know more. After the interview, actually do the research you talked about above and mention it in your follow-up thank-you email. While it’s ideal to know the answer in that moment, the next best time is AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Following up shows that you are willing to go that extra step to make sure all your bases are covered for whatever task is at hand.
Senior Coordinator of Program Development by day, freelance writer/editor/researcher by night, Dana Marie Krook is a firm believer in “having it all” — which, of course, means chasing your dreams, your bucket list, and your cupcake craving as far as necessary. She loves word games, yoga, running, and superhero movies, but would trade it all for the chance to see her first YA novel on the shelves of a bookstore.