What To Do When You Cannot Answer An Interview Question

Photo by Ethan Lofton

Photo by Ethan Lofton

You are in an interview, sitting at a table across from the hiring manager at a company were you really want to work. Things are going great. Your rapport with the manager is amazing and the conversation is flowing as if you two have known each other your whole life. Then all of a sudden it happens. You had no idea it was coming and were in no way prepared for it. The hiring manager asks you a question in which you do not know the answer. What should you do? How should you respond?

Early in my technology career, I was interviewing for a position as a .NET software developer. I was still pretty new to software development and my skills were still really green. Due to my lack of experience I was having difficulty finding companies who were willing to bring me in for an interview. Luckily I was able to find at least one company who was willing to talk to me face-to-face and I wanted to make sure I did everything possible to secure this position.

When I arrived for the interview, I knew that my first meeting would be with three of the senior software engineers on the team. This was the first time I had ever interviewed face to face with those who in my eyes were such tech giants. I was really nervous and my mind could just picture them sitting in the room, perched on thrones, eyes glowing red with anger and malice just waiting to pounce on this newbie with questions so difficult even Bill Gates would be unable to answer them.

Of course, like most instances of worry, what actually happened was nothing like what I had pictured. In fact we had a great discussion. Most of the questions they asked I was able to answer but then there was that one question, that question that I wasn’t prepared to answer, that question that caught me totally off guard. I remember like it was yesterday. The lead engineer looked at me and asked, “What is View State?” I froze. Sweat started to bead on my brow. My heart started racing in my chest. That term sounded so familiar to me but I couldn’t exactly place where I had heard it before.

I answered the best I could and said, “I am not exactly sure what it is but I think I remember using it somewhere.” Yep, that was a terrible answer. I was so desperate to get the job and I was afraid my lack of knowledge about that term would surely disqualify me. Looking back I should have just stopped with the first part, that I wasn’t exactly sure. I was devastated and thought for sure they would pass on me as a candidate.

Leaving there distraught, the first thing I did when I got back home was to go to the computer and lookup the term View State. I won’t bore you with the entirety of what I learned but I will simply say that View State was something utilized by ASP.NET in web applications. I determined, if they asked me about View State in the interview then it must be important. I determined that if nothing came from the interview at the very least I just learned about an important term in the field and decided to do as much research as I could about View State knowing that I might be asked again in another interview.

Luckily the team overlooked my lack of knowledge in that area and offered me a job there anyways. I remember talking to one of the team members my last day of work there and he again asked in a joking manner “What is View State?” My answer to that question in the interview months prior was a continuous running joke my entire employment at that company.

This was not the only time I have had a similar experience. I have had this same experience on multiple occasions, both as an interviewer and as an interviewee. When you find yourself in this situation I have found that there are only two correct responses; be honest and always write down the question asked.

Be Honest

First, if you don’t know the answer to a question in an interview, just say so. I interview a lot of candidates in my current position and it still amazes me how often candidates try to come up with answers to questions they simply cannot answer. The problem with this approach is often times the more you talk about something you are not sure about the more you show your lack of knowledge about the topic.

As an interviewer, I am asking questions in order to determine your level of knowledge. An honest answer is always best. Just because you do not know the answer doesn’t necessarily mean I am not going to hire you. I am simply trying to figure out how much you know, not only to determine if you are a fit for the position but to also gauge your exact level of knowledge about a topic. I often ask questions to candidates that are about topics above what I consider a minimum job requirement simply to get an idea of how high their knowledge goes. Simply put, if you don’t know the answer by now it is already too late to do anything about it, at least for this interview anyways, so just be honest.

Always Write Down The Question

Second, when in an interview, always write down the questions you are asked in which you do not know the answer. When the interview is over, go find the answer to the questions then learn as much as possible about those topics so that in the future, if any of those questions resurface, you will be prepared to answer correctly. Use the experience as a learning tool for the next interview. Plus, you will have just spent time gaining knowledge about a topic that is evidently important in the industry. More than once I have left an interview, researched the questions I could not answer only to have those same questions asked again in another interview.

Truth is, answering questions related to your industry knowledge is only one aspect of the interview process but it is one aspect in which you can grow. Use every interview as a learning process including taking note of those topics in which your knowledge needs to grow.