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Stumped by a Difficult Interview Question? Try This

If you’ve been stumped by an interview question before, you’ll be familiar with the resulting feeling of dread. Unfortunately, no amount of prep time in the world can cover every possible topic, but it is possible to prepare your strategy for when something unexpected comes your way. Here are a few strategies to try next time you’re stumped in an interview:

Take your time and ask questions

Worse than not having an immediate response is giving an answer to a question that wasn’t asked. Doing so not only suggests that you might not have known the correct answer, but also that you weren’t paying attention to the question. Instead, request some time to think and ask clarifying questions if you’re not sure what your interviewer is looking for or where to start.

For example, let’s say your interviewer throws you a brain teaser like “how many windows are there in New York?” If you don’t immediately have an idea of how to approach it, ask for a few minutes to write down some of your thoughts. As you’re working on the problem, ask clarifying questions to demonstrate your critical thinking skills: Does this include windows in cars and the subway? In New York state, New York City, or Manhattan?

Asking questions will not only help you clarify and buy some time, but also demonstrates that you’re curious and won’t jump to conclusions without the necessary information.

Walk your interviewer through your thinking

Rather than giving a terse, unsatisfactory answer when you’re unsure of yourself, help your interviewer understand your reasoning. Most managers would prefer to hire someone with a structured thought process than someone who has simply memorized the answers to every interview question.

The “windows” question is a good example. Rather than trying to crunch all the numbers in your head and simply reporting your best guess, think out loud to help your interviewer understand how you’re approaching the problem. If you answer with an incorrect number and no context, they won’t know how to evaluate whether you considered the question in a structured, thoughtful way. If, on the other hand, you make a math error but have at least walked your interviewer through your thought process for getting there, they can give you partial credit for the thinking that went into it—regardless of whether the answer is right or wrong.

Some companies (and candidates) like to use the STAR method to structure answers to interview questions. This is just one of many different approaches, but try it out to see if it’s a fit for your interviewing style. If not, do some testing to find a default method you can fall back on when faced with a tough question.

Practice humility (judiciously)

In some cases, it makes more sense to admit to your interviewer that you don’t have a great answer, or acknowledge that the answer you gave wasn’t your strongest. This is a tricky one and will require your best judgement, a guess at whether or not your interviewer (and the company culture in general) will be receptive to this type of humility, and the tact to explain your position gracefully.

If you do go this route, however, don’t simply say that you’re giving up. Instead, use this as a chance to discuss your approach to unfamiliar territory. It might even make sense to ask to come back to the question, either at the end of the interview or in a later conversation.

It’s called the interview ‘process’ for a reason

Even if you’re convinced you bombed one question, don’t give up hope. A good interviewer will take into account your strengths and weaknesses, and while one poorly answered question won’t help your case, it doesn’t necessarily spell disaster—as you will have many other opportunities to shine during the rest of the interview process.

Regardless of the outcome of this job application, use your experience answering tough questions as a learning experience:

  • How could you have been more prepared going into the interview?
  • Did you use a technique like STAR to structure your thoughts, even if the content of your answer wasn’t the best response to the question that was asked?
  • Were you able to remain calm in the face of difficulty?

Even if you do get the job, chances are you’ll have more interviews down the road, so it’s always worth a bit of reflection to improve your chances in the future.