What Do You Do if You Get Stumped by an Interview Question?

No matter how much you prepare for your interview, it’s still impossible to predict all the questions you’re going to get, or what to say when your mind goes blank. Here’s what you can do to save the situation!
Sarah Si
Sarah Si
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After sending in your application and waiting for about a week, it’s here! You’ll be going for the coveted interview with your prospective employer. After all, it’s an unspoken understanding that you have a pretty good chance of landing a role if you’ve been invited for an interview!

To raise that probability, you’ve prepared yourself well, from holding practice interviews with career coaches and friends, to carefully packing a bag full of things you’ll need the night before and even choosing your outfit with time to spare.

And the interview seems to be going smoothly! You’ve been answering all their questions well, and even demonstrating some of your skills with aplomb. But then, eek! Your interviewer asks you an unexpected question.

“Can you list three negative traits those close to you say you have?”, or “This is a car manufacturing company – which model do you think represents you the best?” are some questions designed to blindside most candidates. Either way, it makes you stumble to a halt and wonder what just hit you.

What do you do now? For starters, try not to use fillers like “umm”, “ahh” and “hmm”. Secondly, no matter how hard this sounds like, keep calm and don’t panic. Here are other things you can do when you get stumped by an interview question!

You don't have an answer

Most likely, if you’re faced with a question like “How do you define success?”, you either don’t know how to answer, don’t know the answer, or just blank out entirely. While these are all perfectly normal reactions, you should try not to escalate to the next level – which is to panic.

Instead, take a deep breath to calm down, and start thinking. Turn the question over in circles in your head, take your time, organise your thoughts and don’t be afraid to think out loud. The hiring manager interviewing you knows that they’ve asked a trick question, so they’ll appreciate you walking them through your thought process!

Tip: It doesn’t matter whether your answer is right or wrong, it just needs to be a logical and rational answer that makes sense.

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You need time to process the question

In some cases, your question may not necessarily be a trick question – instead, they may be worded to sound either tricky or vague, meaning that you’ll need more time to think through and process it before you can answer. Examples include “What do you expect work to be like in this role?” and “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

In situations like this one, you can ask your recruiter to clarify, rephrase or repeat the question in order to buy time to think. As an added bonus, you’ll also fully understand what your interviewer is really asking for!

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Redirect your interviewer (quietly)

If you can’t think of an answer no matter how much you delay, subtly redirect the hiring manager to a related experience and speak clearly and concisely about it. Although you won’t be answering the question directly, you’ll still be in a much better position than a candidate who doesn’t have any relevant skills or experience to offer!

Tip: Even though you can steer the conversation your way, your answer should still provide your interviewer with enough reasons to onboard you.

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What if you're still stumped?

If you’ve tried everything indicated above and you still don’t have a good answer, DON’T PANIC. Instead, be honest and upfront with the person interviewing you and say: “Sorry, but my mind went blank.”

If you’re a fresh graduate looking for your first job, recruiters will be more forgiving. Don’t forget – recruiters were once fresh graduates and in the same position as you, too, so they understand that you’re nervous! But instead of staying blank, continue with: “Can I get back to you with the answer later, please?”

Take note: Be sure to send your answer with your follow-up thank-you email later, within 24 hours!

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Pro-tip: Use the STAR method

If you have some relevant skills that you’d like to talk about, but aren’t sure how to connect the dots, consider using the STAR method. This way, rather than just talking about how good you are at this or that, you can give your recruiter a better idea of how your skills have come in handy in relevant situations.

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It’s normal to flounder a little when you get stumped by an unexpected interview question or two. But take note that this isn’t the end of the world! Interview results aren’t dependent on how many answers you can answer correctly. Instead, what interviewers really look for is your overall presentation, confidence and attitude. If you don’t get the role, take the opportunity to bounce back. Just be sure to take the interview as a learning experience and carry on!