Applications / Interviews

Help! I can’t answer the question!

You’ve prepared properly for the interview, it’s all going swimmingly and then along comes a tricky question … suddenly your mind goes completely blank. It’s happened to us all, but what you do next might determine whether it’s game over, or whether you can prove your resilience and get a bit closer to that job offer.


The first thing you need to do, is think about what kind of question you are facing. This will determine your response.

A competency question

time_to_think300I once dried at interview when I was asked to talk about a time when I had worked with someone difficult. Now, I have, over the years, worked with plenty of difficult people, so why did I suddenly forget? Probably because I hadn’t seen this coming – poor planning – and because what sprang into my mind was a negative experience. I did not want to talk about this at interview. It is never good to be negative about previous employment. I did the right thing, I asked to come back to the question later, but then I let it play on my mind while I answered successive questions. It distracted me and impacted my performance. Do ask to come back to a question but don’t then stop concentrating on everything else!

A technical question

Hand writing Answers with blue marker on transparent wipe board.

If your degree studies are relevant to your job application then you might find you’re asked technical questions. Try not to panic about questions you find difficult, the more anxious you are, the more likely it is that your mind will go blank. Take time to think. Employers will almost always be happy for you to pause, they would rather have an employee who reflects on difficult questions than one who rushes in and makes errors! Remember that a pause while you think will feel much longer to you than it actually is. Remember too, that employers may ask questions knowing that you will not be able to answer them. They may just be wanting to see what progress you can make with logic. They may also be keen to test to the point at which you no longer have an answer! You might have got a lot further than other candidates before you had to admit defeat. Try not to feel deflated or let your disappointment at not answering everything play on your mind during the rest of the interview.

An oddball question

Odd questions are often talked about and can be much feared. How many bricks are there in Birmingham? How many pints of milk are drunk each day in the UK? You are not expected to know the answer to these questions, just try not to freeze completely. The important thing is how you start to think and reason your way to an answer. Demonstrate that you are logical and that you can keep calm under pressure and you are a long way to success.

A strengths question

strengths250.jpgYou would have thought that a question about how you spend your spare time, or what you do to relax, would be very simple. Sometimes it can floor you because you are trying to think of something which sounds worthwhile and impressive, when actually you’re busy thinking that you like going shopping with friends! It’s worth thinking about answers in advance, but ultimately if the unexpected question comes, you need to answer honestly. You’re likely to get caught out in a strengths based interview if you lie. Make sure that you have a really clear understanding of the skills an employer is looking for, this should help you when you meet the unexpected strengths question. You do need to come out with an answer, this isn’t a question where you can take a long time to ponder.

A commercial awareness question

Everyone knows that you need to exhibit an understanding of the business world if you want to land that graduate job. Generally you will be able to choose what news item you want to talk about, but what if you get asked the totally unexpected question? How about, “What companies would you invest in if you had £1 million?” This sort of question demands the knack of applying knowledge you have, and the ability to keep calm and to start talking logically, perhaps in this context you might start by considering sector areas? It’s about buying yourself some time while you wait for inspiration to strike.

So the lessons from all this? There will be times in an interview when no answer springs to mind. Generally try to keep calm, take a deep breath and don’t be afraid to ask for thinking time.

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