How to show confidence when answering an unexpected interview question?

Another great question from my friend’s job search networking group. Even after all the preparation and practice for interviews, there still bound to be some questions you don’t expect and may not be prepared to answer in an interview. There are two types of questions that can fall in this category – behavioral questions and case questions. Behavioral questions usually start with “tell me a time when you …..” and there is no right or wrong answer. Case questions could be “Please estimate the size of the iPhone marketing in CA” and interviewers who give case questions usually are looking for specific things in your answer.

My first advice is don’t panic and expect these questions to exist. The interviewer is not only interested in the answer but also how you think on your feet. Even if you don’t know the answer, you can show that you can think and communicate in a structured, confident way.

here is what you can do:

  • Buy time – if you don’t know the answer, first try to buy some time by paraphrasing the question asked (e.g., let me make sure I understand your question… You are asking me ….) Another tactic is to further clarify the question with another question. (e.g., do you mean …) The objective is to buy time for you to think about a good answer, while you don’t have an awkward silence. Also, sometimes we do misunderstand the question if we are nervous, so first make sure you know exactly what they are asking.
  • Pause before answering – it’s ok to take a few seconds to pull together your answer. Silence sometimes can also convey confidence and gives a chance to breathe. I have interviewed many people who rush at the answer and sometime sound disorganized. You can simply say “That’s a great question. Let me think about it for a second.” Maybe even put something down on paper if it’s case question.
  • Watch your body language and focus on the question – try not to bite your nails, look away, look like deer in headlights or do anything that express your nervousness. All of us will be nervous on the inside when we get an unexpected question. Just take a deep breath and do the best you can. It also doesn’t help you if your mind start thinking about the ramification of not answering the question well. It will just distract you. Focus all your attention on answering the question as best as you can.
  • For behavioral questions, come up with a story to tell. Do the best you can, because it doesn’t make sense for you to say I don’t have an answer to this type of question. Tell a story that is the closest to what they are asking, speak slowly, use a confident tone, and always tie it back to why you are a good candidate for the job. It may not be perfect, but you will show that you can respond under pressure and then just remind yourself to practice to answer to that question for future interviews
  • For case questions, describe your thought process and be structured. Often times it doesn’t matter you don’t know the answer. Actually rarely anyone would know the answer to a case question before hand. The focus isn’t on the answer but on how you describe your analysis process. For this, I would say, ask questions along the way, state your assumptions, communicate in bullets instead of a laundry list, keep it high level until they want details, and provide an answer. Don’t worry about whether it’s right or not, focus on being logical, articulate, and analytical. If you convey those things, it’s enough. Being good at answering case questions just takes a lot of practice. I practice for about 2 months my senior year in college before my consulting interviews. I was a electrical engineering major and didn’t even have business sense at the time. If I can do it, you can do it.
  • Be willing to say I don’t know – If you get a case question that is completely outside your knowledge (e.g, can you solve this quadratic equation for me?), still try to do the above, but at some point you should admit you don’t know if you can’t come up with anything. Interviewers can tell anyway and it takes balls to admit what you don’t know. Maybe the job is not what you thought it was. You can just say, “I didn’t realize this job needed this skill. It’s been 10 years since I have done a quadratic formula. Is this a job requirement?” Even though you said you didn’t know, you don’t have to be shameful about it.

Ultimately, expect questions you cannot answer in interviews and practice thinking on your feet. You can practice beforehand with any friends. Once you get used to not knowing an answer to a question and still answer it, you will feel more confident and at ease when asked during an interview. I personally actually love unexpected questions. I see it as a game. How much can I bullshit my way out of it? I don’t always do well, but at least the interview is interesting. Perhaps it’s because I had to do many case interviews out of college and business school or perhaps it’s because I try to not to hang all my hopes on one interview anymore. Just prepare as much as you can and learn from your experiences. Everything will work out!

Good luck out there!

– Lei

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Would you mind if I quote a few of your blogposts
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Judy Huang

Practice is a must, but don't over-practice so that you sound like a robot. If you can recite your answers during your sleep, you are probably over-doing it.

Aftab Loya

I believe there;s a step 4 to the STAR method, and it is S for So What. This is when you tie back yout star quality exhibited in this situation to the interviewer.

Tamara Carleton

I'd like to delve more into behavioral interviews from Lei's post. Behavioral interview questions have become a popular technique in job interviews, and the premise is that the most accurate predictor of future performance is past performance in similar situations. From their angle, you want to help show your interviewers that you will fit into the company's culture as a capable employee. From your side, it's a chance to tell stories about yourself to a captive audience. In short, the real key to being confident is to prepare and practice: * Prepare. Develop a practice set of 10-15 questions. Ask… Read more »

Judy Huang

I was the person that had to do the quadratic question during the interview. At that time, I was caught off guard, like a deer in headlights. But, that's what made me realize that the job was not for me. To be fair, they didn't give me equations, but "problems" to solve. What I did learn is that I may not know all the answers to the questions, but that's okay. As with life, interviewing is a learning experience. Sometimes, when I care about something too much, I actually don't do quite as well because of all that emotional investment.… Read more »

Aftab Loya

Another great article!

My one thing to add, just be yourself. Yes, you should do your homework and practice, practice, practice, but remember that its you and your brilliance that landed you the interview.