Rajani Katta MD and Samir Desai MD
What Should I Do if I Don’t Know the Answer to a Question During a Residency Interview?
One of our students, "Bill", was doing well in his residency interview, until he was asked this question:
"Tell me about a time when you were disappointed in your performance.“
As Bill was telling me about this particular interview, he told me that he heard this question and then just froze. He simply couldn't come up with a great example on the spot.
We hear this all the time from students. In speaking to them, this is one of their greatest fears. "What if they ask me a question that I don't know how to respond to?"
While practice is definitely the best defense against the unexpected, we do think that some reassurances and suggestions here are helpful.
In this blog post, we’re going to go into more detail on strategies and responses that you can give if you do not know the answer to a residency interview question.
It’s important to have a strategy for how to answer tough residency interview questions before you are placed in that situation
Many of our students have been in the same exact situation. It’s common, because there are so many potential questions that a residency interviewer could ask.
That’s why it’s so important to be prepared, and to have a few key strategies ready to go.
How to buy yourself more time if you don’t know how to answer the question
If your mind goes blank and you need a little time to think, remember to pause. A 5 to 10 second pause may seem like an eternity to you, but it won’t seem that way to the interviewer.
If you’re not sure how to answer because the question was ambiguous, you can simply ask the interviewer for clarification:
“I’m not sure if I understand the question correctly. Could you please repeat it?“
“I’m not sure if I understand the question correctly. Could you please clarify what you meant by…?“
You can also ask the interviewer for permission to think.
“That’s a really good question. May I have just a moment to gather my thoughts?“
If you still can’t come up with a good response, it's entirely acceptable to ask the interviewer if you can return to the question later.
“I can’t come up with an answer/good example at the moment, but I was wondering if I could return to this question later during the interview?“
With many questions, there are simply no right or wrong answers.
If you simply can’t come up with anything other than “I don’t know“ or “I’m not sure how to answer that question“ or “that’s a really interesting question, but I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that question“, you can go ahead and say exactly that.
I’ve had applicants respond with these statements, and although this might not be ideal, the applicants recovered well because they went on to give a number of great responses.
How do interviewers react to a response such as this one?
You might think that an interviewer would be disappointed or react with some other strong emotion. But after having interviewed hundreds of applicants, we can both tell you that it’s really no big deal. It happens all the time, and a poor response to one question doesn't color our entire opinion of this applicant.
What would harm an applicant's chances in this interview? When the applicant can’t recover.
Your recovery is likely much more important than your response to a single question
It’s so important to maintain your composure and focus on the next question.
I can remember one applicant who stammered and apologized, and couldn’t seem to recover. The following few responses that he gave to two pretty straightforward questions were suboptimal. It was clear that he was very anxious and that he was probably thinking back to that one single question from five questions ago.
This is why it’s so important to move on, and understand that it’s extremely common to not have a response to a single question.
What you should avoid doing if you don’t know the answer to a question
It’s equally important to discuss the things to avoid if you don’t know how to answer the question.
Making something up
Rushing into a disjointed response
Can you come back to a question at the end of the interview?
Absolutely. If, at the end of the interview, you do have a potential response, feel free to volunteer it. “I’ve been thinking about one of the questions that you asked me earlier. Would you mind if I expand on my answer?“
The bottom line: one sub-par response is not going to sink your interview
This is such an important point that it bears repeating. One poor interview response is not going to ruin the entire interview. It’s important to maintain your composure, avoid ruminating on this one poor response, and focus on giving the best responses possible to the remaining questions.
What did Bill do? He paused, then told the interviewer that he didn't have a good example at the moment, and then asked if it would be OK if they returned to the question later.
As he proceeded through the interview, focusing on only one question at a time, he was reminded of an incident that he could use to respond to the question. He came back to the question at the end of the interview, and he felt great about his response.
As Bill's example emphasizes, although practice is the best defense against the unexpected, a few strategies that you have ready to go are your next best defense.
*And if you'd like to see how we recommend responding to this question, please see this video of a sample before and after response, along with our step-by-step approach on how to create your own response.
Dr. Rajani Katta is the creator of The Residency Interview 101, the online course that helps applicants quickly and confidently prepare for their residency interviews. She is also the co-author of The Successful Match: Rules to Succeed in the Residency Match and served as Professor of Dermatology at the Baylor College of Medicine for over 17 years.
Dr. Samir Desai is the author of 20 books, including The Successful Match and The Clinician's Guide to Laboratory Medicine. He has been a faculty member in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine for over 20 years and has won numerous teaching awards.