Life is not an easy ride, either for the rich or the poor. Each of us has their share of problems, whether in personal or professional life. Most of the time we struggle in both… Problems belong to everyday reality of the workplace, and it makes a perfect sense that HR managers inquire about them in a job interview. Tell us about the biggest problem you face; Describe the most challenging situation you experienced at work; or Describe a time when you didn’t know how to solve a problem. In this article, we will look at the last one from the three.

What do the hiring manager want to hear from you? Before anything else, they seek some humility. They want to hear you admit that you struggle sometimes, that you cannot solve everything on your own–at least not on the spot. Secondly, they want to hear how you react in such a situation. Do you start to panic? Will you ask someone for help? Or, will you simply postpone the solution of the problem, and move on to another task?

You can talk about a problem from work (first choice), school, or even from personal life (second choice, when you cannot recall a problem you faced at work, or when you apply for your very first job). Let’s have a look at sample answers to the question. I hope you will find in my list at least one answers that resonates with your values and experience, and you can use it in your upcoming job interview.


7 sample answers to “Describe a time when you didn’t know how to solve a problem.” interview question

  1. It happened to me a lot in my last job. Was the first time I worked in an accounting department, and though I have a degree from Accounting, I still was not sure how to record certain transactions, or how to proceed in some situations. I had a colleague with twelve years of experience in the field sharing the office with me,  so when I did not know how to proceed, I simply asked her. Someone might be too proud to ask, or afraid to bother their colleague, or to lose their credibility in their eyes. But I do not struggle to admit when I do not understand something, and that someone is a better expert in the field. Hence I always asked, learned how to solve the problem, and next time when I faced the same issue I was able to solve it on my own.
  2. I recall my last job in a warehouse. Leading a small team of employees, I often struggled with discipline. People came late to the shift, or they played on their smartphones when they were supposed to work, and so on. I experienced this frequently but it made no sense to threaten the employees, because we could not afford to fire them. The situation in the job market just didn’t play to our favor. To be honest, I did not know how to solve this problem for quite some time. But then I suggested to my superiors to change the percentage of variable pay in the warehouse, and to incorporate punctuality in the mix–who was late got less, said in simple words. This really worked because people were motivated by money to try harder, and to be punctual.

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  1. Working as an engineer, I’ve often encountered problems I could not solve initially. In my opinion, that’s a part of my job, of a job of each good engineer–to propose questions, hypotheses, to try to improve things, not knowing how. But I did not start to panic or anything else. I simply used deduction, made some A-B tests, tested my hypothesis, and experimented on a small scale, without risking to interfere in the production. More often than not, I found the solution to the problem. And when I did not, I either consulted my colleagues or moved on to another problem.
  2. I’ve been repairing boilers for years. Most errors repeat, and as soon as you reach the house of the customer and see the display of the boiler you know what’s wrong. But it happened to me several times that I did not know what the error meant, or the boiler did not report any error, but it did not work. In such a case I did my diagnostic, using diagnostic tools I always carry with me. And if I still did not know what’s wrong, I called some of my colleagues, other technicians, working with the same brands of boilers. You see, I know some technicians who’d rather spend hours trying to find a mistake on their own–without success, just to avoid the call a colleague. They cannot admit to struggle with some repair. But that’s not my case, and I believe that I learn something new with each such phone call…
  3. This is my first job application, so I cannot really refer to problem I faced at work. But I remember my exam from Applied Statistics–that was a tough nut to crack. It seemed to me that I’d never pass the exam. Just I could not get my head around it. When I had my last attempt, I decided to try everything possible. I hired a tutor, I pleaded with the teacher, I asked my friends to pray for me… Silly as it may seems, it eventually worked. I passed the exam, solved the problem, and eventually graduated from the college.
  4. What really bothered me last year was my relationship with my son. He started to meet some new friends, was coming home pretty late each evening, and I knew that they were drinking, and perhaps even something else. What troubled me the most, however, is that I realized the distance that was growing between the two of us. He did not confine in me as he did before, and on some days we barely talked. But what could I do to solve such a problem, such a crisis of adolescence? I just tried to be a good father, to find something the two of us had in common, to do something together. It didn’t help much though, so eventually I had to accept that I may not solve the problem, and that such night adventures simply belong to teenage years (I had them as well). I did that and moved on…
  5. I’m still trying to solve one problem–getting a decent job after being unemployed for five years, and at the same time in my fifties. This is really a problem I’ve been battling with for a long time. Most companies do not give you a chance at this age, they look for younger people. They may invite you for an interview, but it’s a mere formality for them, just to do some justice to some invented corporate values–such as equality. But I do not complain, and I have not given up, after hundreds of job applications sent, and seven interviews I went to. Here I am in another job interview, trying my best, being honest with you, and hoping to convince you that I still have something to offer to my next employer…


Alternative question: Describe a time when you solved a problem

In some cases they will change the question. Instead of a problem that you failed to solve, they will inquire about one that you managed to handle. In this case, you should pick some big problem, at least relatively speaking. Describe clearly what was the issue (in the job, in school, in your personal life), and what you did to solve it.

Once again, your attitude and way of thinking matters for the interviewers. Show them that you neither give up when facing a tough problem, nor throw the responsibility on somebody else (for example on your manager). On the contrary, you face the problem, analyze it, come up with a solution, implement it, and hope for the best. Of course, at times it may not be enough. We never have everything under our control. But you tried your best, and took responsibility. That matters most for the interviewers.

Ready to answer this one? I hope so! But it isn’t the only difficult question you will face while interviewing for any decent job. You will face questions about prioritization, dealing with pressure, dealing with ambiguity, and other tricky scenarios that happen in the workplace. If you want to make sure that you stand out with your answers and outclass your competitors, have a look at our Interview Success Package. Up to 10 premium answers to 50 tricky scenario based questions (+ more) will make your life much easier in the interviews. Thank you for checking it out!


Alternatively you may check 7 sample answers to other tricky interview questions:

Matthew Chulaw
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