By Catherine McManus, Women & Co.
You're totally prepared for the job interview. You've spent hours on the company website, you looked up the bios of everyone you'll be meeting with, and can carry on a conversation about their 10 most recent business announcements with ease.
But then you get thrown that curveball questions:
- What flavor would you be if you were a salad dressing?
- How many golf balls can you fit inside a school bus?
So how are you supposed to answer these questions? And what are the other common curveball questions interviewers use?
A discussion of over 800 comments on Citi's Connect: Professional Women's Network on LinkedIn offers job hunters some good answers; here are some of the toughest, trickiest interview questions people encountered -- and how they answered them.
1. 'If You Were A Burger, What Kind Would You Be?'
Aimee Chiu, Director of Media, Communications and Public Relations for the American Islamic Congress, says she was asked the burger question during an interview for her first job after college.
Answer: Aimee told the interviewer that she would be the bun, "because it holds everything together, gives it structure, and is what you see first, so it needs to be presentable." Since she was applying for a job as a PR professional, attention to image and presentation were important skills to highlight. She was told (after she got the job) that it wasn't her answer that mattered; it was the way that she responded to an unexpected question.
Strategy: Interviewers ask variations of this question all the time ("if you were a vegetable, what kind would you be?"). According to Liz Bronson, a senior recruiter, the trick is to keep your cool and remember that, in most cases, they're not trying to psychoanalyze your response. More often it's about your reaction to the question, your sense of humor, your creativity, and your thought process that matter -- rather than what you actually say.
2. 'Name 5 Different Ways You Use A Pencil At Work.'
Connie Taggart, an HR director at a New England-based engineering firm, was being interviewed by four interviewers when she was asked this question. Many of the questions had been focused on her previous experience, when one of the interviewers just chimed in with: "In all of the interviews I have been involved in, I always ask the following question ..."
Answer: Here's how she responded: "1) write 2) hairclip 3) place behind my ear 4) erase 5) throw it at someone to get their attention (just kidding on that one)."
Strategy: According to experts, the point again is to remember that there's no "right" answer. Be ready to roll with the punches so that you can answer calmly and concisely -- no matter how ridiculous the question may be.
3. 'How Many Golf Balls Fit In A 747?'
Google hiring managers are famous for their frequent use of brainteasers when screening job applicants, but complex problem-solving questions are becoming increasingly common, especially for positions that may require critical or analytical thinking. Gwen R. Hall, a senior content strategist for Lowe's, was asked this golf balls' question when she was interviewing for a job as an associate brand manager at a manufacturing company. Dawn M Dixon, PHR, an HR professional at AEGIS.net, Inc. was asked, "why is a manhole cover round?"
Answer: "I'm fairly certain the look on my face would have been priceless," Dixon remembers of the interview, which took place over 15 years ago for her first professional job. "I almost started to crack up laughing, asked them if they were serious, and then proceeded to give a horrible response. I think I said something along the lines of if it were square or rectangle it would use more raw material and be heavier to move." But despite Dixon's seemingly-flustered answer, she still got the job.
Strategy: Before you start worrying about your ability to compute complicated mathematical formulas on the spot, keep in mind that there's more than one way to answer most brainteasers -- and similar to the questions above, your reaction to the question says a lot about you as a candidate. "It's perfectly acceptable to ask for a moment to think through the problem to develop your answer," says Bronson, "which is so much better than answering right away and being all over the place."
The simplest answer to the manhole question? Manholes are round -- so the covers needs to be round so that they fit the opening.
4. 'Do you find it difficult to comport yourself professionally when you are so attractive?'
Answer: One Connect member said a woman she knows was asked this question during the interview. Her response? "I'm sorry, I was under the impression that I was applying for an executive position," then she got up, and walked out.
Strategy: Unfortunately, even though it's illegal to discriminate against job candidates because of religion, family or age, it doesn't stop some interviewers from prodding a little too far into your personal life. Another Connect member shared a story about a friend in his early 60s who was asked by a young interviewer: "Do you think you will live long enough to see this project to completion?"
The best way to handle it is to be direct, honest and "move on with a smile that lets them know that they've overstepped their bounds," says Bronson. Or, you can just say you're not comfortable answering the question. You should evaluate the interviewer's questions to determine "whether a company is the right fit for you -- just as much as the interviewer is determining if you are right for the position."
Catherine McManus, Associate Director of Marketing and Communications, Women & Co., leads public relations efforts for Citi's personal finance resource for women. She was previously head of communications and partnerships for Parenting magazine, where the number of people who struggled with her most frequently asked question -- name your three favorite magazines -- never ceased to amaze her.
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