by Dennis Nishi
September 5, 2010
On her second round of interviews for an editorial job in Chicago, Jess Wangsness was asked: If you could be a giraffe without a neck or an elephant without a trunk, which would you choose and why?
"Even though none of it had anything to do with the job, we had a fairly animated conversation about elephant behavior," Ms. Wangsness says. She didn't get the job but still wonders about the question. "Perhaps employers simply like to gauge just how interesting their candidates really are?" she says.
Regardless of how offbeat some interview questions may sound, most employers have their own hidden reasons for asking them. Usually, such queries are a way to uncover information about you that standard interview questions don't suss out. And whether the goal is to gauge your leadership aptitude or test your ability to handle stress, experts say you should stay composed and answer concisely.
The way you react to a question or work through an answer can actually score more points with the interviewer than the answer you give.
Trick questions can help companies slim down a big pool of applicants, says Victor Cheng, a business coach in Bainbridge Island, Wash. His website, CaseInterview.com, offers tips for passing the type of intense problem-solving interviews used by consulting companies.
A typical question Mr. Cheng would ask job applicants: How long does it take to move an average-sized mountain a mile? There's no right or wrong answer; displaying a thoughtful and coherent process for solving the problem (or answering the question) is the point interviewers are judging.
Companies in a variety of industries have applied similar brain-twisting methodologies to their hiring practices. "Investment banks tend to ask odd questions that don't have answers as a way to test your grace under pressure. Software companies like Google or Microsoft will throw in puzzles or riddles to see how creatively you can solve things," says Mr. Cheng.
The key to finding a good answer is to systematically break the question down, making assumptions where needed to fill gaps of information. If you can see no clear way to deconstruct an answer, make your best guess and try to appear confident about your response.
Do Your Homework
Memorizing facts about the company isn't enough to impress interviewers. Research the company, the industry and, most importantly, the workplace culture and extrapolate what creative questions could be used to assess your competence. An advertising agency that specializes in social media, for example, may ask you what the most profitable crop to grow is in Farmville, a popular Facebook game, to see how familiar you are with the different social-networking services.
Even law-enforcement agencies will use unconventional questions to weed out undesirable candidates. When author Joe Navarro worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he would ask job applicants how many bumper stickers they had on their cars. "The more they have, the more rigid and stubborn they tend to be," he says. "It gives insight into beliefs and rigidity."
Whatever you do, try not to put the interviewer on the defensive, says Linda Konstan, principal at Denver-based Sensible Human Resources Consulting. "This is their way of getting to know you. Going off track isn't necessarily inappropriate," she says.
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