How to Ace Weird Interview Questions

Last Updated Jan 10, 2011 3:01 PM EST

How to ace unexpected interview questions
Last week, we unveiled the top 25 oddball interview questions of 2010, courtesy of job-hunting site Glassdoor.com. But that begged another question: How exactly do you answer a weird question, such as this one, reportedly asked by a Goldman Sachs interviewer: If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out? (A Goldman spokesperson assures us this is not a standard interview question.)

Career counselors and interview coaches agree that interviewers don't really care what specific answers are given to these types of questions (thank goodness). Instead, they want to see how a job candidate approaches a certain type of problem and handles him or herself in an unfamiliar situation. Here's what they suggest you do when asked a curveball question:

1. Don't take it too seriously.

Brian Ash, a career management coach at New York-based executive assessment and coaching firm BeamPines, points out, "Sometimes interviewers [ask bizarre questions] just to lighten the mood."

One of the interviewer's tasks, he notes, is to figure out is what it would be like to be stuck working late with you on a Friday night. If an interviewer is asking oddball questions and you're giving straight answers, you're not doing a great job fitting into the corporate culture, Ash says.

So if you're asked how many traffic lights are in Manhattan, as a job candidate at Argus Information & Advisory Services reportedly was, Ash says you might reply, "Too many! It took me an hour to get here!" before going on to ask what the interviewer is looking for--maybe research skills or mathematical abilities--and then giving a more serious answer. (Argus did not respond to BNET's request for a comment.)

"You don't have to make them laugh, " Ash says, "but you do have to get them off-script." That's how you turn the interview from a question-and-answer session into a real conversation, and that's how you become memorable to the interviewer and give yourself a better chance at being hired.

2. Answer the concern underlying question.
The first rule of interviewing is that you should answer the question you're asked. It's perfectly permissible to ask for more information, though. So if a question appears to be digging at your research, mathematical, or reasoning abilities--such as one reportedly from Nielsen, about how many bottles of beer were consumed in a certain city in a week--ask what the interviewer is trying to learn from the question and then provide that information as best you can. (Nielsen did not respond to BNET's request for comment.) If the interviewer responds that he or she is looking to find out about your research methodology, for instance, there are at least three different ways to respond, each of which tells the interviewer something about you.
  • You might mention others that would be likely to help you with such a query. In other words, you delegate well and recognize when others have superior expertise.
  • If you're a bottom-up thinker, you might describe how you'd figure it out on your own. Maybe you'd start with the population of the city, then estimate how much beer each adult drinks per day or week, then make adjustments for holidays or spring break.
  • Top-down more your style? You might start with the amount of beer consumed nationally (again, you'd say who could provide that of information), then dividing that by the population of your particular city and making adjustments based on whether you live in a party-hardy college town or a more staid location.
3. Tell them to take this job and shove It.
Ford R. Myers, a career coach and author of How to Get the Job You Want, Even When No One's Hiring, thinks these bizarre interview questions are "manipulative, disrespectful, and a waste of everybody's time and energy." He says he wouldn't want to work at a place that asked him, say, which superhero he'd most like to be (that one reportedly comes from AT&T, which did not respond to BNET's request for comment).

"Interviewing for a job is like dating," Myers says. "You're supposed to be on best behavior. If this is how they treat you when you're dating, how will they treat you when you've accepted the job and basically, you're married?"

So, if you're asked a strange question, he says, respond frankly. "I would say, 'If you want to know something about me, just ask and I'll tell you,'" says Myers. And ask yourself if you really want to work at a place that treats job candidates so cavalierly.

What's the strangest interview question you've ever been asked--or posed to a job candidate? Next, we'll report on your oddball interview questions, so please keep on sending your comments!

Read More: The 25 Weirdest Interview Questions of 2010
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. She was most recently a senior editor at BusinessWeek and founding editor of BusinessWeek SmallBiz, an award-winning bimonthly magazine for entrepreneurs. Follow her on twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.

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