How to answer unexpected interview questions

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(MoneyWatch) As a hiring manager, I have had to interview many candidates for a handful of open positions over the last few years. What I've found especially fascinating about the process is some of the conversations that I've had with candidates after the hiring process was over. A number of them said to me they were relieved at the straight-forward nature of most of the questions we lobbed at them; they expected off-the-wall questions that had nothing to do with the job requirements. Indeed, a number of companies still conduct such interviews.

You probably know the kinds of questions I'm referring to, even if you've never been exposed to them yourself firsthand. I mean questions like these:

  • If you could become an animal, which one would you like to be?
  • What character from a book or movie would you like to be?
  • Would you rather be a popular but poor performer, or a despised top performer?
  • What famous person would you like to have lunch with?
  • What would you title your autobiography?
  • Explain the theory of relativity.
  • If your house were on fire, what five things would you save?
  • How many gumballs could you fit in this room?

The goal isn't to give the "right" answer to any of these questions. Indeed, for the most part, these questions don't really have any right answers--at least as far as the interviewer is concerned. Instead, the goal is to get some insight into the way you think the way you handle pressure, and to learn something about your personality. With that in mind, here are some tricks to keep in mind when you get tossed one of these strange questions:

Talk it out. Interviewers don't want you to think in silence for a few moments and blurt out an answer. Instead, the best way to tackle questions like these is to think them though verbally so the interviewer can learn a little about your thought process. Indeed, taking it slow and thinking it through logically will help you stay cool, appear logical and focused, and will help drive you to a meaningful answer.

Be honest. If you don't know the answer, say so. And don't give the answer you think the interviewer expects, because it won't sound sincere. Moreover, in many cases, there is no specific right answer.

Even if you have no idea what the right answer is, keep talking. For example, suppose you're asked to explain Einstein's theory of relativity, but the most science you ever learned was that metal sticks to magnets. That's okay; tell the interviewer what you do know. "Well, I'm not much of a science geek and don't know much about Einstein, but I do know that relativity helped explain that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. So I suppose that proves that not everything is relative, and there are some absolutes in the universe."

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