“So what book are you currently in the process of reading?”
If asked this question by a friend or a former English teacher, I wouldn’t have blinked. However, when posed by an interviewer for a job, it threw me for a bit of a loop.
I took a second to breathe and think (two things that are always good when nerves strike during conversations) and responded honestly that I was in the middle of a biography about Major League baseball manager Joe Maddon. This answer led us into a discussion of how I prefer true stories over fiction and how both of us hoped Maddon would soon lead the Chicago Cubs to a long-awaited World Series title.
I got the job and a year later Maddon got his championship ring.
In retrospect, the question wasn’t a bad one. It gave the interviewer a glimpse into my personality and interests, provided a welcome respite from standard job chat, and showed her that this candidate has indeed picked up a book since graduation.
While coming prepared to answer basics such as “Tell me about yourself” or “What’s your greatest weakness?” should still be par for the course, savvy job hunters may want to kick their efforts up a notch to be ready for curveballs. Here’s how:
Think about why employers ask odd questions
An interviewer probably isn’t just wasting time floating out whatever pops into his head. Most likely, there is a reason behind the question.
For instance, candidates at Google have been thrown doozies such as “How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?” and “Explain a database in three sentences to your 8-year-old nephew.” For the first, the exact number isn’t what’s important; rather, the employer wants to hear you logically work your way through the problem. (A golf ball is about an inch high. The bus is about 50 feet long.) And for the second question, how you break down a complex topic for a child is a good indicator of your ability to communicate clearly with non-tech colleagues.
Whether an interviewer wants to witness your creativity (“If you could be a superhero, which one would you be and why?”) or test your attention to detail (“Close your eyes and describe everything on my desk”), she probably has another objective too – seeing how you react when thrown off course. Employers love people who can remain calm and think on their feet.
Of course you can’t know ahead of time what odd question an interviewer might ask. But what you can do is practice putting yourself in the uncomfortable situation. Grab a friend to help with some mock interviews. Tell the person to randomly throw in some unusual questions along with the standard fare. (The internet is filled with weird questions applicants have been asked, if your stand-in interviewer needs inspiration. A good place to start is this list of 36 “fun” to answer ones.) The more you practice responses to these types of questions, the better you’ll be at working through whatever comes your way.
That breath I mentioned taking when faced with my own unexpected interview question is a key to retaining composure. The action brings needed oxygen to the brain and allows time to gather thoughts. Experts also agree that asking the interviewer for a moment to think is acceptable. After all, who wants an employee who blurts out any old answer rather than putting effort into their words?
Whatever you do, refrain from becoming defensive. Irately informing the interviewer that her question has nothing to do with the position will actually tell her quite a bit about why she shouldn’t hire you.