This is a guest post by Ben Thomas, a member of the Riley Guide writing team and expert on a variety of topics related to the job search.
Job interviews can serve up stress even under favorable conditions – which is why many of us just hope for a smooth conversation without too many verbal missteps. But if you’re aiming to upgrade to a higher-level position, or to join a highly competitive corporate culture, you may well encounter some of the dreaded “weird” questions: “How many golf balls does it take to fill a 747?” “What do you think about when you are alone in your car?” and so on. These questions are designed to be unpredictable – and since even notorious puzzle-posers like Google and Microsoft constantly shake up their question arsenal, it can be hard to predict what types of oddball queries you’ll face. Still, a positive attitude and a few handy rules can help you understand what your interviewer’s really after, and answer accordingly. Here are three tips that’ll help you answer even the oddest questions with honesty and intelligence.
Match the interviewer’s tone
Different corporate cultures promote different attitudes in interview offices. In Silicon Valley’s startup landscape, interviewers may test your mathematical skill, but the interview’s overall tone is likely to be lighter and friendlier than, say, an interview for a job with the FBI. In any environment, though, questions can come flying at you quickly, from unexpected angles – which is why it’s crucial to keep pace with the pulse of the room. If you’ve built up some rapport with the interviewer and he or she accompanies an unusual question with a smirk, you may be able to get away with a response that makes him or her chuckle. But even in cases like this, you can turn odd questions to your advantage by following them up with a, “seriously, though,” and a more thoughtful answer, demonstrating that you’ve got a sense of humor but aren’t the type to shy away from unexpected situations. “The point to remember is, every question in the interview has a purpose,” says Bill Cole, CEO of Cole Consultants. “Your job as the interviewee is to figure out if the question is just for fun, or if there’s something more serious behind it.”
Follow your authenticity
No matter how absurd the question, you’re unlikely to go wrong by offering an authentic answer – even if it takes you a few seconds to ponder. If a question strikes your personal sense of humor, there’s no reason you can’t offer a response in that same vein – but there’s also no reason to fake a flippant attitude if the question makes you feel genuinely curious. “Most interviewers can see when you are not being real, and for the most part they want to hire someone they make a connection with,” says Michelle Waguespack of Career Planning Services, LLC. Thus, you’ll actually be doing yourself a favor by pondering oddball questions that set your gears turning, and offering a well-thought-out answer. If you come across as overly serious to the interviewer, you may avoid getting stuck with a job in a corporate culture that rubs you the wrong way. By the same token, if a question strikes you as funny, forcing yourself to answer seriously could cast you as a stiffer character than you really are. One caution, though: Don’t let authenticity get in the way of rapport. “Don’t give a dismissive answer, like, ‘I thought I was going to get a serious question; can you ask another one?’,” Cole says. “The question is there for a reason, so at least make sure your answer is interesting.”
When in doubt, reroute
Interview questions are often designed to offer the interviewee a challenge. Whether the interviewer is testing your technical expertise or your sense of fun – or both at once – the biggest misstep to avoid is blowing your cool. Even if you have no idea how to answer an oddball question, you can still shine in the interview room by responding intelligently – and in fact, this may be exactly what the interviewer is looking for when he or she throws a bizarre question your way. “When dealing with math problem interview questions, the interviewer is typically trying to assess your problem solving skills,” Waguespack says. “So show them your creative juices flowing.” If an interviewer asks you about a technical diagram or software program with which you’re unfamiliar, it’s perfectly acceptable to respond that you don’t know about that particular program or process, but have figured out how to use a similar one. “Then go into some detail, emphasizing your experience and understanding of the similarities,” Cole says. Along the same lines, you can often get away with answering a math-related question by explaining the steps you’d take to reach a solution. What you’re really demonstrating, above all, is your ability to recognize relevant facts and incorporate them into your thought process on the fly.
Despite what you may have learned in school, the “right” answer to an oddball question is generally a reply that fits the tone of the interview, conveys your honest attitude and demonstrates an ability to think on your feet. By contrast, even a mathematically correct answer might be “wrong” if it doesn’t appear to have much thought behind it. It’s fine to be nervous when facing an oddball question. Just remember, the answer itself is often less important than how you arrive at it.
Ben Thomas, a member of the Riley Guide writing team, is an expert on a variety of topics related to the job search.
Founded in 1994 by a university librarian, Margaret F. Dikel (formerly Margaret Riley), The Riley Guide is the Web’s premier directory of job, career, and education information sources available online. Although aimed at job, career, and education seekers, others including recruiters and other career services should also find the guide to be a valuable reference.