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How Do You Answer Ambiguous Interview Questions?

When Google announced that it was about to drop its policy of asking candidates questions that were impossible to answer, it is likely that there was a huge sigh of relief among job seekers in the information technology and software sector, especially for those who don't know the number of golf balls that can fit in a school bus.

However, just because interviews at the search engine giant may have gotten a bit less complicated, it doesn't mean that other employers are following suit. In years past, preparing for an interview with a potential employer was arguably a matter of knowing how your skills and experiences allowed you to be successful in the role; today, there is greater emphasis on questions designed to see how fast candidates can think on their feet. As a result, it's vital for candidates to be prepared to answer more ambiguous, open-ended questions.

As most job seekers are already aware of, interviews aren't necessarily designed to be a walk in the park. Potential employers want to see what a candidate knows and how that can be of benefit to that company. As a result, there are two types of questions that can often stump the common interviewee—open-ended and outlandish—and any candidate should be ready for both.

Open-ended questions
Preparing for an interview ahead of time is generally recommended, and these type of questions can be practiced quite easily. Most employers will expect the candidate to have an idea of where they see themselves in five years or why that individual should be hired, but it is important to remember that just parroting a stock answer may not always be impressive.

What hiring managers are really looking for is for the candidate to approach an open-ended question in a thoughtful or introspective manner. Even if the question seems tough, the individual should be able to demonstrate an abstract line of thinking and an ability to work through questions that don't have a clear or definitive answer. At the same time, it shows the interviewer that a person is creative and, importantly, honest, especially if personal experience can be brought into the equation.

Outlandish questions
Unlike the open-ended questions, it is much more difficult to prepare for outlandish questions because there are a variety of different and unpredictable questions that could be asked. A good way to prepare for these outlandish questions is to look up examples and practice and develop a formula for answering them. Calculating how many cocktail umbrellas are in use at any time in the U.S. or estimating the exact rate that should be charged to wash all the windows in Seattle are obviously difficult and can appear intimidating. As a result, remember, there are no "right answers." These curveballs are simply designed to get your analytical mind working.

When answering, be sure to work these out verbally with the interviewer so he/she can observe your process, how you think, etc. This is the best way to answer the questions, which are designed to test problem-solving skills and an aptitude for thinking under pressure. Potential employers want to see how the interviewees work, so candidates should always verbalize their answer—ideally in a good-natured manner, with a smile on their face.  

Ultimately, hiring is a two-way process and questions are an inevitable part of achieving the goals of both parties. Not every company will throw unexpected questions into the mix, but just in case, every job seeker should be prepared.

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