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The Art of Answering Unpredictable Interview Questions

“Tell me about your life from kindergarten onwards” or “If you were to get rid of one state in the U.S., which would it be and why?” – These may sound like outlandish questions from a shrink, but believe it or not, they’re actually legitimate questions that you may be asked on an interview. Employers have a multitude of ways to test your imagination!

Those incredibly broad, and seemingly irrelevant interview questions came from two very well-respected companies. As ridiculous as these questions may seem, they’re becoming popular with large, well-known companies such as Facebook, Google, and Citigroup. The reasoning behind such oddball questions is rooted in a growing desire amongst companies to see their candidates think on their feet. Though your natural reaction may result in physiological phenomena such as an increased heart rate and/or confusion, try not to let your nerves get the best of you.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic “right” answer for any of these questions (believe us, if we had them, we would tell you). However, we can tell you what angle to take when answering so that you can attack these questions head on. Read on for a list crazy interview questions, compiled by CBS News, and what the best approach is to take when answering.

  • Towers Watson (HR Consulting – Risk Management Insurance): “Estimate how many planes there are in the sky.”
  • Procter & Gamble (Consumer Goods Company): “Sell me an invisible pen.”
  • Citigroup (Financial Services Corporation): “What is your strategy at table tennis?”
  • Lubin Lawrence (Consulting Firm): “If you could describe Hershey, Godiva and Dove chocolate as people, how would you describe them?”
  • Facebook: “Twenty five racehorses, no stopwatch, five tracks. Figure out the top three fastest horses in the fewest number of races.”
  • Brown & Brown Insurance (Independent Insurance Intermediary): “How would you rate your life on a scale of 1 to 10?”
  • Gryphon Scientific (Specialized Small Business Consulting Practice): “How many cocktail umbrellas are there in a given time in the United States?”

Answering These Questions:

The thought behind this new line of questioning is two-fold. First is the concern that jobseekers now have widespread access to the Internet, making it much easier to answer predictable interview questions. With a simple search, a candidate can find detailed explanations on how to answer the classic questions, as well as answers that can be memorized. Second, highly sought-after employers have the luxury of searching through a large pool of candidates for that one star who can wow them with their out-of-the-box thinking and creativity. By asking such questions, and listening to the kinds of answers the candidate comes up with, hiring managers are able to deduce how well a candidate can think on their feet. Another factor they may be looking to gauge is how well a candidate handles stress.

If you’re asked a question of this nature, remember, the hiring manager really wants to see a candidate’s aptitude and the way their mind works, so be sure to express yourself, whether that be through a logical answer, or an inventive one. For instance, a hiring manager at Clark Construction Group asks “A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?” The intent of that unpredictable question is to see if you’re the creative type, whether you have a sense of humor, and how good you are at making a pitch on the spot.

Be cognizant of the fact that the most well-constructed outlandish interview questions are actually relevant to the interests of the company, and have been structured to gather intel on potential employees, so try and read between the lines. For instance, when interviewing sales candidates, one CEO asks “Do you consider yourself lucky?” If the candidate answers “No, I never win anything,” their chances of getting a call back are much lower, as this lets the CEO know that they’re a negative thinker. Since positivity is important to success in sales, the CEO looks for a person who can see the bright side of any situation.

The key to answering these questions is to take your time with the answer and calmly refuse to let the question faze you. Keep a smile on your face, and take a deep breath while you consider your response. The few seconds it takes you to come up with an answer will be much less awkward than the silence that will follow from an immediate nonsensical response.

If you find yourself at a loss for words, and the question truly does seem unanswerable or completely out of left field, before responding, politely ask the interviewer if they can explain in more detail how the problem being asked of you relates to the problems solved at the company. Phrase your question in a way that shows you want to give the hiring manager as relevant of an answer as possible to ensure they get the best reading of you as a candidate and find the information they’re looking for. If you’re still drawing a blank, simply ask if you can come back to the question later. At the very least, your interviewer should appreciate the way you keep your composure in a jarring situation.

To prepare for the possibility of weird questions, we advise studying this list, and thinking “what would I really say if I was asked this question?” Adapting your mind to answer the unanswerable is the best way to train for such out of the blue questions.

Aside from that, we wish you good luck and hope that your charisma shines through in your answer to those tricky interviewers!

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