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Give Smart Answers to Stupid Interview Questions

By Gerald Walsh ©

As if interviews weren’t stressful enough already, interviewers will sometimes lob a bizarre question your way to see how you respond to an unexpected query. How you handle those questions says a lot about you, even though you may think of them as strange or silly.

Let’s start with the stupidest of questions (in my opinion) – the ones supposedly designed to measure some aspect of your personality. Take, for example, this question: “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?”

Apparently if you answer tiger, lion, cougar, or some other type of strong animal, you have the needed aggressive tendencies to propel you to the corner office in no time flat. On the other hand, if you say lamb, cat, bunny rabbit, or anything cuddly or furry, you are destined for more passive jobs, such as an accountant or administrator. Heaven help you if you say you’d like to be a type of reptile.

As you have no doubt detected from my sarcasm, I do not think highly of these questions.

However there are also sensible questions that are designed to test your thought process. In other words, they are drafted to find out how you might go about arriving at the answer if you were given more time. Sometimes the interviewer asking the question doesn’t even know the correct answer and actually doesn’t care what it is. She is really only concerned with testing qualities like analytical and problem-solving abilities.

Take this question, for example: “How many gas stations are there in North America?” Very few people would know the exact answer to that question. If you are asked one of these questions, the rule of thumb to follow is to pause and think carefully about what the interviewer is looking for. Then, proceed to answer.

For example, the gas stations question is clearly testing your problem-solving skills. So your answer might be something like this:

I am not sure how many gas stations there are in North America. But’s here is an approach I would take to figure it out. There are about 350 million people in the U.S. and about 35 million in Canada. That’s 385 million people altogether. I would attempt to find out how many gas stations there are, say, for every 10,000 people. Let’s assume there are four stations for every 10,000 people. That would mean there are about 150,000 stations in North America.

Always try to figure out a way to answer the question. Saying “I have absolutely no idea how many gas stations there are in North America” is not a good answer.

Other questions that are designed to test your interests and character include:

What is the most interesting place in the world you have visited and why?
Tell me the last two books you have read and why you selected these ones?
If you invited me over to your house for dinner, what would you make me?
If you could trade places with any living person, who would that be and why?
If you won $10 million in the lottery, what would you do with the money and how would your life change?
Tell us what you do outside of work. How do you spend your spare time?

All of these questions are designed to learn more about the breadth and depth of your interests. Where you have visited might say something about your openness to other cultures and ideas. The types of books you read might indicate your knowledge of the employer’s industry. What you would do with your lottery winnings might say something about your sense of social responsibility.

In all cases, be careful about how you answer these questions. If appropriate, you should consider adding some insight on why you answered the question a certain way. For example, if you spend your spare time reading trashy romance novels, you might want to preface your answer by stating,
“I spend all day long reading boring, complex legal documents so I unwind by reading trashy romance novels.” It gives your answer more context.

Still others are designed to determine how you see yourself:

If there was a story written about you on the front page of the paper, what would the heading be?
If you were to die tonight, what would your best friend say about you?
If you were to assemble your last three bosses in a room to have a conversation about you, what would they say?
On a scale of one to ten, how smart are you?
In three words, how would you describe yourself?

Regardless of how you feel about some of these seemingly strange and silly questions, one thing they do is add a sense of spontaneity to the interview process. For that reason alone, they can be fun and a nice departure from the traditional interview which is usually based on a set of predictable, standardized questions.

A final tip: It is difficult to prepare fully for these types of questions. The best strategy, when asked a question like this, is to take a moment and try to figure out why the interviewer is asking it. What quality is she trying to get at? Just like the “gas station” question was trying to get at your problem-solving and analytical skills, there is probably an underlying reason for the question. Figure this out before you start to answer.

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Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and writer. During a 25+ year career, he has interviewed more than 10,000 job candidates, completed hundreds of successful searches for a range of organizations and guided many individuals – from young professionals to senior executives – to successful career change. He is the author of “PINNACLE: How to Land the Right Job and Find Fulfillment in Your Career.” You can follow Gerry on Twitter @Gerald_Walsh and LinkedIn