I was stumped by a weird question in an interview—how could I have prepared better? Elaine Varelas explores the trend of non-traditional interview questions

Interview questions can run the gamut from traditional inquiries about past experience to favorite pastimes to creative brainteasers. These questions all serve different purposes in the interview and require different approaches to best "prepare" for the unexpected. Elaine Varelas weighs in on the trend of creative, non-traditional questions in interviews, highlighting that authenticity is always key.

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: I know about behavioral interviews and can speak confidently about my past accomplishments and the results I achieved. But at my last interview, I was thrown a curve ball and asked about my favorite book and why. This is a fairly tame example, but what about the trend of unusual questions like “If you were a pizza delivery person, how would you benefit from scissors?” What are interviewers looking for and how do you prepare for this?

A: I’m glad you know about behavioral interviewing and other types of interviews to help you prepare to address your accomplishments. Out-of-the-ordinary questions may be less about your professional success and more about gaining a three-dimensional picture of who you are as a person. Interviewers know that people are not just a list of jobs and degrees on a resume and that they have rich lives beyond the typical information presented in an interview. Asking about other areas of your life may help them learn more about who you are. The really curve ball questions—like the pizza delivery question—are likely testing for ingenuity, innovation, or extemporaneous speaking ability. There is a lot of information to be gleaned from unusual, unexpected interview questions. Some of this information may be silly and some information may be very valuable.

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Asking about a favorite book, pastime, or sports team is well within the realm of getting to know a fuller picture of a job candidate. There’s no real way to prepare for these kinds of questions, other than recognizing the need to be honest and authentic—without being brutally honest. If your favorite book is something way outside the mainstream or is in any way unsuitable for the situation, I wouldn’t advise going down that path unless it somehow relates to the industry you’re interviewing for. Think about who you are three-dimensionally—in your work life, your personal life, and your social life, and how much information about those sides of you you’re comfortable sharing.

Authenticity is key. Even as you are being honest, you may be providing a somewhat curated answer. This is fine—as long as you don’t get caught. If you say “Jane Austen is my favorite author!” the interviewer could very well follow up with “Mine too—what’s your favorite book?”—leaving you at a total loss for an answer. Whatever you choose to discuss, make sure it is something you can actually speak knowledgeably about and don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. If you find yourself truly thrown off course by an unexpected question, you should feel comfortable saying “That’s a really interesting question—I’ve never been asked that before. What are you hoping to learn with this information?” And if you totally freeze, you can acknowledge that you weren’t anticipating a question like that and would like to give it some thought. Then maybe take a moment to think of the last book you read and what you liked about it or the types of books you typically gravitate toward. If you end up saying, “I actually really enjoy films, and the most recent one that made me think was…,” that’s fine, too. Relax and don’t panic. If at the end of the interview you remember the book, say it then or follow up in an email—as long as it’s accurate and not just pulled from the latest bestseller list. Remember, an interview is a conversation. It goes both ways, and nobody should be put off by anything, unless it’s illegal, harassing, or otherwise inappropriate for the workplace.

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The really imaginative questions have grown in popularity, especially in tech and related fields that require creativity. They are usually interested in seeing how your brain works. When Google and Apple were first hiring, they would put a problem in their ads, and interested candidates had to send in their answers. If they liked your answer or the process you took to get there, you were granted an interview. Trying to prepare in advance for questions or brainteasers like this may actually defeat the purpose, but if the company you’re interviewing at is known for off-beat questions, be prepared for the possibility. Take whatever steps necessary to be relaxed and get into the right head space, so you can think creatively and call on your memory. If you’re anxious and wound up too tightly, you risk just spitting out the first thing you think of, which may not be your best response.

To prime yourself for potential unusual interview questions, think about what you might want to discuss about yourself, prioritize authenticity, and don’t panic.

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June 18, 2019 | 8:55 AM