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Don't Get Stumped by Off-the-Wall Job Interview Questions
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Picture yourself in this scene: You're in a job interview. Everything is going better than you imagined it could. You look professional and fabulous. You are totally prepared. You are on a roll. You're nailing every interview question. You feel wonderful rapport with your interviewer. Suddenly, out of the blue she asks you:
"Imagine you could trade places with anyone for just a week. The person could be famous or not famous, living or from history, real or fictional. With whom would you trade places?"
It's all you can do to keep your jaw from dropping. You're stunned. You feel your mouth drying up and sweat forming on your forehead. Your head is spinning, and your mind is a blank. You're thinking, why in the world is she asking me this absurd question?
Welcome to the world of the off-the-wall interview question -- weird, wacky, gimmicky, and off-beat "wild card" questions that seem to have nothing to do with your ability to handle a job. If they're irrelevant to job performance, why do employers ask them?
They want to see how well you can think on your feet. They want to see if you'll get rattled. They may want to test your creativity or sense of humor. They want to challenge you. Employers who ask these goofy questions no doubt may feel the questions do relate to job performance. In creating stress by asking you a weird question, the interviewer may be testing how well you'll respond to the stress of the workplace.
And let's face it; job-seekers have vast resources at their disposal in the form of books, articles, and Web sites on how to respond to traditional and even those tricky behavioral interview questions (See our Job Interview Questions Database and Interview Question Collections.). So interviewers sometimes want to lob a curve ball at you by asking a question that you probably didn't prepare for. In his book, College Grad Job Hunter, Brian Krueger calls these question "dumb" questions, whose purpose, Krueger writes "is to get past your pre-programmed answers to find out if you are capable of an original thought."
Of course, we won't refute the possibility that some employers may just be sadistic and want to see you squirm, or they relish the amusement of seeing how you'll answer an oddball question.
Because an off-the-wall question can be virtually anything, they are nearly impossible to prepare for. Still, some, like the question about being/meeting/dining with a famous person, have been around for awhile and are worth preparing an answer for -- just in case.
The key to responding to an off-the-wall question is not to let it rattle you. Don't adopt a deer-in-the-headlights look if you get hit with one of these funky queries. Simply smile, take a deep breathe, and take a moment to compose your response. A little bit of silence is better than blurting out something even sillier than the question. You don't have to brilliant. You don't have to be witty. Just be yourself and give an honest response. If worse comes to worst, and you absolutely cannot think of an answer, ask if you can come back to that question later. You may lose a few thinking-on-your-feet points, but you'll gain points for handling a difficult situation with poise.
Above all, take comfort in the fact that there is rarely a wrong answer to these offbeat questions. True, some responses can raise eyebrows. When I taught college students and conducted mock interviews with them, I would occasionally get "Adolph Hitler" as a response to the famous-person question. Rather than thinking the student was a Neo-Nazi, I chalked up that answer to a student who probably knows so little about history that Hitler was the only person he or she could think of.
If you can turn your answer into something job-related, that's a bonus, but it's probably above the expectations of the interviewer. For example, if you're interviewing for a finance job and are asked what you'd do with a large windfall of money, you could give a clever response about how you'd invest the cash.
Below, we've provided some sample off-the-wall questions. The first group are questions submitted by readers, along with the answers they used. Be aware that studying this list of questions may be no help at all if you're ever asked a weird question because you may be asked something totally different from any of these questions. The point is to expect the unexpected, and looking over these questions will at least give you the flavor of what might be asked and enable you to do a little out-of-the-box thinking about how you might respond when you're asked a question as strange as these:
Shelley Feakes, resource navigator at Queens Career Resource Center in Nova Scotia, Canada, was asked: "If aliens landed in front of you and, in exchange for anything you desire, offered you any position on their planet, what would you want?"
"I thought about this question for a minute," Feakes recalls, "then responded: 'First I would want to go change my clothes since the aliens just scared the crap out of me! ... then I would for a job as Chief Navigator so I could enjoy coming to Earth and scaring the crap out of other human beings."
Explains Feakes: "My strategy was this: I first thought that it was a psychological question, that the interviewer was trying to see how far up the ladder I desired to be ... then I thought twice and decided that I would express my creativity and go for an answer that was just as odd as the question itself. It must have worked ... I got the job!"
Another reader was not happy about the odd questions she was asked. "I was asked who my heroes were and how I felt about affirmative action in the same interview. Talk about loaded questions! Looking back, it was obvious that I would be required to be very [politically correct] and think just like them to work there. If I hadn't been a single mother and desperate for work, I would have answered, 'I think this interview is over.'" She doesn't remember how she actually did answer, but notes that "Those questions have nothing to do with the ability to do a job and are out of line. I'm probably lucky they didn't hire me because I'm sure I would have been unhappy there."
Still another reader was asked "if you could be any animal in the jungle what would it be?" He answered: "I would be a gorilla so I could be the king of the jungle because it is survival of the fittest in the jungle. I would also be able to climb trees well and get a bird's eye view of what is going on so I could stay abreast of what was happening in the jungle scene." The reader felt the employer liked his response because he got a second interview. "I thought it was a pretty good answer myself," he observed.
More off-the-wall "wild card" job interview questions:
- If you could be any character in fiction, whom would you be?
- If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?
- If you could be a superhero, what would you want your superpowers to be?
- If someone wrote a biography about you, what do you think the title should be?
- If you had to be shipwrecked on a deserted island, but all your human needs - such as food and water -- were taken care of, what two items would you want to have with you?
- If you had six months with no obligations or financial constraints, what would you do with the time?
- If you had only six months left to live, what would you do with the time?
- If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be, and why?
- If you could compare yourself with any animal, which would it be and why?
- If you were a type of food, what type of food would you be?
- If you won $20 million in the lottery, what would you do with the money?
- If you were a salad, what kind of dressing would you have?
- How do I rate as an interviewer?
- If you were a car, what kind would you be?
- Who do you admire the most and why?
- In the news story about your life, what would the headline say?
After reading this article, you should be ready to test your ability to answer some wild card questions. Are you? If so, go to: Job-Seeker Interview Database: Off-the-Wall/Wild Card Interview Practice Questions. Once you submit your answers, you'll receive an email with sample excellent responses.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com.
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