As if job interviews weren’t nerve-wracking enough, why do recruiters feel it necessary to throw in curveball interview questions that seem designed to make interviewees sweat?
Questions that seem completely left field. What bearing does, “what do other people say about you?” have on the role being applied for?
Why, as a recruiter, would you ask, “if you were a car, what sort of car would you be?”
As a candidate, you might have thoroughly prepared your responses to “tell me about a time when …” for six different competencies using the STAR method and worked out what you’re going to say if you’re asked about salary expectations.
You may have polished your shoes and worked out your route to the interview.
But how do you prepare for these weird, curveball interview questions?
And how do you make an impact with your answer?
Why ask curveball interview questions?
Are these questions just there to catch candidates out? To put you off your stride? To see how you respond under pressure?
Maybe for some interviewers, yes.
But most have legitimate reasons for asking these questions.
The trick is to understand what recruiters are really trying to find out about you. And then provide an engaging answer that helps you stand out from the crowd.
1. Tell me about your hobbies
Translation: Tell me who you really are.
Be careful: to recognise that your hobbies say a lot about your personality. Recruiters will be considering what they reveal about whether you’ll fit in.
For instance, if you’re someone who climbs mountains and jumps out of planes at the weekend then it’s likely you’re something of a risk-taker.
But what if the organisation you’re applying to is very risk-averse, or the role itself requires a very steady pair of hands? Do your hobbies suggest you’d be a good fit?
On the other hand, hobbies that are overly-aligned with the job on offer, e.g. a librarian who likes reading books, might suggest a lack of broader life experience or someone who isn’t open to new adventures.
It’s your opportunity: to demonstrate that you’re a well-rounded person who tries new things, builds strong networks and is interesting to be around.
2. Where do you see yourself in 3 / 5 / 10 years’ time?
Translation: Either a) are we wasting our time on you because you’ll just move on the minute you arrive? Or b) Do you have the ambition and vision to drive through change in our business?
Be careful: not to look too ambitious or too unambitious – yes, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword!
Many people find this one tricky because they don’t really know where they’re going in their careers.
And even if you do, this question can feel like a bit of a trap. Especially if you’re planning on replacing the person asking the question!
It’s your opportunity: to show that you’re self-aware and have thought, at least a little, about where your career is heading. Think about what level of ambition might be required in this role/organisation and what sort of development opportunities might be available.
3. What do other people say about you? / What are your weaknesses?
Translation: Are you self-aware?
Be careful: not to say “perfectionism”. Even if it’s true. It’s rather self-serving – “my only fault is I care too much!”
It’s your opportunity: to show that you are aware of your flaws and know how they impact on your work. And, most importantly, what you do to address those issues. E.g. “I know I can get a little absorbed in the detail which can slow project delivery. So I make sure I set myself an earlier deadline to keep myself on track.”
4. Why are you leaving your current job?
Translation: What did you do wrong?
Be careful: not to bitch about your previous/current employer – it makes you look, well, bitchy. And the issues you raise may not reflect well on you either – complaining about your manager, for instance, suggests you can’t make difficult relationships work.
It’s your opportunity: to focus on what you’re moving to rather than what you’re leaving behind. What is it about this opportunity that’s so attractive you’re considering leaving your current role?
5. If you were a car, what sort of car would you be? (and other variations)
Translation: Can you think on your feet?
Be careful: to make sure you give the reason for your answer – that’s what the recruiter’s really interested in. Think you’re a Ford Mondeo? Why? You’re reliable, always prepared, able to take others with you. Or perhaps you’re more of a Porsche – you achieve your targets quickly and deliver high quality work, you’re always in control.
It’s your opportunity: to relax. This really isn’t one you can prepare for. And, to be honest it doesn’t matter what you say. As long as you back up your answer with something relevant and interesting.
6. Who do you admire?
Translation: what are your values?
Be careful: not to be boring. Everyone says Richard Branson, Hillary Clinton or their mum! Be different.
It’s your opportunity: to demonstrate how your values are aligned to the organisation or the role. For instance, to this question I would (and have) answer Kier Hardie, one of the founders of the Labour party in 1900, as he really believed in people and society supporting each other – here I have indicated someone who is unusual (i.e. engaging the interviewer) but also someone who reflects my personal values (i.e. I like to work in an organisation where people believe in supporting each other).
Curveball interview questions make things interesting
I’ll let you in on a secret – interviewing all day can be a tad tedious. Curveball interview questions provide the interviewer with the chance to spice things up a little and get to know you more personally.
Seen from that perspective, they’re also your opportunity to be interesting, to make an impression and help the interviewer see the real you.
So that when they’re comparing candidates, they’re more likely to remember you as someone they might enjoy having around.