Interview Questions from Left Field

Potential employers enjoy asking MBA applicants some off-the-wall questions. Here's how to not get rattled

In May, Jon Borden, a second-year MBA student from Northeastern University, interviewed at Blue Cross Blue Shield for a position as an IT recruiter. When he arrived for the interview, he was as well-prepared as he believed he could be. Because the position he was interviewing for required an almost immediate start date, he figured the interview would be quick and to the point.

It wasn't long into the meeting, however, before Borden was faced with a question unlike any other he had ever encountered in an interview: "If you could have any superpower, what would it be?"

"I was shocked," he admits. Even though Borden himself used to ask unexpected questions during interviews as an IT recruiter at Addeco (ADO), he admits being caught off guard: "I didn't see that coming at all."

Manhole Cover Puzzle

While not a new trend, asking seemingly unrelated or impossible-to-answer questions aimed at throwing candidates for a loop seems to have turned from an uncommon interview tactic into something much more mainstream, says Lynne Sarikas, director of Northeastern's MBA Career Center. "This is something Microsoft (MSFT) popularized a few years ago," Sarikas says. "They were notorious for asking strange questions like, Why is a manhole cover round?'"

Sarikas explains that much of the reason certain interviewers ask unpredictable questions is to catch candidates in an unguarded moment. "To some degree, it's a response to candidates being too prepared," she says. "These days, you're dead in the water if you're not prepared because companies expect you to be."

William Poundstone, author of How Would You Move Mount Fuji?: Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle: How the World's Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkers, says that as far back as the 1950s, companies like Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) were asking logic-puzzle questions during interviews to assess how well a candidate thinks on his feet.

A New Era of Interviewing Techniques

"At first I had a lot of skepticism about how well these sorts of questions worked," Poundstone says. However, over the course of researching his book, he spoke to a number of human resource experts who explained the need for, and importance of, such questions. "They have a good point," Poundstone says, "in that if two candidates are exactly the same in every other way, and you're not judging them on how they react to an unusual question in an interview, then you're basing it on how firm their handshake is and how they're dressed, or some other superficial thing."

Expecting the unexpected is the Catch-22 of this new era in interviewing techniques. Yet how does one prepare for a question like, "How many cars would you expect to see in the parking lot of the local grocery store at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning in January?" or "In the news story of your life, what would the headline say?"

"More times than not, you're not expected to have the correct answer," Sarikas says. "In fact, in many cases, there is no right answer." However, she goes on to note that asking seemingly-impossible questions can offer a wealth of information for the companies interviewing, as well as a great opportunity for candidates to showcase their abilities to think creatively and on the spot.

Whirlpool Throws a Curveball

Tiffany Voglewede, recruiting manager for Whirlpool (WHR), says that questions and problems posed to candidates during interviews that may seem off-the-wall can actually be designed to "prepare a potential candidate for what is to come in that company" and can work well to showcase the ability of the candidate to think quickly and innovatively.

Whirlpool, she notes, has used behavioral questions during interviews, as "past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior. We're looking for candidates who can hit the ground running and add value to the company," she says, adding that creative questioning is a good indication of "how a candidate might react when they're thrown a curveball by a senior level associate."

Sarikas suggests job candidates confronted by one of these questions take a minute to breathe and contemplate the answer. "Do you get rattled easily? Do you remain calm? Do you have a sense of humor? That's what these companies are trying to get at in the interviews," Sarikas says. "Running off your mouth before engaging your brain is a bad idea. It's O.K. to acknowledge that you need a moment, and to use that moment to think about how you handle yourself."

Demonstrating Your Business Acumen

She adds that when faced with unusual questions that may seem unrelated to the job one is interviewing for, such as, 'If you could be any animal, what animal would you be?' it is important to have a reason for that choice and to then "tie it back to who you are and what you have to offer. Think about the message you're trying to impart," she says, "and use these questions to make you stand out and make sure that you're memorable in a good way."

Borden believes his response to the difficult question of choosing any superpower was instrumental in his being offered the job at Blue Cross. "I took my time in thinking about my answer," he says, "which I think was the purpose of the question, to see how I functioned under pressure." He eventually answered that his superpower would be the ability to see into the future, which he then related to his business acumen, saying that he could use that power to adjust what he did today in order to do business better and make more money in the future.

Tom Kozicki, president of the MBA Career Services Council, and career center director at the University of California-Irvine's Merage School of Business, says that "it's important to note that every interview is specific to the company interviewing and the person one is being interviewed by."

Kozicki suggests prepping before an interview by coming up with stories and examples that lend themselves to the specific position one is interviewing for. "No matter the question, whether they ask a straightforward one or a surprise and unexpected one," Kozicki says, "fundamentally, what the company's looking for remains the same. They want to know whether you have the ability to deal with ambiguity, to assess and be innovative, and to think creatively and on the spot."

Poundstone, meanwhile, says that when confronted with a difficult question, candidates should work through the problem out loud, piece by piece. "Companies always want you to walk through every part, to show you have an algorithm and can solve the problem solve step by step," he says. "You definitely don't want to just sit there silent."