Curveball Interview Questions: Why They’re Asked and How To Handle Them

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Posted October 9, 2013 by Kristen J. Zavo in Career Moves
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With the plethora of information in books and online, there really is no excuse to head into interview anything but 100% prepared – knowledgeable about the company, ready to talk about your experience, how it applies to the open position, and so on. But sometimes even the best-prepped candidate is caught off guard with the dreaded curveball question.

Think back to the most bizarre, off-topic has-nothing-to-do-with-the-job brainteaser type of question you’ve ever encountered in an interview – one that you could have never prepared for. Here’s one that comes to mind for me:

If you had the help of a Russian army, how would you collect exactly three leaves from every tree in Central Park in just two hours?

Huh? What just happened? Your heart pounds, your mind races and you begin to sweat, as you see your perfect interview begin to unravel. You hear yourself stutter some nonsense – anything to fill the dead air – but then immediately regret doing so.

Can you relate? If so, you are not alone. While you can’t possibly have seen and have an answer for every variation of these question types, the good news is that you can be prepared with the way you will approach them when they arise.

Here are 4 tips to mastering the curveball/brainteaser interview question:

Stay Calm

Keep in mind that in general, there is no “right” answer to these non-work-related brainteasers. They are designed to:

  1. See how you react under stress (don’t let ‘em see you sweat!)
  2. Assess your ability to think on your feet
  3. Gain insight into your thought process and problem-solving ability (are you logical, creative, collaborative…)

Make Sure You Understand The Question

Ask the interviewer to repeat if necessary, and clarify any points. In my example, some questions I asked were:

  • What season is it?
  • What is the definition of a tree?
  • When you say every tree, do you mean every different type of tree, or literally every tree? (he meant literally every tree)
  • Besides the Russian Army, what are my other resources?

Think Through The Answer, Possibly Out Loud

Don’t feel the need to immediately come up with a solution. Take some time – up to a minute or two – to think the problem through, write down ideas and draw diagrams if helpful. Especially if you aren’t sure of the answer, it doesn’t hurt to talk through your thought process – just as you would with your team when confronted with a challenge at work.

Maintain A Positive Attitude

Whatever you do, maintain a positive attitude and a sense of humor. Remember, employers look to this as an example of how you handle unfamiliar and stressful situations. Throwing your arms up in exasperation isn’t going to win you any points.

But remaining calm, thinking through a solution – even admitting you don’t have all the answers (this is a limited period of time and a hypothetical situation, after all!), will make you stand out from the crowd.

Your turn – what is the most outlandish, unusual, or unexpected interview question you’ve ever been asked and how did you respond?


About the Author

Kristen J. Zavo

Kristen J. Zavo is a product development, strategy and innovation professional, with a special interest in the retail industry. Having always been interested in the people side of business, Kristen loves to explore, reflect on, and share stories about the challenges and adventures of being a businesswoman. No topic is off limits - whether it's how to handle being the only woman in the boardroom, or figuring out how to to pack all the "essentials" for a 2-week business trip in just a carry-on! Outside of work, she loves exploring new places, spending time at the beach and meeting friends to workout (spin or yoga, anyone?!).

5 Comments


  1.  
    Kelsy Gaida

    If you were an exotic animal, which one would you be and why?




  2.  
    Jennifer

    I had a classic experience with the question, “If you could be any color, what would it be?”
    At that point I was already quite amused by these folks and knew I wouldn’t accept if offered so I said calmly, “Magenta” only to have the dentist ask, “What color is that?”
    We (the older office manager woman with great pomp) had a good laugh afterwards trying to steer him a close hue of the color and then I revealed the fact I’d seriously pick another color entirely.




    •  
      Kristen J. Zavo

      Jennifer, sounds like that question backfired on him! The good news is that this gave you a chance to think about your answer in a non-stressful situation, since you already knew you didn’t want the job.





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