In the November 5, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks about “sample” inteview questions and answers:

I am preparing for an interview with one of the big consulting firms, and I thought I would send you some sample interview questions that I retrieved from the Internet. (The article provided answers, too, but I thought they were ridiculous.) How would you advise answering these questions? Any help is appreciated. Here goes:

  1. Tell me about yourself.stupid-questions
  2. Why do you want to work here?
  3. Why did you leave your last job? (Or, Why do you want to leave your current company?)
  4. What are your best skills?
  5. What is your major weakness?
  6. Do you prefer to work by yourself or with others?
  7. What are your career goals? (Or, What are your future plans?)
  8. What are your hobbies? (Or, Do you play any sports?)
  9. What salary are you expecting?
  10. What have I forgotten to ask?

Nick’s Reply

Ah, yet another version of The Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions! I’m sorry you didn’t share the suggested answers, because whoever wrote this is ushering you toward your interview demise.

Are there really stupid questions? Of course — they’re questions that are old, loaded, and worn out. They are not worth asking because any fool can find dozens of clever rejoinders in books and articles (like this one) and regurgitate them with a smile. Interviews shouldn’t be about questions — they should be about two-way discussion.

But let’s get back to what you asked. There used to be a book titled The Top 2800 Interview Questions… And Answers. I have this fantasy: You walk into an employer’s office, shake hands, and say, “I know you have a lot of questions for me. So let’s save us both a lot of time.” You slide that baby across the desk toward the manager… “So here they are, along with all the answers. Now can we cut the crap and talk about the job and how I’ll do it for you, okay?”

Most interviewers are clueless about how to interview and hire good people. Like most job hunters, they’re brainwashed by the employment industry to focus on everything but the one thing that really matters:

How are you going to do this job profitably for my company?

Your challenge is to turn the interview around to a discussion based on that one question. But, here’s how I’d handle those Top Ten questions, because interviewers do ask them. Heads up: If you use my suggested answers, you’re a dope. Don’t be a dope! Use what follows as a first step to re-thinking how you manage your interviews. Turn them into discussions or working meetings.

1. Tell me about yourself.

Before you start talking, think about how people nuke their own job interviews: Don’t Compete With Yourself.

You’ll note that I’ve abbreviated that article because it’s now part of Book Six, The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire in the Fearless Job Hunting collection. But here’s a tip from it:

“Most job candidates sit like cornered mice, waiting for the interviewer to start the action. Don’t wait for the employer to ask you the first question— the question that will bring your anxiety to a head. Speak first. Get the ball rolling on a topic your scared self can’t interfere with. Talk about something you know absolutely nothing about, and which your scared self can’t screw up.

“Start an unexpected conversation. Ask the manager about himself, about his successes, or about the state of the industry. There’s nothing to be nervous about, because you are letting the manager perform. You’ve immediately handed him the ball while you acclimate yourself. In the process, you are learning something that might help you with this interview.” (pp. 2-3)

(Hint: You should ask the interviewer about this before he asks you.)

2. Why do you want to work here?

“You are one of only three companies I want to work for. The others are A and B. I believe your business model makes it possible for individual employees to make a clear impact on the bottom line. With your permission, I’d like to go up to your whiteboard and outline how I think I could do that.”

(You’d best have done your homework and know for a fact that what you’re saying about this company is accurate. Otherwise, why interview?)

3. Why did you leave your last job?

If you can answer question #2, all you have to say is that your last employer didn’t view each job in terms of how it contributed to the company’s success. “A job was a job unto itself. I believe all jobs are interconnected, and how I do my work affects how effectively others can do theirs. I left that employer because I want a job where I can contribute to the business.”

4. What are your best skills?

“My most important skill is that I can ride a fast learning curve without falling off. Every job is different and requires new skills, new approaches and new ideas. I’m a quick study, and I can break down a task so I can get it done. In fact, if you’d lay out a live problem you’re facing right now, something you’d want me to handle if you hired me, I’d like to roll up my sleeves and show you how I’d apply the necessary skills to tackle it.”

(This requires lots of preparation in advance. If you’re not willing to do it, then you have no business interviewing with this company.)

5. What is your major weakness?

(Smile when you say this.) “That’s one of those Stupid Interview Questions Nick Corcodilos talks about on Ask The Headhunter. By the time I’m done showing you how I would do this job profitably for you, my weaknesses won’t matter. If you think I have critical weaknesses when we’re done with this interview, then you shouldn’t hire me. (Smile again.) Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but I really believe that one thing matters above all: You should evaluate me based on what I show you I can do, not on some clever answer I found in a book.”

Next week, we’ll cover Stupid Interview Questions #6 – #10. I’ve already got them worked up, but if you offer different questions that are better qualified for this notorious list, I’ll substitute your choices for the ones in this reader’s list.

Of course, if you’ve got better suggestions than mine above, I expect to see them posted below as comments. Remember: This is about having a discussion with an employer. Not about clever answers to stupid questions.

What’s the most ridiculous “serious” question an employer has asked you? Are canned questions really useful for assessing job applicants? What do you do when such questions come up in interviews? Join us on the blog!

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  1. I was asked (seriously) if you were one of the Seven Dwarfs, which one would you be?

    • Questions like that make me Grumpy!

  2. Nick
    [Full discosure: I work for a recruitment agency that hires for management consulting firms.]
    If your questioner is moving into management consulting for the first time, how does she use your technique about showing how she’d do the job?

  3. I interviewed at a start-up and was asked what cocktail I would be. I think they wanted to see how I would react to the question as part of fitting into the laid-back, start-up culture. Could finding culture fit be a reasonable justification for oddball questions – or would you say that you could also deduce culture fit from content-based questions?

  4. “If you were a boat, what kind of boat would you be?

    This was for a financial services company.

    • “What would you estimate the dimensions of this room to be?”

      “Which of the two positions do you think you’d like the most?” I answered wrong and got neither.

  5. “I was asked (seriously) if you were one of the Seven Dwarfs, which one would you be?”
    Possible answers:
    1. Excuse me. I’m here for the accounting position, not the stage production of Snow White.
    2. I don’t know, but I know which one you are, Dopey.
    3. I hope you don’t play games like this on the job, because I take my work seriously.

  6. FYI: My internet security software detected malicious content on this site.

  7. I haven’t run across the weakness question in a while, but the favorite answer I hear was to say in a very deep and serious voice, “You are not authorized for that information.”

  8. A head hunter asked, in an initial interview, noting I was an independent consultant at the time, was I covered for health insurance under my wife’s plan?

    I almost choked on my salad. I waited and then said that if that was where the interview was going – it was for a senior level opening at a nonprofit – I wanted no part of it and would not feel comfortable working for an organization that felt comfortable working with his firm!

  9. From the British series, The Office:

    When Keith was asked by an interviewer to identify his biggest shortcoming, his answer was, simply, “Eczema.”

  10. Really? 2800 Interview Questions? That inspires a new version of the old joke:
    A man is waiting to interview for a job, and another candidate is ahead of him. He hears the interviewer say 124 and the interviewee respond 247. Our candidate goes to the secretary and whispers “what is going on?”
    “That’s an experienced candidate,” she says, “who knows about the 2800 Interview Questions and Answers book.”

    Finally the interviewer gives the other interviewee a hearty handshake and it is our heroes’ turn.
    After pleasantries the interviewer says “397.”
    The interviewee responds “426.” After a few rounds of this the interviewer dismisses him with a brusque “We’ll contact you later.”
    Our hero leaves, convinced he didn’t get the job. “What happened?” he asks the secretary.
    She shakes her head. “You weren’t sincere enough.”

  11. I was just interviewed by Expedia on a 3rd go around. Now mind you three days before the interview, they decided to repost the job on LinkedIn so at that point I seriously questioned exactly how committed they were to ANY candidate.

    At the last phase of an exhausting 3 hours (2 spent commuting) interviewing, a young woman who had only been with Expedia for two months was allowed to interview me (WHY?). She had been snide and at times challenging my answers, then she asks me “If you were any animal, what animal would you want to be and why?”

    Really? You idiot?? You are going to waste an intelligent, well-educated woman’s time by asking me one of the top listed worse interview questions out there (yes, I googled it) as well as listed as the most “dumb and pointless” interview questions out there.
    I was pissed and two months later am still pissed. I will never apply to Expedia ever again. What was I supposed to say? “Great White Shark?”

    Although, here is my favorite cartoon from the Oatmeal…the Microsoft Q&A is my personal favorite

  12. Great cartoon from the Oatmeal if I can get it to link

  13. The craziest I was asked was, “If I were to ask you how organized your closet was what would you say, not at all, sorta or very…and would you be comfortable showing it at any time without notice?”

    I felt like walking out at that moment and report this sicko to his boss and a labor board.

  14. I’ve been asked “What kind of animal would you be?” and “What color would you be?”.

    Those kinds of questions have absolutely nothing to do with the job or with my abilities and skills. If they’re trying to figure out whether I’d fit in or not, then why not say “We’re a pretty rowdy bunch–how do you handle teasing, practical jokes, and horseplay?”, or “I’m a hands-off manager–how are you at finding things to do?” or “We’re a pretty close group and like to socialize after work often–hope that you like and can play pool”.

    Asking what kind of animal I’d be or what color I’d be–I don’t even know how to answer that, and without knowing the other employees and boss really well, any answer given is bound to be wrong.

    What I’d like to know is why HR and hiring managers waste their time and mine asking these kinds of questions, especially since no one has any time for training. How about investing some of the waste with stupid questions and ridiculous hiring procedures (ATS) with picking a candidate who meets 7 or 8 of 10 criteria, is a good fit, and training him/her in the missing areas?

  15. Surprisingly, I actually liked the ‘what kind of animal are you’ question. I saw it as an opportunity to communicate my personality which can contribute to likeability.

    My guess is those employers that like canned questions like them because they want to see how a candidate thinks on the fly. But of course it’s a shame when a good candidate gets weeded out by them. Maybe they get used primarily for assessing personality/likeability.

    SIQ: “How would you move Mount Adams?” My answer: I laughed. I thought there was no way this was a serious question and the interviewer had made it up to lighten the mood or something. And we moved on to the next question.

    I ended up getting the position and was seated near the room where interviews were conducted. And I kept hearing “How would you move Mount Adams?” through the door.

  16. Admittedly, the time was right after Vietnam. I was interviewing at a defense contractor.

    It was one of those round-robin interviews where everyone and anyone gets to ask questions. The flower-child from HR seriously asked:

    “So why did you waste your time in the Marines instead of going to college right out of high school?”

  17. “Tell me one thing about you, but only one thing, so I can get to know you.” And the interviewer insisted it had to be only one fact.

    “My full name is…”

  18. In an interview, I was asked if I was fast. I thought fast at what? I should have asked for clarification, but I just expained that I was a fast learner, etc. After the interview, I did some research on the interviewer, so I had a better idea of what to write in the thank you letter. I saw on several Internet sites that this person prided himself on typing over 100 wpm! I never knew that was so important to some people. Also, typing speed was not part of the job description.

  19. Apart from a few silly questions mentioned, I remember one in an interview for an internship. The interviewer had asked me what were my favorite classes in high school. Since this was for an IT position, I found fitting to say ‘Math’, because it was actually anyway. The interviewer seemed slightly disappointed. Afterwards, I learned that he was obsessed with Ancient Greek language and history. Eventually I was offered the position, but I declined it, because the future boss seemed strange enough, in general…

  20. @David

    Dig further into the “animal” question by doing some Google searches. This particular test was developed in 1995. yes, 1995. There are over 70,000 possible outcomes (the animals). The actual basis of the question is summarized with the four Fs: Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing and Sex. Example: if you choose a Carnivorous personality you would be considered assertive and adventurous while being an Herbivorous personality would be considered passive and cautious.

    Now. Tell me how in the HELL this stupid ass question is a good valuation of my MBA and 9-years of IT experience?
    It doesn’t.At.All.
    If anything I now need to take a Prilosec because I am giving myself heartburn over this stupid ass question again.

  21. OH…but isn’t Expedia so incredibly witty for allowing a 2-month employed junior employee to ask this question? Pretty clever isn’t it?

  22. Are extraterrestrials included in the “animal” question?

    Do any of the readers know what a Purple Phlurff is? (My spelling might be wrong.)

  23. Most interviewers are clueless. I don’t mean this in a bad way. Where are people taught how to interview others? So, they go on what they were asked it they google good interview questions and go from that. Generally, i think they mean well and are trying. But without any experience or training, you are going to get canned questions. I know I made that same mistake when I was first asked to interview people. You ready these questions and even if they sound silly, some person with a lot lf credentials is telling you that these are good questions to ask.

    The flip side is most candidates are clueless. They know they want a job and the job description sounds kind of cool. They know they can do the job and want to be productive. Are these people has candidates? Some are. Some aren’t. A good interviewer has to figure that out.

    One of my early mentors told me something that really helped me understand people and keep a positive outlook. “Never assume malice when simple incompatance will suffice”. I have added in the word ignorance. Roll with the bad questions. In the interviewers mind, these stupid questions help them.

  24. @Citizen X

    I know the Purple People Eater

  25. Here is a classic war story I like to share:

    About 5 years ago I responded top a job posting. They claimed they wanted someone to work with their clients to write/tweak the reports that the software they were using would produce – in the advert they wanted someone to do SQL for them. They wanted someone with a Bachelors degree in Computer Science (which I have) and bonus points were given to those were a Masters Degree (I have a Masters degree in Computational Science). Plus I had similar experience at my current position.

    So I submit my resume and I get a call from their office manager and I get asked how I would rate my SQL/Linux skills and ask for my desired salary. I get called again for an interview.

    I go to the interview. Come to find out, it’s basically a Tech Support job for their custom B2B software.

    The interviewer asked me “Where do I see myself in 5 years?” I told the truth that I would eventually like to move up the ladder into more of a programming role. He was shocked – and said “Well, we’re hiring for this job now.”

    I basically gave him candid feedback – That he did the bait-and-switch by not accurately describing the job. I also told him that anyone with a Bachelors/Masters degree in the field would like to eventually move into a programming role. Lastly, I asked him if my desired salary was doable on their end and they said no. So, I told him, why would I quit my current position, take less money/benefits/title with no sort of advancement plan?

    I think they took what I said to heart. I did see that their future postings were more truthful and they toned down their educational requirements.

  26. If you could summarize your philosophy of life in one sentence, what would it be?

    My response – “F” you if you can’t take a joke.
    ::sound of crickets chirping::

    and no, I did not substitute the letter for the word.

  27. @C

    I had planned to put something similar on my headstone, but I’m sure my wife and daughter would override me (though that was my mentor’s favorite saying).

    Getting back to the serious discussion of stupid questions . . .

    If someone were to ask what tree or animal or fish or bird I would want to be, I hope that I could remain composed enough to answer: I see that you’re trying to determine my creative ability. I would love to discuss the creativity involved in creating over 1,000 new pallet positions for only $20,000. Or how I eliminated the night shift. Or how I was able to reduce staff in the face of increased workloads and complexity of customer demands. Or how I generally find elegant solutions to stupid everyday problems in running a business.

    I think that you’d find those discussions much more useful in deciding my value to your organization than my explanation of why I would like to become a Purple Phlurff.

    Of course, if they asked what superhero would be most useful in a distribution center, there is only one answer: WOLVERINE!

    How else are you going to get all those cases opened in time?

  28. My all time favorite worst question?

    “Where do you see yourself in 5 years”

    How the heck do I know where I will be?

  29. @Ed Murray

    The issue with that question, IMHO, is that people want to ask it but can’t handle the honest answer.

    Like in my example, I called out the company because they asked it, especially without thinking about the context which it was asked.

    Like I always say, the only wrong answer in my mind is “I want to be doing the same exact thing, have the same exact responsibility for the same exact pay.” Anything else is fair game really. If they can’t give you career progression if you meet your goals, then that is all you need to know.

  30. @Gwen,

    The question about your closet’s organization is not as crazy as it sounds. People who are good at quickly grasping interrelationships among disparate elements will tend to have some disarray in the way they organize their environment. They don’t need to have everything in place, because they provide structure internally. This aptitude relates to classification ability. Someone with high classification in a job that does not require it would go nuts. Accounting, for example, does not require high classification ability.

    The problem with relying on a candidate’s answer to assess ability is that it is a subjective assessment and subject to the candidate’s telling the interviewer what he/she thinks the interviewer wants to hear. However, that’s better than spending $500 on a test of each candidate in an initial round.

    I do think that if the interviewer is using a question like this to assess aptitude, he/she should be up front about it. Otherwise, it comes off as being off the wall and open to misinterpretation.

  31. @SF Thanks for the very intelligent interpretation that I did not see. However, though this may be true, the guy who asked was a true (*insert creative obscenity here*-hole) and his energy and demeanor was “off”. I think he was suggested an intellectual interview question by someone else who was truly intelligent because his other questions (that I failed to mention) proved he had issues in other areas, one being a sexist.

    I liked your comment though. To a “normal” individual, this question could have had some weight and value.

  32. Interviewer :What does the NT in windows NT stand for?

    Me : I’m sorry I dont know

    Interviewer : Its “New technology”

    Me : So when NT boots and the spash screen says “Based on NT Technology” that actually reads “Based on New Technology Technolgy”

    Interviewer : Silence

  33. @Mick: That’s referred to as “skimming the surface” of knowledge. :-)

  34. I was recently asked if I could be a Transformer which one would I be? In the same interview I was asked the favorite animal question.

  35. When interviewing for a teacher job with a four person panel of other teachers, they asked me, “What is your educational philosophy?” “How do you shape your teaching methods to reach the adult learner?” “How do you intergrate multimedia into your class presentation? After the third question I said. “If I had know there was going to be a quiz I would have studied.” They all burst out laughing. The next question was, “How soon could you start?”

  36. I think this ‘weakness’ question might actually (if it were asked honestly) be a way of asking “Why might we regret having hired you?”.
    My response (honest) is that I don’t have much tolerance for incompetence or laziness.