The Truth Behind Those Crazy Interview Questions

What would you do if I gave you an elephant? Which Seinfeld character are you most like? Why interviewers ask questions like these--and how to answer them.

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Karen Burns
If you were a breakfast cereal, what kind would you be? What would you do if I gave you an elephant? Which Seinfeld character are you most like? Please describe how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If you could have dinner with any famous person, living or dead, who would it be?

Why do employers ask crazy interview questions like these?

[See 21 Secrets to Getting the Job.]

Believe it or not, some of them think it will help you relax. Some frankly admit that they’re trying to throw you off guard. Others want to get past the practiced responses you’ve worked on so hard to see the “real" you. And yet others may simply want to know if you have a sense of humor.

Most, however, pose the occasional off-the-wall question because they want to see how well you think on your feet. The key to coping with crazy interview questions is to remember that how you answer matters much more than what you answer.

Basically, you want to come off as confident and comfortable dealing with the unexpected, even in a situation as stressful as a job interview. Sound like a tall order? Here are a few tips:

 [See The Worst Mistake You Can Make on Your Resume.]

1. First, answer the question. Don’t stonewall or say, “What does this have to do with the job?” You’ll come off as defensive, inflexible, and uncooperative.

2. Think of the crazy question as an interesting exercise in problem solving. Remember that there is no “right” answer to questions like these. Quickly gather the relevant data as best you can and work your way toward the most logical solution.

3. Remember that you are allowed to take a deep breath and ponder for a moment before answering. You can also stall for time by repeating the question to the interviewer. If you absolutely have to, ask if you can come back to that question later in the interview.

4. Trying to guess the motive behind the question may help. For example, the dinner-with-a-famous-person question is an attempt to discover your interests and values. So take this opportunity to say something compelling about your interests and values, ideally connecting them to your work and the job you’re seeking.

[See more job advice at U.S. News Careers.]

5. Don’t be a slave to the question. For example, the Seinfeld character question is a (lame) attempt to learn something about your personality. But the fact is that all the characters on Seinfeld are a little crazy and you don’t really want to be identified with any of them. So don’t feel you have to pick one. Instead, talk about which favorable qualities of the different characters best describe you.

6. A sense of humor can help. If your first impulse is to be funny, and you are truly a funny person, go with it. Just be sure that your witticisms make you look smart and sensible. Keep it light-hearted and clean, please.

7. Be honest. If you try to think of an answer that you think the interviewer will want to hear, you’re going to come off as insincere and manipulative. Put the best light on yourself in a truthful way. You will feel better about yourself, and the employer will think more highly of you, too.

8. As with all interview questions, try to use concrete examples from your work experience and qualifications. If you can, answer in the form of a story—i.e., a beginning, middle, and end.

9. Keep bringing it back to what you have to offer to this employer. If the interviewer wants to know what “Friends” character you most resemble and you choose to mention that you are as highly educated as Ross and as methodical as Monica, tie those qualities to the job.

10. Finally, never let them see you sweat! Don’t jiggle your knee, tap your pen, drum your fingers, twirl your hair, or bite your nails. Keep cool.

Karen Burns is the author of the illustrated career advice book The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use, recently released by Running Press. She blogs at www.karenburnsworkinggirl.com.