Preparing for Interview Questions That Don't Have a Right Answer

Tips for answering open-ended interview questions.

By + More

Arnie Fertig
Arnie Fertig
Imagine that you are in a job interview , the first thing you encounter is a purposefully unpredictable off-the-wall question like: "A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?" or "How many windows are in New York City?" According to Glassdoor's Top 25 Oddball Interview Questions survey, these questions were actually asked during interviews at Clark Construction and Bain & Company.

Other times, you'll encounter the same old, same old questions you've come to expect: "Tell me about yourself," "What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?" and "Why did you leave your last job?" Still other times you will be asked behavior-based questions that classically begin with "Tell me about a time when…" or "How would you do…?"

Regardless of which kind of approach is taken, the whole idea behind these questions for which there is no one right answer is less about the actual content but rather to discern aspects about your personality, work style, values, perspective and how your mind works. These are all things one can't reliably ask directly.

Nonetheless, you can anticipate legitimate issues of any employer's concern, prepare by crafting stories in response to these questions and display yourself in the best possible light.

1. Do you show up for work? On one very basic level, an employer wants to know that you live within a reasonable commuting distance so that you are able to arrive on time and not be mentally fatigued. But on a deeper level, be prepared to demonstrate with your answer that you actually care about your work, take it seriously and are psychologically engaged as opposed to just physically present.

Do you immediately accept the challenge of figuring out how many windows are in New York? Do you relish the opportunity and show how you would dig in to go about finding a reasonable approximation? Can you talk about how in the past you jumped into a job or project with both feet first?

2. Are you flexible? Prepare stories that demonstrate you can adapt to changing circumstances and needs. Can you speak about how you have adjusted your schedule, come in early and left late or adapted to the work style of a new boss or different team members? Are you willing to shift your priorities and work style to meet the needs of others?

What stories can you tell to demonstrate that you can go with the flow to help get done whatever needs to happen?

3. Are you ambitious? Few people can actually predict what they will be doing five years from now. But can you talk about the overall arc of your career up to this point? Do the transitions from one position to the next over the course of your professional life make sense, or are they happenstance? Can you articulate the general direction in which you want to move?

What have you done to propel your career forward up to this point? And, are you relying on what you did in 1985 and how you did it to get hired today? Do you think that the skills and knowledge you have will get you by for the long haul, or what are your plans to keep up with the latest and greatest information, innovations, trends and technology?

Put simply: can you articulate a vision of what you want to accomplish in the job for which you are applying, and beyond? And can you weave this vision into the narrative you tell?

4. How well do you communicate? It is rare to find a job description that doesn't include strong communications skills among the requirements, and few are the résumés that don't claim that those skills. Most interviewers will judge your level of intelligence and your attitude by the way you speak and convey your own personal story.

Often, interview questions are purposefully open-ended to see how you will respond when challenged. Do you summon relevant facts and stories from your past, or do you meander through an answer without dealing with the concern of your interviewer? Do you engage through dialogue, open body language and clarity of thought? Do you understand when enough has been said and it is time to stop speaking?

When you take the time to step back from the interview process to think about the underlying concerns of any employer, you can gain valuable perspective. Then you can go about effectively crafting your own stories with these concerns, and thereby increase your odds of hearing the words that every job hunter craves: "You're hired."

Happy hunting!

Arnie Fertig is the head coach of JOBHUNTERCOACH.COM, where he utilizes his extensive background in HR Staffing and as owner of a recruiting company to help mid-career job-hunters land their next job. Arnie provides one-to-one coaching services to individuals throughout the U.S. in all aspects of the job hunt, including: resume writing, personal branding, utilizing social media, enhancing networking skills, preparing for interviews, and negotiating compensation.