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Candidates should expect the unexpected in personal interviews

August 13, 2013 | Posted at 11:17 am

An expected part of the job search process, physical interviews can be a nervous experience for the unprepared candidate. However, with human resources and hiring managers often considered to be the last barrier to cross before a potential employment opportunity, a recently released list of the most difficult companies to interview for could provide answers to unexpected questions.

The toughest questions are apparently asked by McKinsey & Company, with the leading consulting firm rated as one of the more trickier nuts to crack in terms of prepared interview technique, according to Forbes. A recent survey showed that potential candidates had given them a difficulty rating of 3.9 out of 5, with interviewees describing the process as “grueling.”

One prospective business analyst applying in Boston was asked how he would calculate the annual carbon emissions from electric versus gas vehicles in the European Union, a question that was probably not high on the candidates’ list prior to the interview itself. However, this question seems remarkably sensible when considering some of the other entries on the list.

Uses for a baseball bat
For example, a software engineer applying for a position at Thoughtworks – ranked at number two in terms of questions out of left field – was asked to tell a story with the title of “Green Hat,” while an interview for Gartner in Fort Myers, Florida, required the potential employee to list as many uses as possible for a baseball bat in 30 seconds. One interviewee for a position at a consulting company in Philadelphia was reportedly asked “If I took your resume and removed the name at the top, what line on your resume would make your friends read it and recognize you?” – an enquiry that she was apparently unprepared for.

“Before an interview every candidate should be prepared to ask questions, do research about the company and the job, and think through responses to a range of interview questions, from common ones like ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ to oddball questions like ‘How many ping-pong balls fit inside a 747?’,” commented Samantha Zupan a spokesperson for the online interview ratings website that conducted the survey. “The more due diligence a candidate does ahead of time, the better prepared he or she will feel for the interview.”

According to a slideshow on the Huffington Post, a hiring manager at Rolls Royce likes engineers to describe how they would build an engine from scratch, while a business operations interviewee in India was told to calculate the total surface area of a Boeing 747. Other notable interview questions included “Teach me something” and “What kind of people do you dislike the most,” while there have been cases where a candidate has been asked to come up with alternative ways of using bricks.

Think outside the box
However, getting hit with questions that have seemingly no relevance to the position being offered can be extremely beneficial. There is increasing evidence that employers are no longer looking for candidates that have a long list of qualifications and a record of academic achievement. More and more, prospective employees are being asked to think outside the box and demonstrate an ability to think on their feet, even if comes to down to demonstrating basic math skills in front of a complete stranger.

“Often challenging and difficult interviews along with seemingly oddball interview questions can be an effective way to see how candidates think and provide an opportunity to get to know the candidate better,” said Zupan, in an interview with Forbes. “When you have to think on your toes in a stressful situation like a job interview, it can help showcase how you think through problems when the pressure is on.”