Interviews can be tricky, especially when you're asked a question out of nowhere and aren't sure how you are meant to answer it. That's why we've compiled a number of curveball questions to look out for to help you be as prepared as possible, or at least help you identify a curveball when it comes.

These days, curveballs are usually more focused on how much interest and passion you will bring to the role, and whether you will fit in with the company culture.

The travel company Expedia, for instance, once asked someone:

“If you could go camping anywhere, where would you put your tent?”

If you hate camping, you still need to show how much you love travel. So why not pitch your tent in the penthouse suite of the Soho Grand in New York? Then smile and tell them you know that’s cheating, but they did say anywhere – and you love exploring the world’s finest cities.

Example curveball interview questions.

More general curveball questions are about assessing your personality and values to see whether you will fit in at the company. These are all real examples.

  • Have you ever stolen a pen from work?
  • What’s your favourite song… Sing it for us.
  • What do you think about when you’re alone in your car?
  • Tell us a joke.
  • What would make you quit within six weeks of taking this job?
  • Pick two celebrities to be your parents.

Again, there is no right answer – and if a larger-than-life personality isn't needed for the role or the company environment, you won’t be asked to sing. So stay relaxed. It’s the best way to let your personality work for you – and that’s vital.

“We know that personality goes a long way with a potential employer,” says Randstad Technologies consultant James Welbrook. “If you think through a curveball question and stay smiling, that will sway a lot of companies. And if it’s clear you’re going to fit in, it can help you clinch that role over someone who might be a bit more skilled than you.”

Curveball questions date back to the physicist Enrico Fermi, who used them to entertain his colleagues over lunch while they were inventing the atomic bomb. The most famous ‘Fermi question’ is: “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?”

The trick is to link sensible estimates in logical steps. Chicago’s population is (say) 3 million… four people per family means 750,000 families… one piano in every fifth family means 150,000 pianos… tuned (say) once a year. So if one person can tune four pianos a day, that’s 1,000 pianos a year… Voila. Chicago has roughly 150 piano tuners.

Unless you work in a technical industry that demands logic and problem solving, you won’t get anything so tough. A major bank that wanted numeracy and logic contented themselves with asking:

“If the time is 11:50, what is the angle between the two pointers?”

Even then, it’s not about the maths, it’s about working logically, and you should think out loud so they can follow along. Even if your answer seems wrong, you can show determination and a steady approach under pressure by saying: “That doesn't seem right. Let’s check.”

Tips for dealing with curveball questions.

Companies don’t ask curveball questions because they want the right answer, they ask them because they want the right person. So when the curveball comes…

  • Think about why the interviewer is asking it.
  • Try to match your answer to the role you are applying for.
  • If it’s technical, focus on the logic not the arithmetic.
  • Relax and keep smiling – because personality counts for a lot.

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