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LYNN NEARY, host:

Forget the standard, what are your strengths and weaknesses? These days, if you were to sit down for an interview, in addition to preparing notes on your leadership skills, you may also want to contemplate, what kind of fruit would you be and why? While the curveball question has long been a popular staple of theater auditions, these days, employers from investment banks to mediate companies are vetting their perspective employees with somewhat unconventional queries.

Lynne Sarikas is the director of the Career Center at Northeastern University, and she's been compiling these kinds of interview questions. Today, she joins us from NPR member station WBUR in Boston, and we want to hear from you. Have you ever been asked one of these curveball questions during an interview? Were you the one conducting the interview? Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can also comment on our blog. It's npr.org/blogofthenation. So, good to have you with us, Lynne.

Ms. LYNNE A. SARIKAS (Director, MBA Career Center, Northeastern University): Thank you. Great to be with you.

NEARY: So, tell me about these curveball - these questions, the curveball questions. I mean, what's the point of them?

Ms. SARIKAS: I think most employers are realizing that students, or applicants in general, are more prepared these days. There's so many resources available on the web. People know they're going to be asked that strengths-and-weaknesses question. And so, the curveball question is an opportunity to catch people off guard, see that unpolished self, as though it's like a glimpse into who that person really is across the desk.

NEARY: So, what do employers think they're going to learn by asking these kinds of questions?

Ms. SARIKAS: It really - in most of those questions, there's not a right answer. So, it's more gauging how well the applicant thinks on their feet, how creative they are, sometimes what their thought process is. It also gives you a glimpse at honesty and spontaneity.

NEARY: Well, let's get some examples here where you've been compiling some of these questions. What are some of your favorites?

Ms. SARIKAS: Oh, one of the popular ones these days is, if you were a superhero, what would you want your super power to be?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SARIKAS: I had one student asked on the spot to identify ten uses for a used milk carton.

NEARY: Wow.

Ms. SARIKAS: You know, if you were a salad, what kind of dressing would you want on you? If someone were writing your biography, what would the title be? Or who would play the, you know, title role if it was made into a film? Just an interesting range that, you know, if you were an animal, what animal would you be? What tree would you want to be? Just things that, you know, it's hard to imagine how that fits the particular job, but it gives them a glimpse of you are.

NEARY: Yeah. I can kind of see the point of some of them, but you know, what kind of salad dressing you want to be? That's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: It's hard to know what you're going to learn from that.

Ms. SARIKAS: Being able to come up with an answer and then have a reason for giving that answer.

NEARY: Yeah. Well, let me ask you this. I mean - and I don't know up to what degree you've talked with people who've been in these circumstances, but how much time do people have to come up with answers? I mean, if I got thrown one of these questions, it seems to me it would take me a little bit to come with something. How quickly are you supposed to come with it a clever retort, I wonder?

Ms. SARIKAS: Fairly spontaneously. It's OK to take a deep breath. It's OK to say, give me a minute to think about that one. But usually they're not looking to give you much more than that. Some of the questions that require kind of more analytical thought process, it's OK to talk through your thought process. So, you don't quite know the answer yet, but if you talk about the kind of data you'd need to pull together to make a logical decision, you can be thinking as you're talking yourself through the process.

NEARY: Yeah. We are talking with Lynne Sarikas. She is the director of the MBA Career Center in Northeastern University. She's telling us about some of the strange questions you might encounter in an interview. We're going to take a call now. We're going to go to Phil, and Phil is calling us from Mountain View, California. Hi, Phil.

PHIL (Caller): Hi. This is Phil from Mountain View, part of Silicon Valley, and I was interviewing for an engineering consulting job. And they asked me what my major weakness was. And for an engineering job that's a curveball, totally off the wall. And I just blurted out the first thing that came to my mind, which was green kryptonite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: So, you had the curveball answer as opposed to curveball question.

PHIL: Yeah, I didn't get the job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Why is that such a curveball for an engineering job?

PHIL: Well, it's rare enough to get technical questions. Mostly it's, how soon can you start? And what sort of experience do you have?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: So, just being asked that - and is that because engineers don't admit their weaknesses, or what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PHIL: I think it's because engineering interviewers are so uncomfortable talking about anything that's at all personal.

NEARY: OK. All right. Well, thanks so much for calling us.

PHIL: Thank you.

NEARY: And I just want to remind our listeners that you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. We're going to go next to Allison. She's calling from Cape Cod. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON (Caller): Hi. I used to work on a sailboat called the Clearwater on the Hudson River, and - can you hear me?

NEARY: Yes, I can.

ALLISON: Oh, OK. And when I would do interviews for crew, or for education, people or interns coming on the boat, I often used questions like that. Like, if you were a cereal, what kind of cereal would you be? And I mean, really the only reason was to just see how people would react when they're thrown something like that. Like, are you going to hold it together? Can you have something really quick? Are you going to be really creative? And I think, you know, a good interviewer will give them a few seconds, or a minute or two, to think about it.

NEARY: Yeah.

ALLISON: And it was really just kind of interesting just to see their reaction to something like that.

NEARY: Do you remember some of the good answers or some of the bad answers or...?

ALLISON: I don't think there really is a bad or a good answer. You know, I think if they're willing to go with you on it, that's a good indication that they might be willing to, you know, do something important in a hurry if they're working with you on a sailboat.

NEARY: Aha. And to what degree did those kinds of - the answers to those kinds of questions sort of tip the decision one way or the other for you?

ALLISON: Well, I mean, if I had two people with similar qualifications and backgrounds and, you know, one was super creative, and quick, and witty, about their answer and their reason why, I think I'm probably, you know, may lean towards that person if there was only one (unintelligible)...

NEARY: All right. So it can really make...

ALLISON: Funny as it might seem, you know?

NEARY: Yeah. So, these can really make a difference then?

ALLISON: Yeah. I think - especially in that kind of environment. We were close-knit community, living on a sailboat, a lot of music, a lot of - we needed people to be creative. So, you know...

NEARY: Right.

ALLISON: Helps the job.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Allison.

ALLISON: Thank you.

NEARY: So, Lynne Sarikas, what kind of advice do you give to people for how they should handle these kinds of questions?

Ms. SARIKAS: The first advice would be to be super well-prepared for the anticipated questions. If you're really well-prepared and ready to talk about the strengths and weaknesses, and where do you see yourself five years from now, and why are you qualified for this job, the better prepared you are for those, kind of the more brain cells you've got available to be spontaneous and go with the flow on some of these off-the-wall questions.

We encourage our students to practice with each other some of the crazy questions just to kind of get comfortable with the concept. Not that they're ever going to be asked the same questions, but if you play around with it and have some fun with it, it's going to be easier when you find yourself in that situation. And then, bottom line, be honest. Don't try to, you know, psyche out the interviewer and come up with some, you know, brainy answer. Be honest. Be who you are. Go with your gut, and that's usually going to serve you well.

NEARY: All right. We have a couple of emails here. One is from Elaine and it says, back in the mid-'80s, I was part of a personnel team for a company in suburban St. Louis, Missouri. We had developed our own Total Quality training process. We routinely used curveball questions in interviews. My personal favorite involved a paper plate. We handed the interviewee a paper plate and ask them to come up with five uses for it other than eating in 60 seconds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: So, they had a time limit on it.

Ms. SARIKAS: Whoa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Can you come up with five uses for a paper plate in 60 seconds?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: And here's another one. I was recently - this is Stuart in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. I was recently in an interview, what was the last lie you told? I was so taken by the question, I ended stating that I don't make it a practice to tell lies, and I did not get the job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: So, there you are. And we're going to take one more call. Let's go to Jim. He's calling from Flagstaff, Arizona. Hi, Jim.

JIM (Caller): Oh, hi. How are you?

NEARY: Good.

JIM: I was - when I listening to the program a few minutes ago, I heard that you're - the person with you say that she uses the, you know, if you were a superhero, what would your super power be?

NEARY: Mm-hm.

JIM: And I've used that question many times in interviewing candidates for a variety of different positions, although I don't ask what the super power would be. What I typically ask is, if you were a superhero, who would you be and why? Because what I'm looking for is, what is it that they value? You know, because you will frequently hear people say, you know, whoever is the most - a popular superhero in movies today. You'll get "The Hulk." You'll get "Ironman," "Spiderman," those types of things, "Batman."

But when they bring up something that isn't necessarily pop culture, that is generally a little more revealing. The reason being, I mean, if they bring up "Superman," what is it? Is it the virtues of "Superman"? Is it his moral capacity in addition to his physical capacity that they value? And if they will volunteer more of that information, it shows that this is something - someone's who's a little deeper thinker who has a little more - I guess, they're weighted more in what it is that's important to them as opposed to what's just cool.

NEARY: All right.

JIM: And what I frequently got that response...

NEARY: OK. Thanks.

JIM: I like Spiderman because he's cool.

NEARY: Right. Thanks, Jim. Thanks so much for calling.

JIM: Thank you.

NEARY: Glad to hear that point of view. And Lynne Sarikas, thanks so much for joining us today.

Ms. SARIKAS: Thank you very much for having me.

NEARY: Lynne Sarikas is the director of the Career Center at Northeastern University. She joined us from NPR member station WBUR in Boston. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Lynne Neary.

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