You know your strengths and weaknesses. You’re ready to talk about big accomplishments at work. You can recite your resume forward and backward. But before you consider your interview prep complete, consider this common HR question: What’s the last good book you read?
Huh? “I’ve often compared interviewing to the world of dating—you’re both trying to make a good first impression and get to know each other quickly, in an unnatural context,” says Lavie Margolin, author of Winning Answers to 500 Interview Questions. And as culture fit becomes more important for employers, hiring managers are deploying more personal and oddball questions to throw candidates off their scripted game and get a glimpse of how they think and behave.
Indeed, when the job site Glassdoor sifted through thousands of interview reviews last year and compiled a list of the 50 most common questions, several—like "What are your favorite hobbies?" and "What’s your favorite website?"—seemed more worthy of a first date than a professional meeting.
But even when the interviewer throws you a curveball, you can still hit it out of the park, Margolin says, by being professional (but not phony) and putting your response in context. He walks us through some of the more common offbeat queries.
1. WHAT'S THE LAST GOOD BOOK YOU'VE READ?
“We can assume they’re asking because they want to know if you’re a thoughtful person, and if you use your time off to develop your knowledge or explore new ideas," Margolin says. "So pick something a little meatier to highlight, but don’t think the book has to to be specific to the industry you’re interviewing for. If it’s a teaching position, you don’t have to say you only read about education reform, for instance. When you’re answering, don’t just state the book, provide some detail. So, if I read Michael Chabon’s [The Amazing Adventures of] Kavalier and Clay, I might talk for a minute about how I appreciate the architectural detail in the story and learning about the various buildings in that time.”
2. WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME?
“Being well-rounded is a universal plus, so don’t be afraid to say you like hiking and camping, if you’re a computer programmer hunched over your desk most of the day, or you like volunteering with kids even if it’s a high-pressure position. You obviously want to avoid mentioning any kind of vices, including activities you might not think of as vices, like video games. There’s still a perception, particularly among older interviewers, that gaming means staring at the TV with your mouth agape. If you have a family at home, you can certainly touch upon spending time with them, but keep in mind there is a gender bias against women talking too much about family. It can spark concerns that you might not be dedicated to the role.”
3. WHAT DO YOU MISS ABOUT WORK ON VACATION?
“This is one way to gauge how work relates to your life. You might think they want to hear that you have a hard time leaving work, but that’s not true. They want to hire people who know how to recharge their batteries and recover, no matter how demanding the role is. So speak to the things that you enjoy most at work—the collaboration, the challenge, the pace—and acknowledge that coming back recharged lets you enjoy those things even more.”
4. IF YOU HAD A CHOICE BETWEEN TWO SUPERPOWERS, WHICH WOULD YOU CHOOSE?
“Most jobs involve unknown stressors, particularly if the position is client-facing, like in sales or marketing, so they’re trying to see how you react. Some people might shut down or laugh nervously, so if you’re able to face the question head on and take it seriously, that’s a big plus. Does it really matter whether you pick invisibility or flight? No. But do explain your reasoning succinctly, so they can see your reasoning.”
5. HOW MANY PEOPLE FLEW OUT OF CHICAGO LAST YEAR?
“That’s a tough one. Unless you know the answer for some reason, definitely don’t just throw out a guess. This isn’t The Price is Right. Rise to the challenge of making an educated guess, and walk the interviewer through your estimations. So something like, ‘Well, I believe Chicago is the third most-populated city in America. If New York City has 20 million, I’m going to guess Chicago has closer to 8 million….’ Your answer could be wildly off base, but you’re being judged on your deduction, not your answer.”
6. WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE DISNEY PRINCESS?
“This type of question seems silly on the surface, but it’s really about values, so back up whatever answer you give with qualities. Maybe it’s Elsa, because she’s proactive and always working toward helping people, for instance. But if they ask what type of princess you like and you haven’t see a Disney movie since you were 8 or they ask which Breaking Bad character you’d be and you’ve never seen the show, be upfront. Say ‘I’m not familiar with that, can I have another program?’ Something you don’t want to do is name a character that’s not part of the show or, worse, accidentally pick a villain.”