Seemingly Harmless Job Interview Questions That Mean A Lot

Career adviser Katharine Brooks says "inkblot test" questions in job interviews - the "seemingly harmless questions interviewers use as icebreakers" - are much more important than you (or even your interviewer) may think. They can make or break your chance at a job.

Photo by Lew57.

Brooks continues:

Are they simple questions designed to just start a conversation? Or do they have hidden meanings? Both, if you ask recruiters. I've asked interviewers this over the years, and they all agree it can be a simple question quickly forgotten, the start of a great encounter with an interesting candidate— or a quick end to the interview. Savvy job candidates need to know that the question isn't always as simple or innocent as it sounds and can be a minefield.

That might all sound a little daunting, but the basic idea is that giving an interesting — and sometimes slightly more personal — answer to the harmless pre-interview questions can play a serious role in how the rest of the interview turns out. Brooks discusses the idea more abstractly through her experience teaching a film studies course, then comes back to a few simple tips for preparing for such questions:

Always keep the career field to which you're applying in mind:

  • Do you read or watch anything related to the career field — is that worth mentioning?
  • Maybe you don't have time to read books, but do you keep up with related magazines or journals such as The Economist or Advertising Age? Mention that.
  • Try to avoid controversial or odd answers to the question. The interview may not be the place to bring up that you particularly enjoy movies about serial killers — unless, of course, you're applying for a job with the FBI.

Let's hear how ostensibly innocuous questions have shaped interviews you've been a part of in the comments.

The Not-So-Harmless Simple Interview Question [Psychology Today]


    For a programming job related to business and graphics manipulation, I got asked how many petrol stations are there in melbourne? (I was thinking WTF!!!) I even asked why he asked that question it made no sense and had nothing to do with the job at all, not even through some obscure tangent could it be related.

      That question is designed to test your thought process and problem solving, which is highly relevant to programming.

      You could say that you don't know, but will find out and let them know (and actually call back with the answer.) Bonus points for asking for more details ie "in the melbourne CBD, or greater melbourne?" etc

      It also tests how you react to things your not expecting and how good you are on your feet.

      The 'petrol stations in a city' question is designed to show that you can apply logic and common sense to resolve a problem to which there is no reasonable prospect of you knowing the answer before you enter.

      You're not even meant to get anywhere near close to getting it right, you're just meant to show that you are capable of approaching a factual question with logic and rational analysis.

      Its a style of question to see how you are at problem solving. Your not meant to know the answer (nor do they really care what it is), but to see how you would approach solving it.

      Had you been on your feet (obviously the reason for the question) you might have been able to even point some interesting images you've seen in a few? Throwing back the idea...

      About 25.,144.96357&sspn=0.070107,0.109692&gl=au&ie=UTF8&cd=1&radius=3.59&split=1&rq=1&ev=p&hq=petrol+station&hnear=&ll=-37.813988,144.968033&spn=0.066722,0.109692&z=13

      Sounds like a version of the classic Fermi question: How many piano tuners are there in New York City?

    I'd begin by estimating how many would be in a square mile, and times that by a rough estimate of the city's size. simples

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