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How to Handle Unexpected Job Interview Questions

These tips can help you answer questions that come as a surprise

Two women at a job interview

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En español | You spent days or even weeks preparing for the big interview. You thought about the questions you might be asked and practiced thoughtful answers. Then, it happens. Someone asks you a question you never anticipated. What do you do now?

The days of truly oddball “If you could be a superhero, which would you be?”–type questions are mostly over, says career coach Michelle Olivier. “People have realized they’re stupid.” But there still might be questions that you didn’t anticipate. And there are a few ways you can handle them so they don’t throw you off your game, she says.

Practice being in the moment

Avoiding unexpected questions starts with some practice before the interview, says business coach Victoria Hepburn, author of Pressure Makes Diamonds: Simple Habits for Busy Professionals to Break the Burnout Cycle. As you’re preparing, research and think about the people who will be interviewing you. What are their roles, and what might their concerns be? That’s a good way to begin thinking about the questions they may ask.

“Be prepared for the unexpected. Some people like to prepare for interviews by practicing their answers to interview questions on video or with a partner or a friend,” she says. Urge the friend to ask an unexpected question or two so you can rehearse how you might handle it. “That way [you] can practice putting the words together because even though intellectually we know what we want to say, sometimes it turns into marbles in our mouth as we’re trying to get them out,” she explains.

Pause and be honest

If the interviewer asks you something you truly don’t know, it’s fine to pause, Hepburn says. Take a breath and answer honestly. A pause may feel awkward, but “I promise, it’s not the pauses [that make a bad impression],” she says. “Because you don’t want to go into an organization where they’re looking for you to say one thing but that’s not truly who you are. That’s what a lot of companies talk about. They want to hire people who are authentic and engaged and really true collaborators.”

You might say, “That’s not something I’ve really thought about or handled, but I can look into that,” she says. You may also offer to think about that answer and get back to them. But if you do go that route, she says, be sure to follow up. Read this article to find out how you can make the most of your follow-up with employers after the job interview.

Reason it out

Or you can relate it to another situation that you have dealt with which shows your ability to handle challenges or think on your feet, Hepburn says. “Sometimes if it’s a technical question, you can reason it out. Sometimes they know you may not have an answer, and they’d love to hear how you think,” she says. Relate the answer to a similar situation or challenge you’ve had that showcases your problem-solving ability or ability to think on your feet.

Get more specifics

People who have younger children may get questions about how they’ll manage the schedule of a demanding job. Others who have a lot of experience or have worked in senior roles might get questions about taking a more junior job or being “overqualified.” Sometimes, unexpected questions may not be clear or may skirt sensitive issues, such as age discrimination or gender bias. In such cases, it’s a good idea to get more information about the specific concerns behind the question, Olivier says.

“So, if they say to you, ‘Gosh, I see here that you’ve been working at a senior level the past 15 years. This is a junior-level position. You might be overqualified.’ You might say, ‘What would your concern be about my being overqualified?’ ” she says. “And then whatever they say, then address that issue.”

Unexpected questions may happen, but when you stay calm and answer them specifically and honestly, you may make a better impression than you expected.

Gwen Moran is a writer and author specializing in business and finance. Her work has appeared in many leading business publications and websites, including Fast Company Inc., and Los Angeles Times Magazine.

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