Let's have some fun! Interview questions for prospective interns!
April 6, 2011 6:32 PM   Subscribe

What are some great, curve ball questions to ask potential interns?

I am on the hiring/interviewing committee to bring on 4 summer interns. The interviews will be on the phone or via Skype. I want to have some curve balls to throw the prospective hires to separate the bright stars from the fakers.

The positions are for summer campaign organizers, they will spend time traveling around Alaska doing campaign things. Long days, camping sometimes working hard...

Last summer we hired some duds (I was not evolved, hence my involvement this year) and I want to hire only awesome people.

So hive mind, give me your best curve ball questions.
posted by Fuzzy Dog to Work & Money (29 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Try some of these.
posted by John Cohen at 6:36 PM on April 6, 2011

"Let's say you've decided you want to learn how to throw a curveball. Describe the process you will follow to achieve that goal."
posted by notyou at 6:39 PM on April 6, 2011 [12 favorites]

I'm not sure what you mean by curve-ball questions and this may just be me, but I'm not a big fan of odd questioning techniques in an interview, designed to throw candidates off guard, because then it just seems more like a guessing game and less like trying to get to know who the person really is.

Ask them to provide examples of projects they've worked on, specific problems they've solved, what makes them stand apart from the rest of the candidates or what really makes them interested in the job. I think if you ask these kind of dialogue questions - basically, just get them talking - and you have a decent intuition you can probably get a pretty good idea of the kind of person they are. Good luck.
posted by triggerfinger at 6:41 PM on April 6, 2011 [23 favorites]

What was the best piece of advice you ever got? (You'll want to listen for the insightfulness of the advice itself and the sophistication of the explanation as cues to their awesomeness.)

Where were you and what were you doing when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened? (Listen for the amount of detail they offer and how impactful the news was for them when they first heard it.)

Tell me about your most life-changing experience. (Listen for their depth of understanding about how the experience changed them.)

What question would you ask me, if you wanted to get the most insight into who am I and what makes me tick? (inspired by notyou)
posted by DrGail at 6:42 PM on April 6, 2011

Best answer: Ask them if they are meat eaters. Then present a scenario where they and another intern, of the opposite meat eating persuasion, along with a loaf of bread, need to cross a body of water in the least number of trips in a canoe.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:44 PM on April 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

Why don't you role play with them? I'm not sure what type of campaign things they are doing, but I'm assuming it involves work with the public. So role play, with you as the part of the person on the other side of the phone or the door. Then roll out some of the odd ball stuff people say and see how they react.

It's a curve ball that will give you a hint about what they can do, not curve ball for the sake of curve ball.
posted by unannihilated at 6:46 PM on April 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ooh, I like this one from the thread I linked to:

"When is it OK to lie?"
posted by John Cohen at 6:49 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ask them what they would do if they turned a corner and came face-to-face with a moose.

I'm totally serious, this has happened to me in Alaska and it would also give you an idea of their critical thinking.
posted by charmcityblues at 6:54 PM on April 6, 2011

I used to ask applicants what their favorite book was. Or what they had read recently that they liked. That way, I was able to determine if they did read, and the conversation we had about the book was usually pretty enlightening.
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:58 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I like to ask newbies what they think the job responsibilities are. I had the following exchange at a college job fair once:

HIM: I just really, really want to be a systems engineer, you know? I'm so excited about it!

ME: Oh, really. Tell me, what do you think a systems engineer does?

HIM: Well, you know... designing... systems? And engineering? I really want to be one!

You would be surprised how many people can't answer this question. It may also depress you somewhat if you include the responsibilities in the job posting and people still can't answer it.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:58 PM on April 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Where were you and what were you doing when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened?

If the OP is seeking interns, there's a good chance that they are college-age or just out of college, which means that they were all of 11 or 12 when 9/11 happened. Those events did likely have an impact, but the impact was on a child and not necessarily reflective of the interviewees as adults.
posted by greta simone at 7:07 PM on April 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Here are my main two weeders. They're not curveballs, but they've been very sucessful predictors of whether a student is going to work out or not.

1. Tell me about a problem you had to solve in a former job (or work term). Tell me what the problem was, how you worked through it and what the result of your solution was.

2. Tell me about a time you had to convince your boss/supervisor that you had to make a change. Tell me how you identified the problem, what process/argument you used to make your case and how things ended up.

I've hired more than a dozen students. Since I've been using this pair of questions, every candidate that's been able to give good answers to both questions has been a real asset to us.
posted by bonehead at 7:08 PM on April 6, 2011 [15 favorites]

Where were you and what were you doing when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened? (Listen for the amount of detail they offer and how impactful the news was for them when they first heard it.)

I know it is depressing to think about, but if you are hiring 18 year old interns, they were 8 on 9/11. They were probably at recess in 3rd Grade.

I like to ask people "What is the worst thing about your last job/your school/your hometown?" You learn a lot about people from what they hate and, mor importantly, HOW they hate it -- full of bitter rage, resigned and miserable, or constructive and optimistic?
posted by Rock Steady at 7:13 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was once asked, in a job interview, "If you could be a sport, which sport would you be?"

Don't ask that question. It was stupid.
posted by Dr. Wu at 7:33 PM on April 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

My friend was on an interview a few weeks ago and they asked her about the last book she read, the last movie she saw, and the last song or album that she downloaded.

My boss loves to ask "What have you done to prepare for this interview?" I used to think it was kind of stupid, but it actually is a great indicator of who actually cares enough about the position to do a little research.

What qualities made the former interns "duds?" Figure out what qualities you want in an intern and reverse engineer some questions to ferret out the type of people you want to avoid.
posted by gatorae at 9:15 PM on April 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

If hypotheticals were such a great indicator of professional competence, they would ask them when hiring CEOs. If you can't figure out a person from such simple questions as, "Tell me about yourself", and "What makes you interested in this position?" and "Do you have any questions for us?", then you should not be giving interviews.
posted by blargerz at 9:17 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've always wanted to be asked this question: If I gave you a problem using a technology you were unfamiliar with and asked you to go solve it on your own, where would you begin?

I was asked this question: When you research companies to apply for, what do you look for? What are some dealbreakers?
posted by yaymukund at 9:24 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I used to ask applicants what their favorite book was. Or what they had read recently that they liked. That way, I was able to determine if they did read, and the conversation we had about the book was usually pretty enlightening.
This does not seem appropriate to me, unless reading books is particularly important to this person's job. This may be an unpopular opinion here, but for almost any given job, whether the candidate spends their time reading books is totally irrelevant to their ability to perform the functions of that position.
posted by The Eponymous Pseudonymous Rex at 9:27 PM on April 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

Organizers? Have some role play to determine their ability to handle interpersonal situations with poise. Have them write a six-month campaign plan based on some info you provide to see their strategic thinking skills. (How do they analyze the path to an objective based on strengths, weaknesses, available resources?) Have them plan an event. Have them write a press release.
posted by slidell at 9:27 PM on April 6, 2011

I typically am interviewing interns for project management type positions so I always ask "how do you decide what to do every day?" There's no right answer, but it gives me an idea of how they organize their lives (or not) and how they go about getting things done. It also lets me see if they are gung ho interestingly busy people or not.
posted by girlhacker at 10:55 PM on April 6, 2011

I agree with those saying 'don't ask curveballs'.

I studied industrial psychology, and we spent a long time looking at recruitment methods. The best predictors of performance are (1) work sample tests (get them to perform the sort of task they'd do in the job) and then (2) structured interviews (where you ask standard questions like those that bonehead suggested).

'What have you done to prepare for this interview?' could be a good one too, as it shows you that the person cares enough to prepare, and that they have the initiative to do so.

You probably want to ask questions about their ability to deal with the long hours ("how do you deal with negative/stressful situations - give me an example?" "What would you do if you're stuck in a camp with someone who really annoys you?" - something like that).
posted by Infinite Jest at 12:15 AM on April 7, 2011

I have to do technical parts of interviews regularly (I work in programming). One of my favourite questions which really gets to the heart of the matter is:

"What do you NOT like about X?"

where X is normally a programming language or something technical that the candidate will be working on and has some experience in.

It is slightly unfair to ask this in a stressful interview situation, but I try to put them at their ease first and explain there's no real wrong answer.

The answers are often enlightening - you get back highly specific examples and gives the chance for the candidate to really show off their knowledge - it tells me if they really know what they're talking about, plus you often get other bits of information at the same time that tells you how they think and interact with things.

Whilst I personally use the question for technical stuff, it should be quite easy to apply to other things as well.
posted by BigCalm at 1:38 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Agree that "curveballs" are dangerously close to making the interview about the clever questions and not about the thoughtful answers.

When I interviewed people, I always found it expositive to ask "negative" questions. Tell me about a failure, what don't you like, why did you leave your last job?

Their answers were usually dead-on predictors of their maturity.
posted by gjc at 4:28 AM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

The closest I ever come to asking a curveball is to describe their biggest mistake at a previous job. If I get a great war-story, it doesn't matter if they mucked it up. It means they learned what went wrong, and can deal with setbacks. If they reply with a "Well, I can't think of any" or a non-committal biz speak, "I've re-optimized my goals to prevent any future mistakes," be cautious.

Personality is a better indicator of someone who'll work out - if they fit in well with the rest of the team, they can be motivated very easily. If they're different in temperament and attitude, they may withdraw and their work will suffer. If you have a team of goofy oddballs, hire another goofy oddball. If you have a team of cool and reserved pros, hire another cool and reserved pro.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:31 AM on April 7, 2011

I've done technical parts of interviews for interns and full time candidates in a number of instances. These are all for engineering jobs. My favorite questions involve 'How is this made?' where I give the candidate a series of items, one more complicated than the next and have them walk me through how the item was made. I get a good sense of (A) how they think, (B) types of manufacturing processes they've been exposed, (C) how quickly they learn (are they able to apply my description of the how one item was made to the next) and (D) what they do when they don't know the answer (I've never had anyone know how every item I have in my box is made).

For a non-technical position, ask them a series of questions that relate to the problems they may face that get progressively more complicated and build on each other.
posted by chiefthe at 6:28 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've interviewed a lot of people and done a lot of hiring. "Curveball" questions, unless you are using some definition of curveball that I'm not familiar with, are the hallmark of terrible managers and terrible interviewers. People who rely on them, in my experience, don't even know what answer they are expecting and are more interested in looking like a tough interviewer than in actually finding out about the particular applicant as a person. An interviewer is stressful enough as it is and anyone who has difficulty thinking on their feet is going to be just as bad at answering "Why do you want this job" as "What's the average air speed of a north american swallow". Being a good manager means a good people person just as much as it means being good at the specifics of a job. Be a good people person as an interviewer and you'll get good people. I mean, if you were on a date, would you want your date asking you 'curveball' questions to figure out if they like you?
posted by spicynuts at 6:33 AM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Take your intern snark and either direct it to the OP or save it, it's out of place and inappropriate here, thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:21 PM on April 7, 2011

I've hired kids fresh out of college and I always found the answers to this question pretty insightful:

"Outside of the classes required for your Major, what was your favorite class and why?"
posted by JohntheContrarian at 6:30 PM on April 7, 2011

Don't do this. Curve ball questions serve no purpose but to make the interviewer feel superior. While that's nice for you, it's not going to give you any real insight into the job candidates. Keep your questions relevant to the skills and experience you want to hire.

Why do you think that asking a curve ball question would help you select a good candidate? Do you think that last year's interviewers selected poorly from the application pool or do you think your applicant pool was unacceptable. Those are two different issues. If they selected the best candidates from a shallow pool, what have you done to increase the quality of applicants?

I understand that you want to select quality interns, but the curve ball question approach isn't your best option.
posted by 26.2 at 4:44 AM on April 8, 2011

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