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Curveball interview questions and why you should be using them

Posted on 17/07/2017 by Jo Hodge


Imagine you interview two good candidates for a job; they both have the right qualifications, are equally skilled for the role and answer competency questions well. So how do you distinguish who is the best candidate for the job? More employers are using curveball interview questions for this reason; they are designed to see how the applicant thinks on their feet and answers a question they haven’t prepared for.

There is no right or wrong answer to these questions, it’s about the candidate’s reaction to the question, their sense of humour, creativity, and their though process that matter, rather than what they actually say. It is a good idea to ask these questions towards the end of the interview, when a candidate is more relaxed and more likely to give a genuine answer. Wrong footing a candidate at the start of an interview with a totally unexpected question is in nobody’s interest.

Sales techniques

‘How would you sell a product to me, such as this stapler?’

A favourite question for sales staff. You want the candidate to be able to ask you the right questions, overcome any reservations you have about the stapler and explain how it is the perfect stapler for you.

Type of person/ personality they are

‘If you could be an animal what would it be?’

It doesn’t matter what animal they would be, but their reasoning. This question will test their creativity and ideally you are looking for skills required for the role in their answer.

Good example: A wolf, works well in a team, but also self-confident, intelligent, problem-solver and the ability to act independently.

Bad example: A guinea pig, squeak! (With no explanation)

‘Are you a cat or dog person?’
‘If you were a biscuit which would you be?’

These have both been frequently asked at interview. They definitely won’t give you a real indication into someone, but might give you an idea of the type of person they are and personality.

Dog people are often thought to be more loyal. Someone that who likes hobnobs might me naughtier than someone that selects rich tea. They may take this question further and describe how they like to eat it, eg dunked in tea or eating chocolate from a biscuit first. Again this can give you a little insight into the person. 

Problem solving questions

‘How many salons are there in Japan?’
‘How many ways can you get a needle out of a haystack?’

This is a great way of showing how a candidate tackles a problem and if this approach fits into your organisation. Do they keep calm? Ask more questions to gather information? A good answer, would be one where the candidate explains their thinking, they may even write it down. Hopefully this question will build some conversation and help show the candidate’s personality. 

‘You have 30 seconds to tell me what you would do with this pencil besides write with it.’

This question is great for testing ingenuity, creativity and problem-solving.

Good responses can include: ‘curling my hair’ ‘popping balloons’ ‘digging for worms’

Bad responses may include: ‘to poke people’ ‘breaking them’

‘How would you guide an alien through making a peanut butter sandwich?’

This looks at how logically and systematically the candidate can lead someone to success, from another person’s point of view. Making a sandwich is a very mundane task, but for an alien, it could be the most challenging task. A great question if you need a logical thinker or someone that will be leading a team.  

Negative questions

‘Give an example of when you have failed to meet a deadline’

‘Tell us what you are good, bad at and average at’

Nobody likes discussing things they are bad at, but everyone makes mistakes at some point. What you would hope to see from the candidate, is that they understood what went wrong, how to fix it and have learnt from it. 

Opinion of themselves

‘How would your best friend describe you?’

‘What would your worst enemy say about you?’

Most people are able to describe their good traits, but to describe negative ones can be difficult. Ideally the applicant will pick traits that they have that are required for the role and pick traits not required as the negative ones. They may also explain why they think something negative could be a strong trait for your organisation. 

These are obviously a few examples of questions you could use, our candidates have been known to be asked some very off the wall questions, such as ‘what star sign are you’, ‘what were the main news headlines this week.’ The main point to ensure is you are asking questions that are relevant for the role you are interviewing for to help you pick out the exceptional candidate and not trying to catch them out.

For further interview advice, contact us on 020 7198 6000 or visit our recruitment advice section on our website. We also hold regular interview workshops for line managers who are new to interviewing, if you are interested in attending one of these events, please email