Interviewers often ask challenging, sometimes unexpected questions of candidates for administrative jobs to see how well job seekers respond under pressure and think on their feet. After all, those are skills administrative/support workers use every day in a busy office and on high-stakes projects.
Some are off the wall, like this question, lobbed at Mary Herrington during her interview for an administrative position: “What would you do if I threw this crystal ashtray at your head?" Herrington, now a business consultant, was taken aback. “I looked at him and replied: ‘You'd pray you didn't hit me, because I would sue the pants off you, own this company and then fire you without any compensation,’” she says. “He laughed so hard. I was offered the job on the spot and began the next day.”
But other than keeping you on your toes, what are interviewers for administrative positions looking to find out by asking these questions? “Besides looking for an employee who can follow direction and be loyal to the company, it seems most employers are seeking out a workforce who can think on their feet, have a decent amount of self-esteem without being pompous and be independent,” says Rose Strong, an administrative assistant to the chief of ob-gyn and an assistant vice president at a hospital in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
To help you prepare for your next administrative/support interview, here are some challenging commonly asked questions and suggestions for how to answer them:
Why Do You Suppose Manhole Covers Are Round?
When Erik Lars Myers of Durham, North Carolina, was asked this question during an interview for an admin position, he wasn’t sure what to think. “The first thing I said was, ‘Can you repeat that?’” he says.
That request bought Myers some valuable time to puzzle out an answer. “I said, ‘So they don't fall in?’ which, incidentally, is the correct answer,” he says. “It was the only reasonable thing I could come up with.”
This interview question is asked to test problem-solving skills, which come in handy when the network goes down and your boss is hounding you for a report.
How Do I Rate as an Interviewer?
“You definitely want to find some positives to share,” says Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University in Boston. “Tell them what they did well...and maybe find something negative that could be positive, like, ‘I wasn't expecting question X, but you really made me think about why that is important to me.’”
Your response shows your ability to be diplomatic as well as your willingness to speak truth to power. These are valuable skills for a trusted administrative worker.
Why Should You Get This Position?
Strong successfully fielded this question by going with her gut. “My response was out of my mouth before I knew it: ‘Because I'm smart,’” she recalls. She followed that up by outlining the positions she’d previously had that gave her the necessary skills for the job.
This question allows interviewers to see how you react when put on the spot, which happens to administrative assistants all the time, and how confident you are in your abilities.
Who Do You Admire Most and Why?
“The why is typically much more important than the whom,” Sarikas says. “So identify someone who has qualities you admire or has done something you aspire to do, and clearly articulate the specific reasons you admire that person. Avoid someone who could be controversial, if at all possible.”
With more businesses focusing on culture and fit, this question allows interviewers to see if your values mesh with the company’s.
What Are Your Favorite Movies?
San Diego-based Angela Watson was interviewing for an administrative support/graphics position with a regional restaurant chain when she got this question. “To show you how paranoid I was, I think I picked something like Schindler's List, Wayne's World, The Big Chill, Silence of the Lambs and Harold & Maude,” she recalls. “I was trying to cover all the bases without being too terribly esoteric.”
You know how many random requests admins get each day, right? This question allows the interviewer to assess how you’ll deal with that.
More Answering Strategy
If, after all your preparation, you don’t have an answer, Sarikas suggests acknowledging you weren't expecting that question and asking for a minute to think about it. When all else fails, go with your gut.
“This is more about thinking on your feet than having a brilliant answer,” Sarikas says. “So don’t ask to skip the question or fail to answer it in any way. That’s much more negative than a lame answer.”