The Search Committee In-Person Interview: Part 3: Curveballs and How to Handle Them

Category: Search Process

A great resume (or CV) and cover letter will get you through the door, but the final step in the process – the in-person interview – is what ultimately secures you the job position. Whether it should or not, the interview is what leaves the biggest (and final) impression on the search committee, and is your best opportunity to cement your candidacy.

In Spelman Johnson’s Four Part Blog Series on the Search Committee In-Person Interview we talk about how to effectively prepare for your interview, how to handle interview curveballs, what to ask and what to avoid, along with other tips and tricks to keep in your interview arsenal. Have comments, additions, or suggestions? Please leave them in our comments section!

Curveball Questions and How to Handle Them

Many in-person interviews will include a curveball question or two – questions that are unexpected or challenging to answer. Most curveball questions don’t have a right or wrong answer, but are meant to test a candidate’s poise, critical thinking skills, and ability to think on their feet or handle a stressful situation. While there is no way to completely predict what these questions will be – after all, they’re meant to be challenging and unexpected – there are several things you can do to prepare.

  • Put yourself in the position of the search committee and create a list of your own curveball questions. What kind of challenging questions would you ask if you were interviewing candidates for this position? Practice answering those questions, and then practice with a partner. During your mock interviews with friends and colleagues, ask them to throw some curveballs your way.
  • Be prepared for everything that you can imagine. This gives you confidence and frees up brain power to handle unexpected questions. Be absolutely prepared to fill in gaps in your record or explain past mistakes. Make sure to demonstrate what you have learned from any mistakes, and how you would handle those situations in the future.
  • Develop a framework of behavioral boilerplate. Many curveball questions are behavioral or situational, meaning they ask how you would behave in a certain situation. To do this, brainstorm different types of challenging situations and prepare answers to how you would deal with each of those situations. Wherever possible, think of examples in which you have handled those types of situations in the past. For instance, prepare responses for situations where you had to: resolve a conflict with someone who did not agree with you, solve a problem, motivate others, make an unpopular or difficult decision, conform to a policy you did not agree with, anticipate problems and develop preventative measures, change course on an initiative, prioritize in order to meet a deadline, or deal with failed outcomes. While you can’t prepare a response for every type of situation, you’ll most likely be able to draw from your boilerplate and apply it to similar situations.

No matter how much you prepare, the purpose of curveball questions is to catch you off guard. If indeed you are thrown for a loop, we offer the following tips to handle it gracefully.

  • Smile, take a deep breath, and take your time to compose a thoughtful response. To avoid a rushed response or awkward pause, have a brief time-biding statement prepared – such as “that’s an interesting question, let me think about that for a minute…”
  • If the question deals with a difficult or uncomfortable subject, make sure to answer the question truthfully and directly, without beating around the bush or deferring it – a willingness to confront and address weaknesses or uncomfortable topics is a sign of good character and leadership.
  • Never underestimate the power of honesty and humor. Having a natural reaction to a curveball question, such as surprise or amusement, is completely acceptable and can help cut any tension.
  • If you’re absolutely stumped, offer to provide an answer at a later time – either at the end of the interview, or post-interview. While this does not demonstrate an ability to think on one’s feet, it does demonstrate poise and is a better alternative to not answering the question at all or offering a poorly constructed bluff.

Finally, a few examples of curveball questions to start you off in your curveball practice and preparation.

  • Is there anything about you that no one would expect?
  • What do you think is your worst habit?
  • In the news story of your life, what would the headline be?
  • Who is a role model that you look up to, and why?
  • Talk about a time when you failed to achieve a desired outcome in your work.

Read Part 4 of our “Search Committee In-Person Interview” series on The Runaway Interview and What Not to Do.

For regular higher ed #career tips, follow us on Twitter @spelmanjohnson!

James Norfleet

Search Associate - Spelman Johnson

Jim Norfleet earned his B.B.A. degree in business and marketing from Pace University and completed all coursework for an EdD in educational leadership at the University of California, Los Angeles. He joined Spelman Johnson after three decades in higher education, most recently as vice president for student affairs at The College of New Jersey. Previously, Jim served in several capacities at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, including associate vice president for student services and executive director of educational equity services. Earlier in his career, he worked in academic affairs at Nyack College where he directed the Higher Education Opportunity Program and served as associate dean of the college and director of the Office of Academic Development. Jim has served as an independent consultant to mission-driven organizations and leaders across the career spectrum. Active in professional and civic organizations, he speaks on higher education and social justice issues and has received numerous awards for his leadership, advocacy, and community service.