Career Transitions

Turning chaos into careers.

The Not-So-Harmless Simple Interview Question

Your favorite book or movie can land you a job.

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Many interviews open with what I like to call "inkblot test" questions. Inkblot questions are those open, seemingly harmless questions which interviewers use as icebreakers to learn more about what's important to someone.  I call them "inkblot" questions because, like the traditional Rorschach test, they ask candidates to express an opinion about a seemingly neutral item. As innocent as they seem, however, a poor or strange response from a candidate can end their chance of getting the job.

Typical inkblot questions include:

  • What's your favorite book?
  • What your favorite vacation destination?
  • What's your favorite movie?

Are they simple questions designed to just start a conversation? Or do they have hidden meanings? Both, if you ask recruiters.  I've asked interviewers this over the years, and they all agree it can be a simple question quickly forgotten, the start of a great encounter with an interesting candidate-- or a quick end to the interview. Savvy job candidates need to know that the question isn't always as simple or innocent as it sounds and can be a minefield.

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In his interesting book, "The Movies on Your Mind", Dr. Harvey Greenberg, a New York psychoanalyst, wrote that he asks every patient to tell him their favorite movie because he found that it opened the door to discussing issues which are most germane to the client.

I used to teach film studies courses at Dickinson College, a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. Because my classes dealt with the psychology or sociology of film, I would ask my students to write an essay on a meaningful experience connected with a movie. They often wrote fascinating stories which provided glimpses into their personal lives and what they valued-- and could actually form the basis of a great response to the interview question.

One student worked for several summers at a local Cineplex-- she could give you an anthropological analysis of a film's audience based on which theatres would need additional cleaning at the end of the day. Another former theatre employee noted that he had honed the art of perfectly distributing the butter throughout the popcorn-- no soggy or dry kernels. Stories like these could be developed for an interview, revealing the insight, thoughtfulness and/or dedication they bring to their jobs.

Some students revealed how a movie helped them cope with challenges in their lives: one student wrote how "It's a Wonderful Life" helped him cope with his father's job loss. Another student said seeing the movie "Annie" as a child opened up a conversation with her foster parents about what constitutes a "family."

Another student conducted a sociogram of her family and their "Friday DVD rental and pizza" evenings. She did a character study of each sibling and her parents, including her extraverted father who talked through the movie and had to be regularly silenced by the group and her bonding with her equally introverted mother. She demonstrated insight into human nature and a recognition of the value of family-- even when they don't always respond in the same way to a situation.

Several students wrote about career choices based on movies-- future lawyers influenced by Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird"; future therapists by "Ordinary People"-- even future bankers by "Wall Street" (go figure...). 

So do you have to tell this type of story if an interviewer asks you a simple question?  No-- particularly if you don't have an interesting story to tell.  You can simply answer with the name of your favorite movie, book or location (depending on the question) and say little else.  You could say, "I don't have one favorite movie, but I tend to like..." and then name a genre of film and the interview will go on.   But you might be wasting a great opportunity to reveal an interesting and positive aspect of your personality or life.

Not to mention a way to turn an average interview into a memorable one. A former student of mine at Dickinson studied abroad in Cameroon, Africa where she participated in a film production. When she returned to school for her senior year, she presented a paper on her experience at a regional conference. She went to New York City to interview with an advertising agency, and was asked what movies she enjoyed. She started talking about the Cameroonian films she had seen-- only to find that her interviewer knew about the industry as well. Their 30-minute interview was spent discussing film-making in Cameroon. (Oh, she was offered the job, by the way.)

Take a few moments to consider how you will answer this type of question-- what story could you tell that will offer an insight into what's important to you, who you are, or why you're an interesting person? What are you reading? What movies are you watching? What is your favorite vacation destination?  And how can you use that information to your advantage in the interview?

Always keep the career field to which you're applying in mind:

  • Do you read or watch anything related to the career field-- is that worth mentioning?
  • Maybe you don't have time to read books, but do you keep up with related magazines or journals such as The Economist or Advertising Age? Mention that.
  • Try to avoid controversial or odd answers to the question. The interview may not be the place to bring up that you particularly enjoy movies about serial killers-- unless, of course, you're applying for a job with the FBI.

The inkblot question might be a simple icebreaker, but you never know when it will open up a great conversation and provide the tipping point that gets you the job.

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Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She is the author of You Majored in What?

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