Recruiters reveal their top interview questions

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For a sneak peek at what you might expect, we asked a random group of company recruiters to supply their favorite queries for new college grads. Some are specific to the employer, while others border on bizarre. Here's their list and what they're looking for in your answers:

  • "You have two drums. One is three gallons and the other is five. You have an unlimited supply of water but need to get exactly four gallons. How could you do it?"

Steve Hamil, director of the loan-syndications group at Wachovia Corp., a banking and financial-services company based in Charlotte, N.C., wants to know whether the prospective financial analysts he'll hire can perform under pressure. So he'll ask new grads applying for these roles, the most common entry-level position at Wachovia, this and other oddball questions.

This line of questioning is appropriate, he says, since analyst jobs are challenging and require intuitive thinking. "I want to see how candidates in a high-pressure situation think on the fly and what their rationale is for coming up with their answer," he says. Candidates who decline to provide an answer won't get a second look.

  • "Tell me about a complex problem you had to solve and walk me through your thinking as you solved it."

Is past behavior the best predictor of future performance? Stephen Colbourn, U.S. recruiting director for Accenture, a consulting company based in Hamilton, Bermuda, says it is.

"We look at how candidates did something as opposed to how they would handle a situation, " says Colbourn. He recommends coming up with an example that demonstrates you can work well with others. "A good answer would be about an instance where a person has led a group in completing a complex assignment and has had to motivate others to get the work done on time," he says.

The more details an applicant provides, the better, he adds. Many candidates fail to provide valid examples. For instance, a common response is: "When I started the semester, my grades weren't at the level I wanted, and now they are." That kind of answer doesn't impress Colbourn. "All that boils down to is that the person studied harder," he says.

  • "What did you do to prepare yourself for this interview?"

By posing this question, Courtney Bond, a recruiter with KB Toys in Pittsfield, Mass., aims to weed out candidates who would take any job. New graduates interested in an entry-level job, such as public-relations assistant, specifically with KB Toys, are her first choice. Here, your answer should show that you've done your homework on her company.

"I want to hear that they've researched us by visiting our Web site and reviewing our history," she says. "I also want to know if they've visited some of our locations, and most importantly, if they've set up informational interviews with existing employees to gain basic knowledge about us and find out what positions might be a strong fit for them."

  • "Describe a specific experience working in a group or team situation where there was interpersonal conflict. Describe how you approached the conflict, what worked well, and what didn't. What was the outcome?"

At Hewlett-Packard Co., employees often work together in cross-functional teams, says Bill Avey, business-development manager and recruiter for the Palo, Alto, Calif.-based software company. By asking this question, he's interested in knowing how well you perform in group projects.

"It's important for candidates to prove to us that they can work well with others," he explains. "We're looking for people who value the different perspectives that each individual brings to a team."

In your answer, describe a situation you experienced in detail -- for instance, a school or job assignment that involved a group working together to solve a problem. "Successful candidates tend to show how they got differences out in the open and reached a resolution as a team," says Avey.

  • "Describe a time when you had to change your communication style to deliver a message or get your point across."

Enterprise Rent-A-Car wants new college hires to prepare for management roles, which typically require them to work with other employees and customers. So in this question, corporate-recruitment manager Kristen Kohler wants to discern your ability to deal with people and resolve problems.

"Communication is one of the most important attributes a potential employee can demonstrate," she says. "This question offers a candidate the opportunity to show his or her understanding of it."

In your answer, describe specific examples of challenges you've faced and what you learned from them. "I like to know if a candidate is aware that working with management, subordinates, peers and, most importantly, customers, requires a basic variety of communication skills," she explains.

  • "Why are you interested in the home-building industry?"
  • New graduates who join Toll Brothers Inc., a luxury-home-building company in Huntington Valley, Pa., typically start as management trainees and work at construction sites. Recruiting specialist Denise Pierantozzi says answers to this question should show that a candidate knows he or she won't be working at a desk.

    "Sometimes they've never set foot on a job site, but other times they've done research or have worked as a laborer," she says. "I want to see that they really know what they're getting themselves into."

    Candidates who are familiar with the industry tend to make better hires, explains Pierantozzi. "I've found that people who have some exposure or background with the business tend to stay in their jobs longer," she says.

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