Weird Job Interview Questions (and How to Answer Them)

By Tara Struyk on 27 March 2012 10 comments
Photo: tedmurphy

I once worked for a company that routinely asked interviewees how they would measure the height of a local building if given only a pencil, a piece of paper, a barometer, and a length of rope. Fortunately, I wasn’t subjected to this question — but an editor is rarely asked to do much math.

Weird interview questions seem to be a growing trend right now, but this isn’t like the SATs; many of the toughest interview questions don’t necessarily have right and wrong answers. What an interviewer is really trying to do is put candidates in the hot seat to find out kind of people they are, how they behave under pressure, and how they make decisions. (See all: How to Answer 23 of the Most Common Interview Questions)

Sorry...Can You Repeat the Question?

Why are some interview questions so off the wall? Having done some interviewing myself, I can say there’s nothing I hate more than a canned answer. After all, if everything a candidate says is rehearsed, there’s no way to know what they’re really like. And encountering unexpected and frustrating situations on the job — any job — is pretty much a given. That’s where a completely unpredictable question comes in handy. Does the interviewee panic? Get angry? Give up? No matter what an interviewer expects to learn from the question, no one wants to hire someone who is easily antagonized.

Competition is another key aspect of the weird interview question phenomenon. Companies in ultra-competitive industries may get thousands of highly qualified applications for one job. Determining which applicants truly stand out from an exemplary bunch means putting each applicant through the wringer. Google is known for its off-the-wall interview questions, but as a company gets more than one million applications per year — and hires only a few thousand — it probably can’t stand to do much less. (Check out some of the crazy tech interview questions in this article I wrote for Techopedia.)

Weird Interview Questions

Glassdoor compiles a list of weird interview questions every year. Here are a few of my favorites from the last few years — and some suggestions on how to answer them.

"If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out?"

This question reportedly came out of Goldman Sachs in 2010. This isn’t a situation you’d likely face at an investment bank, but you can bet that a high-pressure environment is part of the job. You could probably turn this around with a creative, reasonable answer about how you would get out — or use some humor. Hey, if you’re a pencil, maybe you could just draw yourself a rope and climb on out!

"If you could be any animal, what would you be, and why?"

Here’s a question asked of someone interviewing to become a sales associate for Pacific Swimwear. What does this have to do with selling bathing suits? Probably more than you think. For this a swimwear sales job, the company needs someone who’s friendly and outgoing, but also has a razor-sharp sense of sensitivity and tact. So which animal can explain which styles will flatter a woman’s figure? Probably any animal that could be said to reflect the key qualities required for the job.

"Are your parents disappointed with your career aspirations?"

Yikes! This one came out of an interview at Fisher Investments for someone seeking a position as a client service associate. The interviewer may be crossing the line into something too personal here, but then again, maybe not. Remember, this person doesn’t know the candidate; if he or she automatically takes this as an insult, that’s telling in itself.

There’s no need to get personal in an interview, but it pays to be honest. If your parents don’t love your line of work, say so — and then explain what drove you to choose it anyway.

"Out of 25 horses, pick the fastest 3 horses. In each race, only 5 horses can run at the same time. What is the minimum number of races required?"

This question came from a 2010 interview at Bloomberg L.P. for a financial software engineer. This is a job that requires strong skills in math and logic, and this question puts interviewers to the test. Again, it’s tricky question, and not just in terms of working it out. To answer it, the candidate has to make some assumptions, such as how to determine “fastest.” The process candidates use to do this is probably what’s most interesting to the interviewer.

"If you could be number 1 employee but have all your coworkers dislike you, or you could be a number 15 employee and have all your coworkers like you, which would you choose?"

This question comes from ADP, and it’s clearly looking to determine what’s important to the candidate. Most companies want ambitious employees with big goals. The reality, however, is that very few people make it to the top without having anyone on their side. Chances are, the best answer here falls somewhere in the middle. Not everyone in the office needs to like you, but if you’re a fair, friendly, and reasonable person, most of them should — and that in itself should get you closer to the number one position.

"What do you think of garden gnomes?"

Not all weird interview questions leave applicants in a cold sweat . Some may be designed to make you laugh — or test whether you have a sense of humor. That makes sense when you consider this question came from an interview for a team member at Trader Joe’s, a company that brands itself as unconventional and dresses its employees in Hawaiian shirts.

How to answer this one? Well, garden gnomes have been known to make people smile, which most retailers would consider a good thing...they also appear to be hardworking, cheerful, and adventurous. Or, perhaps you could say that what you think of them depends on what they're wearing!

There Might Not Be a "Right" Answer

A lot of people assume that there’s a right way to answer questions in an interview. That’s only partly true. The reality is that good interview questions are actually looking for a specific kind of person. If you aren’t it, you probably won’t get the job, and you probably wouldn’t be happy working there if you did.

And as for the barometer? I later found out the interviewer wanted to know whether candidates would ask questions to ultimately discover that they didn’t need to use all of the tools provided. Because this was an interview for an Internet company, “Google it” was also an acceptable answer!

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Guest's picture

Amusing job interview questions. I can't say I've ever been asked anything weird like this in an interview. Most of mine have just been the typical questions that are asked at almost every interview. You're right though, most questions aren't about being right or wrong. It's about judging your personality and whether you're actually a good fit for the company. There's usually only a few questions that are actually checking if you meet the job skill requirements.

Guest's picture
Carl Lassegue

Some of those questions were actually pretty funny. Good thing I've never been asked any of those questions because I'm not sure how I would respond.

Tara Struyk's picture

I had the benefit of being able to research potential answers. If I was put on the spot, I'm not sure I could answer these questions either!

Guest's picture

I recently went through an interview that I can honestly say was probably the weirdest in my entire 27-year career. I was interviewing (on the phone) for a Technical Writer position and was asked the following two questions:

1. Tech writers are supposed to teach people something that they don't know. Teach me something. (He said I could talk about anything--it didn't have to be technical.)
2. My Grandmother just walked into the room. She has never used a computer before. Explain to her how to use Google.

I've been a Technical Writer for over 16 years and have had more job interviews than I can even remember, but I have to admit, these questions really blindsided me. However, we seasoned writers are supposed to be able to think on our feet, right?

So, I answered the questions like this:

For #1, I discussed the merits of adopting/rescuing a senior dog vs. a puppy or younger dog. This is something I'm pretty familiar with, because I have 5 senior dogs of my own and have been rescuing dogs for most of my adult life. Jackpot!! One of the interviewers had adopted a senior dog himself in the recent past, so while I didn't "teach" him anything, I definitely tipped the is-she-a-good-candidate-scale in my favor.

The first thing I asked the interviewers in response to question # 2 was whether their Grandmother had really walked into the room--this was a phone interview, after all, and they hadn't set this up as a hypothetical scenario. So, after they clarified that this was indeed just a hypothetical situation, the first thing I asked was whether the computer was turned on. Another score!!! It turns out this was the "correct" answer and all they wanted to know. They didn't want any additional information. All the candidates they had interviewed before me provided long-winded, drawn-out answers, but never asked that first critical question. After letting the other candidates finish their instructions, they told each of them that the screen was black because the computer was off.

I made it to the second round for an in-person interview and ended up being offered the job.

Tara Struyk's picture

Wow - what a great story! Thanks for sharing.

Guest's picture

FYI - 5 Races. The fastest three horses might be in the first race. The second and third fastest horses would end up eliminated. Every other race would have a winner, but be slower. You'd have to run all the horses once and time their respective finishes.

25 horses. 5 horses per race. 5 races and a few stop watches. Simple

Guest's picture

One of the best questions I was asked during an interview was to sell them a pen. The interviewer handed me a pen, and actually said, "Sell this to me." So I explained how comfortable the pen was to write with, it's smooth ink, and the ability to take it apart to refill the cartridge. I got the job. ;)

Guest's picture

what was the motive of the question ?

Guest's picture

I've read a lot about the subject of interviews and conducting yourself in interviews recently because I just graduated college and am trying to find where I belong in the business world. I've never seen examples of weight questions like these, but it seems like it all really comes down to the interviewer getting a feel for who you really are as a person rather than you as a business professional trying to portray yourself in a certain light. I must admit I'd probably get tripped up if faced with any of these questions during an interview, but I'm confident in my personality and ability to answer curveball questions under pressure with grace.

Guest's picture

I was surprised when an interviewer asked me "List 10 things you can do with a pencil other than write." I'm sure there was a pause between her question and my answer, but I made it to six uses before admitting defeat. Looking back, I understand her question was designed to see how well I thought on my feet, and likely to analyze the creativity of my answers.