Weird Job Interview Questions (and How to Answer Them)
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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