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Brain Teaser Interview Questions: What They Mean & Examples


Brain Teaser Interview Questions

Preparing for a job interview can be stressful. Most people get butterflies and spend time mentally preparing for the questions.

Some interview questions you expect like, “Why do you want to work for this particular company?” or “What makes you stand out as a potential employee?”

But how do you prepare for, “Why are manhole covers round?” or “How many pickup trucks are in all of Illinois?” and “How would you improve the teddy bear?”

Well, the truth is, you can’t really prepare for “brain teaser” interview questions. Sure, you can research which companies are asking which brain teaser questions. But even if you could prep for every possible brain teaser out there, what does your answer really tell the employer? Do brain teaser questions actually tell the company how well you’ll do your job? Or, is there something else behind brain teaser interview questions?

Why do companies use brain teaser interview questions?

Brainteaser interview questions have been around longer than most people realize. Using brain teasers in interviews goes back as far as the 1990s at Microsoft and Xerox. With the birth of the Internet and information sharing, there came the realization that a lot of companies used brain teasers as interview questions.

Initially, companies added brain teasers to interviews to see how well candidates could think on their feet. Or, they were testing if candidates could come up with out-of-the-box answers to out-of-the-box questions.

“Many times, the interviewer is trying to assess the way a candidate handles pressure,” says Vicky Oliver, author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions. “Unfortunately, due to the ancient part of our brains that reacts to stress, we have a fight-or-flight reaction.”

Weird interview questions serve other purposes too. Someone asking, “How many roses do you think were bought in the United States on Valentine’s Day last year?” likely has an interest in seeing you reason logically when presented with a challenge.

Likewise, an interviewer who 10 minutes into the interview asks you to close your eyes and describe everything in the room as accurately as possible may be trying to assess your attention to detail.

Are brain teasers good interview questions?

Not really. While Google gained a lot of “Internet fame” for using brain teasers, eventually they, along with other companies, stopped. As it turns out, these “quirky” questions don’t predict anything about employee performance.

Because really, what are the odds you’re going to need to wash all the windows in Seattle when you’re applying for a marketing position?

And, even on the off chance you do need to wash all the windows in Seattle, the interviewer knows you probably researched the company and the kinds of questions they ask during an interview. So, they know you’ve likely prepared an answer before you’re ever asked the question.

Why use brain teasers in interviews at all?

Some interviewers claim they’re assessing the candidate’s reasoning abilities or problems-solving skills. And, you could make the argument that brain teasers asses the way a candidate handles stressful situations or problem clients.

However, science says that while that may be the argument, it may not be the real reason that interviewers ask these questions.

A study conducted in 2018 found that an interviewer who uses brain teaser questions is more likely to be a narcissist and sadist. Furthermore, the study found that when a company uses these questions as part of the interview process, the work environment may be abusive and toxic.

Or, to sum it up, it may be that interviewers ask these questions because they like to feel smart and it puts them in a position of power.

Brain teasers aren’t the answer.

Put aside what the study found, and focus on the fact that companies like Google stopped using brain teaser questions as far back as 2013.

It turns out that brain teasers are “a complete waste of time,” according to Lazlo Bock, former VP of people operations at Google. He goes on to say that brain teasers “don’t predict anything.”

And another study found that candidates aren’t such fans of brain teaser questions, either. Candidates in this study rated their interview experience less satisfactorily if presented with brain teaser questions. It also found that candidates who encountered brain teasers in interviews have a less favorable view of the company.

The problem with brain teaser questions is that there is no one right answer. While that’s true for a lot of interview questions, candidates resent brain teasers since there’s no way to know if they’ve answered the question correctly or not. They feel like they’re set up to fail, and that’s not a pleasant experience no matter what situation you’re in.

What’s a better way to assess candidates?

Since brain teasers don’t tell an employer how a candidate might perform in the position, many companies have switched to behavioral interview questions.

The questions ask candidates about their skills and abilities in relation to the actual job. They are not questions about a hypothetical situation the candidate is likely to never encounter.

Behavioral interview questions include, “Tell me about a time when you had to work closely as a team with someone you didn’t get along with. How did you handle it?” or “Give me an example of a time when a client wasn’t pleased with your service. What happened, and how did you fix it? Would you do things the same next time? What would you do differently?”

Employers that ask behavioral questions learn far more about a candidate than asking off-the-wall brain teasers. These questions let employers see how candidates have acted in real-life situations and helps an employer understand how a candidate might perform on the job.

That doesn’t mean, however, that brain teasers are going anywhere. There are still plenty of employers out there that ask brain teaser interview questions. So, if this is something you come across, here’s how to get ahead.

How to prep for brain teasers.

Since brain teasers still come up in interviews, you need to prepare. Start by asking friends (and the Internet) what kinds of brain teaser questions companies are asking during interviews.

But before you assume that the company is just being sadistic, ask yourself what other motivations a company might have for asking these questions. Is the question asking you to think critically or come up with a reasoned response to something? Is it trying to gauge your personality or personal attributes?

For example, if a company is asking, “If you could be any type of animal, which would it be and why?” consider that the interviewer may be trying to gauge your creativity and personality. A few others could include:

  • “How would you go about teaching your grandmother to use Facebook?” The interviewer is trying to find out if you’re patient and capable of breaking down information in ways your audience can understand.
  • “How would you design a spice rack for someone who is blind?” The interview is testing if you can spot the challenges in a situation and come up with ideas on how to overcome them.
  • “Who would win in a fight between Spider-Man and Batman?” While it could be one of those brain teasers that’s meant to test your skills under pressure, the company may be giving you a hint that it’s a creative and easy loose environment, and that gives you insight into the company culture.

Examples of brainteasers in interviews

If you can’t beat them, prepare your best answer! Here are some crazy brain teaser questions and potential aspects to consider before answering.

“You can have a million dollars to launch your best entrepreneurial idea. What is it?”

Before you say, “Sign me up!” think hard before answering. This question is designed to test your planning abilities, and interestingly enough, your entrepreneurial spirit. While you might think that companies would want to quash your business dreams, many employers actually prefer employees with entrepreneurial dreams. It shows someone who is a thinker, a planner, and a creative, all of which are qualities that many employers want.

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

Although this question definitely has the potential to throw you off (after all, how did you wind up in a blender in the first place?), what a hiring manager is looking for is your problem-solving ability. They’re also looking to see if a somewhat impossible situation (i.e., being stuck in a blender) will make you cave from the pressure or sit back and come up with a solution.

“How would you direct someone else on how to cook an omelet?”

The underlying question beneath this seemingly innocuous question is: How would you lead a team? Would you be heavy-handed, breaking the eggs (i.e., your workers’ spirits) as you went along, or would you teach them with respect and compassion, and then praise them for a job well done?

“Your workday is over. What happened during the day that made it awesome?”

This question has two goals: First, a potential employer is trying to assess how good you are at evaluating your workday, including your strengths and weaknesses. Secondly, they’re trying to figure out how much you want the job you’re applying for. If you can’t mention what would make working there awesome, a prospective boss might think twice before hiring you.

Interview preparation will get you through any question.

The odds are pretty good you’ll never have to fight your way out of a blender or figure out how much toilet paper will stretch across New Jersey. And, while your interviewer may be trying to test or even torment you, consider that they might be trying to learn more about you.

With a little bit of practice, you’ll find the right answer to these and any other crazy brain teasers an interviewer throws your way. Check out some of our interview tips to prep for interviews that hopefully don’t have brain teasers, like how to answer behavioral questions, how to explain why you’re the best candidate, and how to answer the dreaded, “What’s your biggest weakness?” question.

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Jess Vyvial-Larson, Jennifer Parris, and Beth Braccio Hering contributed to this article.

Photo Credit: bigstockphoto.com

A version of this post was originally published on February 24, 2014. 

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