Sometimes employers ask interview questions that are a challenge to answer. Many companies, especially those involved in IT and management consulting, include brain teaser questions in their job interviews.
But don't worry too much about them. Candidates can't prepare answers for all the possible questions that interviewers ask during a job interview, especially some less common and unusual questions.
Learn what interviewers are looking for when they ask odd questions and what you can do to get them to remember you.
Why Interviewers Ask Brain Teaser Questions
An interviewer might ask you, "How much toilet paper will it take to span the state of New Jersey?" or, "What animal best represents who you are?" You don't need to try to have answers prepared in advance for brain teasers.
You won't know what you'll be asked, and sometimes these questions don't have a right or wrong answer. The interviewer is trying to see your response under stress and watch you logically work through a problem.
On the surface, these questions are entirely unrelated to the job for which you are applying. Underneath, these questions assess your analytical and problem-solving abilities. They design the questions to determine how well you can solve a problem without getting confused or flustered.
How you react during the process is as important as calculating an answer. So, when the interviewer asks you a brain teaser, take a moment to get your bearings, gather your thoughts, and then work through your answer.
Tips for Answering Brain Teaser Interview Questions
Many interviewers will allow you to use paper and pencil when solving a brain teaser, so keep some handy during the interview. Be sure to bring graph paper in case you want to create a graph or chart. Ask if it's acceptable before you start figuring out an answer on paper. Some other helpful ideas for dealing with these kinds of questions are:
- Relax and take a deep breath
- Buy some time
- Ask for clarification
- Calculate your answer out loud
- Explain your answer
- Don't be afraid to ask questions
- What to do when you don't have an answer
Relax and Think
Some people become flustered by these types of interview questions because they seem irrelevant or impossible to solve. The interviewer is most curious, however, to see how you handle the stress of these questions.
Don't panic if you can't figure it out. Not all questions are easy, and not all have a right or wrong answer. You can buy some time before responding so you can formulate a thoughtful response by saying something like, "That's an intriguing question; I've never gotten that one before."
Clarify, Talk and Explain
It's essential to recognize that many unusual questions are asked to see how your thought process works—not because the employer expects you to furnish any particular "right" answer. Be sure to articulate your reasoning when you respond to these types of questions.
Regarding the toilet paper spanning New Jersey question, you might say, "Interesting question–were you thinking north/south or east/west, at the widest/longest points, or an average?"
For example, if you said a cat was the animal that best represents you, you might mention that you are curious or quick. Of course, referencing qualities that are in line with job requirements is always a good way to respond.
Because your answer is far less important than the steps you take to arrive at it, be sure to tell the interviewer each step in your problem-solving process. It is okay if you decide to change tactics halfway through solving the problem; after all, most of these companies are looking for people who can brainstorm multiple creative solutions to real-world business problems.
You should feel comfortable asking the interviewer questions about the brain teaser. An interview is a conversation between two people, not an exam, so you should not feel completely alone when answering these questions. However, do be prepared for the interviewer to say that they cannot give you any information or assist you.
If you are stumped by a strange question, don't hesitate to mention that you can't think of a viable answer to that question just now.
Ask to Come Back to the Question Later
It's also acceptable to ask if you might return to the question later. Otherwise, let it go. You don't want a tricky question to stress you so much that you lose your focus. Perfection isn't usually required to succeed in an interview. You could always share a response later in the interview or send the answer in your follow-up communications.
Brain Teaser Question Examples
Here are a few common brain teasers interviewers might ask you during a job interview. You can practice working through these questions aloud to prepare for an interview.
- How many gallons of white house paint are sold in the United States each year?
- Why are maintenance hole covers round?
- How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?
- How many times heavier than a mouse is an elephant?
- If the time is 3:15, what is the angle between the hour hand and the minute hand on a clock? (HINT: The answer is not zero!).
- How many square feet of pizza are eaten in the United States each month?
- What are the decimal equivalents of 5/16 and 7/16?
- How many quarters (placed one on top of the other) would it take to reach the top of the Empire State Building?
- How would you determine the weight of a commercial airplane without a scale?
- How many trees are there in New York City's Central Park?
Additional Interview Tips
Your interviewer will also ask you some questions about your experience and education. Prepare yourself by reviewing common interview questions and some example answers. Also, make sure you wear proper interview attire. It’s essential to choose the right clothing for your interview because you want to make a great first impression.
Finally, after your interview is finished, be sure to send a thank-you note to your interviewer. It’s good etiquette, and it helps to keep you in the interviewer’s mind when they are deciding who makes it to the next round of interviews.