How to Answer Brain Teaser Job Interview Questions

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Sometimes employers ask interview questions that are a challenge to answer. Many companies, especially those involved in IT and management consulting, include these type of brain teaser questions in their job interviews. 

But don't worry too much about them. It is impossible for candidates to prepare answers for all the possible questions that might be asked during a job interview, especially some of the less common and unusual questions.

For example, what happens if the interviewer raises a hypothetical question like, "How much toilet paper will it take to span the state of New Jersey?" or unusual queries like, "What animal best represents who you are?" or, "If you could be any animal on a carousel what would you pick and why?”

You don't need to try to come up with prepared answers. You won't know what you'll be asked, and these types of questions don't have a right or wrong answer. Rather, the employer is trying to get at how you respond to questions under stress and how your logical thinking processes work.

Why Interviewers Ask Brain Teaser Questions

On the surface, these questions are completely unrelated to the job for which you are applying. However, companies use these questions to assess your analytical and problem-solving abilities. The questions are designed to determine how well you can think through a query and calculate or determine a response or 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

  • Bring Paper and a Pencil - Many interviewers will allow you to use a 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. Do ask if it's acceptable before you start figuring out an answer on paper.
  • Relax and Take a Deep Breath - Some people become flustered by these types of interview questions because they seem irrelevant or impossible to solve. The interviewer is most curious, however, about how you can handle the stress of these questions. Therefore, take a deep breath and calm yourself down before beginning to answer. Don't panic if you can't figure it out. Not all questions are easy, and not all have a right or wrong answer.
  • Buy Some Time - You can buy some time before responding so you can formulate a thoughtful answer by saying something like, "That's an intriguing question; I've never gotten that one before."
  • Ask for Clarification - It's fine to ask for clarification if it's hard to figure out just what the employer is looking for in a response. For example, with the question about how much toilet paper it would take to span New Jersey, you might say, "Interesting question – were you thinking north/south or east/west, at the widest/longest points, or an average?"
  • Calculate Your Answer Out Loud - 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 fine 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.
  • Explain Your Answer - It's important to recognize that many unusual questions are asked to see how your thought process works and 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. 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.
  • Don't Be Afraid to Ask Questions - 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 he or she cannot give you a particular piece of information or assist you.
  • What to Do When You Don't Have an Answer - If you are stumped by a strange question, be prepared to mention that you can't think of a viable answer to that question just now. It's acceptable to ask if you might return to it later. Otherwise, let it go. You don't want a tough question to stress you so much that you lose your focus.

Don't let your inability to respond disrupt your composure during the rest of the interview. You don't need to be perfect to succeed in an interview. If possible, share a response later in the interview or your follow-up communications.

Brain Teaser Question Examples

Here are a few common brain teasers you might be asked during a job interview. You can practice working through these questions aloud to prepare for an interview.

  1. How many gallons of white house paint are sold in the United States each year?
  2. Why are manhole covers round?
  3. How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?
  4. How many times heavier than a mouse is an elephant?
  5. 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!).
  6. How many square feet of pizza are eaten in the United States each month?
  7. What are the decimal equivalents of 5/16 and 7/16?
  8. How many quarters (placed one on top of the other) would it take to reach the top of the Empire State Building?
  9. How would you determine the weight of a commercial airplane without a scale?
  10. 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 the most common interview questions and some example answers. Also, make sure you wear proper interview attire. It’s important 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 he or she is deciding who makes it to the next round of interviews.