Interview Questions: how to handle bizarre or difficult ones

By: Lisa Spiteri

It’s a strange but true fact that some companies deliberately choose to throw the oddest questions into an interview. Glassdoor, a community website for jobseekers in the US, recently invited its members to submit the weirdest questions they’d been asked at interview and compiled a top 25. The results proved that jobseekers need to think on their feet.

So how would you deal with questions such as these?

Given the numbers 1 to 1000, what is the minimum number of guesses needed to find a specific number if you are given the hint ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ for each guess you make? (Reportedly from Facebook)

Or:

There are three boxes. One contains only apples, one contains only oranges, and one contains both apples and oranges. The boxes have been incorrectly labelled such that no label identifies the actual contents of its box. Opening just one box, and without looking in the box, you take out one piece of fruit. By looking at the fruit, how can you immediately label all of the boxes correctly? (Reportedly from Apple)

Or even...

If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out? (Reportedly from Goldman Sachs and number one in Glassdoor’s top 25)

You would be forgiven for thinking that the interviewer clearly dislikes you and has no intention whatsoever of offering you the job but, surprisingly, interviewers do have their reasons for this type of questioning. And maybe even more surprising, a little quick thinking on your part will mean you give an impressive and original response to a seemingly unanswerable question.

There’s logic behind the madness

What’s really going on is a desire to take you out of your comfort zone. If you want a job badly enough you’ll have made sure you’re well prepared – you may even be so well versed in the job interview process that you have a set of stock answers that you can call upon at each interview. And, of course, interviewers realise that – along with the fact that an interview is an artificial setting, one where it can be difficult to act naturally. In the workplace you have to be able to think on your feet, react to situations as they unfold, so imagining your diminutive self trapped in a blender is a way of assessing how you might adapt when something unfamiliar occurs in the work environment. Or a mathematical question such as Facebook’s might be designed to bring out your analytical or strategic skills. Think of it as an evolution of questions such as ‘where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’ or ‘if you were a car what kind of car would you be?’.

In all likelihood there are no right or wrong answers to such questions, and the interviewer will be far more interested in your reaction to them. Showing a sense of humour can help – in fact, this type of questioning may even help you to relax, go ‘off script’ and allow the real you to come through more honestly, giving the interviewer a more accurate picture of how you might fit within the company culture. How you answer random questions may well stick in the interviewer’s mind more so than your recounting of impressive achievements.

Equally, if you’re unsure about how to answer there’s no harm in asking your interviewer what they want to learn from the question. You can’t be expected to know how many bicycles were sold in your area last year (another actual question, allegedly), but if you know that you’ve been ‘given’ 20 people to help you, you can demonstrate your organisational skills by explaining how you might delegate responsibilities across your team to collect the necessary information on which you could base an estimate.

Be prepared for the unexpected

So the next time you’re asked how you’d weigh an elephant without the use of a weighing machine (reportedly from IBM) don’t give a one-word answer or – even worse – admit defeat straightaway and say that you don’t know the answer. Be creative, enjoy the challenge and go with the flow. Your ability to think on your feet, be spontaneous, deal with tricky situations or show outstanding leadership qualities will shine through and probably have more impact than your highly polished CV!

Take a look at our blog post on what we think are the 3 most difficult types of job interview questions you may encounter!

Good luck with your job search and we hope you don't encounter too many tricky interview questions along the way!

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