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Odd interview questions and what they reveal


Weird interview questions and what they reveal.

You’ve researched the company, the competitors, the commute and even the coffee. You can articulate how your skills and experience are an ideal match for the job.

Come interview day, you’re ready to wow your prospective employer with all the reasons the organization should hire you. You know you’ve got this nailed. That is, until they throw in the curveball: the question you never could have anticipated, the one that defies logic, seems alarmingly irrelevant and appears to have no right answer.

Origins of the oddball question

Enter the weird interview question, a la “How many basketballs could you fit in this room?” or “If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put into a blender, how would you get out?”

This device has been used for centuries, according to William Poundstone, author of Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?, a book that delves into the practice of posing trick questions, riddles and puzzles during an interview.

Just where do these off-the-wall queries come from? “One influence I’ve found is what are known as the Oxbridge questions,” he notes of the tradition that may have originated at the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “For hundreds of years, they’ve been asking notoriously hard interview questions.”

This British standby may have made its way to the U.S., where emerging technology businesses, such as IBM in the 1950s, found them useful when evaluating job candidates. “At that time, there really weren’t degree programs in computer programming,” explains Poundstone. “They were just belatedly coming to the realization that programming a computer is not like being an electrical engineer. It was a whole new field that required whole new talents.” Employers began asking logic questions on the grounds that writing code was akin to trying to solve a puzzle.

As technology evolved, this trend continued, following high-tech companies to California. “It trickled through the technology industry and became a Silicon Valley tradition,” says Poundstone.

Phyllis Shaurette, founder and owner of People Development & Staffing, has watched this interview technique become a widespread practice over the past couple of decades. “I’ve seen it in all industries, from health and wellness to CPA firms,” she says of her observations while interviewing countless candidates and working with business leaders.

Can you please repeat that?

Some of the most memorable questions Poundstone has heard have stuck with him. They include, “How would you weigh your head?”, “Can you swim faster in water or in syrup?” and “How would you make an M&M?”

While researching his book, he encountered a story about how one interviewer left a job candidate in the conference room with a box of LEGO® blocks and asked him to make anything he wanted.

“The first question of the interview was ‘Describe what you built and how you built it,’” he recalls. “I’m not sure what it was supposed to prove, but the company went bankrupt shortly after that, so draw your own conclusions.”

Shaurette also recalls hearing stories of strange interviews. The most notable involves an interviewer telling a candidate a hypothetical story in which the job seeker becomes stranded without a cell phone after driving to a dark, remote area. Then, the lug nuts fall off one of the car’s tires. The candidate is only able to find three of them. What would he or she do?

It’s one of the oddest questions Shaurette has experienced. “They’ve been talking about qualifications, skills, experience and education, and all of a sudden the [candidate] is asked what they would do if they were [stuck] in the dark desert,” she says.

Another strange interview question? “Name a song that describes you, and sing it,” says Shaurette. If you’re someone who can’t carry a tune, “this one [can be] humiliating.”

What they reveal

But are weird interview questions only intended to trip up unsuspecting candidates? Experts argue that they have some value: In our fast-paced, technology-driven world, how you respond to these keep-you-on-your-toes questions can demonstrate how well you think on your feet.

When interviewers use this tactic, they’re trying to discern “how mentally nimble you are,” says Poundstone. “They’re pretty sure you didn’t study [these topics] in school, and you’ll have to invent a way to address the question and come to some conclusion or closure.” As for that M&M question, even the hiring manager didn’t know the answer, reveals Poundstone. It was simply a way for him to gauge how well a candidate could string together a convincing argument on the fly. 

Shaurette also believes there is worth in this line of questioning under the right circumstances, such as for a sales role or a public-facing position. “When it’s job related, it can give you some insight into how a candidate can handle an impromptu presentation,” she says. “It’s about self-confidence.”

Toeing the line

Sometimes, though, employers can use these trick questions to divine information from a candidate on a sensitive topic about which they may be prohibited from asking directly due to human resources policies.

Poundstone has heard of some technology companies asking programmers to “estimate how many lines of code you have written in your lifetime.” This question, he explains, can be used to roughly calculate how many hours an individual is willing to put in each week, thereby garnering information on the work schedule a candidate is likely to keep.

While job seekers may balk at the tradition of asking wild and the wacky questions during an interview, this practice has endured over centuries—and is likely to continue in the future. Instead of fearing the funky, candidates can use these moments as opportunities to showcase their confidence, creativity and commitment, qualities any employer would welcome