Dealing with Oddball Interview Questions


While most job interviewers tend to stick to straightforward questions, occasionally they’ll fire off a weird one at a candidate.

Hiring managers at Google and Microsoft are famous for tossing out oddball brainteasers, although that practice has declined in recent years. (“Why are manhole covers round?” was a favorite at Microsoft for quite some time, if you believe the stories.) Yet despite some executives shunning the practice, out-of-the-box questioning persists at many tech firms. Over at SpaceX, for example, CEO Elon Musk has been known to ask prospective engineers to solve a geography-related riddle.

So how do you answer if an interviewer asks you something along the lines of, “If you could be an animal, what kind of animal would you be?” (That question, by the way, is reportedly asked in some interviews at Apple.) Here are some tips:

Keep Positive

Sure, the question might sound idiotic. But most of the time, there’s a method to the interviewer’s madness: they’re trying to see how you deal with the unexpected, and whether you can think outside of the proverbial box. Whatever your feelings about the question, remember to maintain the positive attitude that you bring to every job interview, even if the idea of trying to guess how many tennis balls will fit in a 747 makes you roll your eyes. (The answer to that, by the way, is 6.7 million.)

Repeat the Question

As with any other difficult question, repeating it out loud will buy you time to think of a suitable answer.

Work the Problem (If There Is One)

If the interviewer wants to see how you deal with the unexpected, give them what they want. Depending on its format, you can treat the odd question as if it were a straightforward engineering or management problem: consider the central issue, the resources at hand, the potential complications, and work your way step-by-step to the end.

By doing so, you demonstrate to the interviewer that you’re innovative and can come up with solutions on the fly. Even if you don’t figure out how many tennis balls you can cram in that jumbo jet, at least you’ll have demonstrated your thinking process.

Reflect Your Personality (and Skills)

Other oddball questions don’t quite fall in the category of “brainteaser.” In those cases, the company is using them to get a better sense of who you are.

Let’s say you’re confronted with a query like, “What three items would you take with you to a desert island?” The interviewer wants some insight into whether you’re a creative person (“I’d take paints!”) or a ruthlessly pragmatic one (“I’d take a radio and a flare gun.”). If you’re applying for a job that requires particular skills or aptitudes, your answer to the question should reflect those requirements in some way.

Don’t Panic

When confronted with a truly weird question, it’s natural to panic. In fact, many interviewers expect a brain-twister to leave you tongue-tied. But if you focus on working the problem, as opposed to getting stuck on the goofiness of the question, you can offer a splendid answer.

One Response to “Dealing with Oddball Interview Questions”

  1. Jonathan

    It depends on the question and the context, but my response to a really oddball question might be, “Thank you for your time.” As the job begins, so it will continue. I value independent thinking and originality, but I don’t want to work for a company that encourages oddballs.