Any career advice column can give you tips on answering the most-often asked questions in an interview. It takes real confidence to give tips on how to shine when the questions are just plain wacky. This post by Glassdoor.com compiled the 25 strangest interview questions posed by recruiters from name brand companies.
The questions must provide interviewers with some great stories to share in the break room. They vary from Forrester Research’s “If you were to get rid of one state in the US, which would it be and why?” to Google’s “How many cows are in Canada?” JetBlue wants to know how many quarters you would need to reach the height of the Empire State building, but that’s nothing compared to Clark Construction Group. Their contribution is this: “A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?”
Why would serious companies ask such silly questions? There is, actually, a method behind their madness, sometimes, more than one.
First, these questions give the interviewer a glimpse into your real personality. There’s no way to hide behind a credential, technical jargon, or your fabulous memory. It’s just you and the interviewer, waiting for your reaction to something out of left field. Do you laugh in delight? Panic? Get indignant? Pause for a painfully long time before giving up? Each of these reactions would reveal the real you – the one that’s going to come out sooner or later when things go wrong.
Second, these questions provide insight on how creative you are. They strip away factors like experience and education and get to the essence of how your mind works. The interviewers know that this question is unanswerable; they simply want to see how you approach a problem that you’ve never thought about before.
Take the Forrester question on which state you would eliminate and why. This is a great exercise in making tough business decisions – minus the usual economic factors and ethical issues. Your answer reveals what values guide you when you first think about a problem. Is efficiency your go-to justification? “I’d roll Rhode Island into Massachusetts. Its residents would get the benefit of in-state tuition for better universities, and it’s the smallest state and economy in the Union. No one will miss it.” Or do you take a consensus-building approach? “I’d take the three most distant states (Hawaii, Alaska, and Maine), and let the country vote on a referendum on which one should go.”
If the problem is hypothetically solvable (number of cows in Canada), the interviewer can get a glimpse into how your brain organizes and processes information. It’s legitimate to say, “I can’t know the number, but here’s how I’d try to figure it out.” Then show your math. Talk about the resources you’d tap and how you’d get a rough estimate of whatever the answer is. Confidence is what shines here, since no one can have certainty.
A local jobseeker once told me about an off-the-wall question that threw her for a loop: Are you a daisy or a rose (and why?) To this jobseeker, the question made no sense. (Since the firm in question was a logistics company, I tended to agree.) But the metaphor that the interviewer was trying for made immediate sense to me. Are you an accessible, low maintenance manager who thrives as part of a team (a daisy)? Or are you a soloist that enjoys the spotlight and can command a room (a rose?) Easy for me to imagine and answer, but puzzling and frustrating for what would have been a good candidate for the company’s position. In that case, real and useful information was sacrificed to an artsy question. Cute, but not effective.
Bonus: Here’s my answer to the penguin with the sombrero question. “There are only two reasons for him to interrupt our meeting. Either he works here, or he’s your next interview. Either way, since I’m taller and better dressed than he is, I must be looking pretty good as a candidate right now. I feel better about my odds of getting hired and making a meaningful contribution.”