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How to Answer Brainteaser Interview Questions and Wow Hiring Managers

Jul 17, 2017 Kate Lopaze

How to Answer Brainteaser Interview Questions and Wow Hiring Managers

If two trains leave the station at 11:30, with Train A traveling at 75 miles per hour and Train B traveling at 52 miles per hour, what kind of hat is the conductor of Train A wearing? You may think you left these kinds of word problems behind when you finished school, but think again—you may very well see this style of brainteaser question pop up in a job interview. Like you don’t have to do enough preparation already for the regular types of interview questions. But don’t worry—like every other interview question, the trick to rocking your answers to these brainteasers lies in being prepared. And that’s something we can help you do.

What Are Brainteaser Interview Questions?

These are interview questions, asked either verbally or in writing, that give you a situation and ask you to come up with a specific (if often ridiculous) answer. These kinds of questions are often used for highly technical or analysis-based jobs. Tech companies in particular love brainteasers for job candidates: Google, IBM, and Facebook have been known to pick the brains of their interviewees. Brainteaser questions are less about getting an exact answer than about showing how you got there. So while you may be sweating bullets about whether you got the decimal point right, or whether you know enough about the price of tea in Hong Kong to make an educated guess about annual revenue, the interviewer is more likely interested in the way you tackled the question. It’s a test of your problem-solving skills, which you probably listed proudly on your resume. These brainteasers usually fall into several different categories:
The “How Many Marbles in the Jar” Brainteaser
These estimating/quantifying questions ask you to figure out how many (or how much) of something there is in a particular place or scenario. Guaranteed, it’s something you never even thought about before you set foot into your interview. Examples: How many street lights are there in New York City? How many golf balls are there in Florida? How much annual revenue does the Time Square Starbucks bring in? How many potatoes does McDonald’s sell each year in the UK? For these, logic is the key over accuracy. You won’t know the information ahead of time, so you’ll need to take information you do have (or can infer) and just wing it. For instance, looking at the streetlight example above, you’d take the number of approximate blocks in Manhattan, pick a probable number of streetlights per block, and multiply by 5 to arrive at an overall number for all five city boroughs. The interviewer knows you don’t know how many streetlights are in the city. But what he or she is looking for is that you can take an insane problem, reduce it to manageable parts, and then attack it.
The “Dust Off the Math Skills” Brainteaser
These are much like the math word problems of yore, where you would apply specific math concepts/skills to arrive at the answer. Examples: A car travels a distance of 60 miles at an average speed of 30 mph. How fast would the car have to travel the same 60 mile distance home to average 60 mph over the entire trip? What is the sum of numbers from 1 to 100? You are given a 3-gallon jug and a 5-gallon jug. How do you use them to get 4 gallons of liquid? For these, there’s no way of getting around the math part—you’ll need to remember as best you can how to determine probability, angles, algebraic formulas, etc.
The “Teach Me” Brainteaser
These are designed to get you to communicate complex information in a straightforward way. Examples: Explain the Internet to someone who has been in a coma for 30 years. How would you direct someone to make an omelet? Explain a complex database to your 8-year-old nephew. These are usually based on practical information, something you would normally face in everyday life, but would not necessarily be accustomed to describing. The best way to tackle these is to take a moment, think clearly about the steps (or the main points), then describe them as simply as possible.
The “Kids Ask the Darnedest Questions” Brainteaser
These are questions that are designed to make you think about something you probably never pondered until someone asked you about it: why something works the way it does, why we do something in a particular way, etc. They’re the kind of questions that kids ask because they genuinely want to know how the world works. For an interviewer, it’s more about getting you to think about large, unwieldy concepts and break them down into manageable information. Examples: Why is a tennis ball fuzzy? Why are manhole covers round? These are questions where you’ll think about the motivation or design behind some common object. The good news is that you can wing it a little on this one—if you’re not up on the civil engineering concepts, you can still come up with an answer about manholes if you think about it logically. Manhole covers are round so that they fit into manholes, right? You don’t need some deep-seated soliloquy about the history of manholes in the continental United States…you just need a reasonable answer, presented quickly and simply.
The “Ridiculous Scenario” Brainteaser
These are oddball questions that thrust you into an unfamiliar situation and ask how you’d (hypothetically) handle it. Examples: How would you kill a giraffe? How would you fight a bear? These questions usually require a little creativity. “I would never do that” is not the game here, so you should play along with the concept. You’re being tested on your creative problem solving skills, so rather than getting caught up in thinking about, say, what circumstances would put you in a boxing ring with a bear, use the same kind of logical, step-by-step thinking you’d apply to any process.

Why Would Brainteasers Ever Come Up in an Interview?

You’re applying for a job, not applying for college or auditioning for a game show. And quite frankly, brainteaser questions are never going to replace classics like “tell me about yourself” or “what can you bring to this position that no one else can?” Brainteasers are designed to throw you off your game, and get you out of your groove of resume talking points and rehearsed anecdotes. They’re a test of your critical thinking and problem solving skills.

How Do You Tackle Brainteasers?

The bad news: you’re never going to be able to prepare for specific brainteaser questions ahead of an interview. They’re meant to be curve balls, and see how you think and communicate in the moment. What you can do before an interview that might contain a brainteaser or two is practice your thinking-on-your-feet responses. Have a friend lob some questions like the brainteasers above to you. Practice explaining complicated processes in simple terms, either to yourself or loved ones. And in the interview itself, you can take some of these strategies in with you, no matter what crazy question your interviewer tosses your way.
  1. Always bring paper and a pen or pencil with you. This is good practice for an interview anyway, because you can jot down notes, contact information for thank you notes, etc. If you get in the habit of bringing a notebook with you on interviews, you’ll have scratch paper at the ready if you need to figure out how many gallons of ice cream the Titanic could have held.
  2. Take a moment to breathe and think. Before you dive right in with an answer, pause for a moment or two to gather your thoughts. (Within reason—you’re probably not being timed, but this is a conversational interview, and your interviewer will be waiting.) And if the question is one you don’t feel capable of answering, this moment can help tamp down any panic you feel. Think about how to approach the question (whatever it is) logically and clearly. Focus on the process, not whether the specific answer is absolutely correct.
  3. Talk it out. Again, this is a conversation with your interviewer, not the SATs, so it’s okay to talk through your rationale for your answer. The interviewer is mostly interested in how you’re arriving at your answer, so this helps them see what you’re getting at, and how.
  4. Ask questions. Not only is this a good stalling tactic while you think about what to say, but it can also show the interviewer that you’re not afraid to ask for clarification when necessary. You want to make sure you understand the question, and the interviewer might be able to provide helpful information (like what flavor of ice cream you’re trying to fit on the Titanic).
So while these brainteasers might not be orthodox interview questions, and you may not come across them in every interview, it’s worth coming up with a game plan. And not only might you get a new job out of it when you wow them with your brainy answers, but who couldn’t use a battle plan in case you do happen upon that fighting bear?

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