How to Handle Unusual Questions Asked During a Job Interview

Learn the art of answering unconventional questions in job interviews.

Have you ever been in a job interview where you were thrown off by an unexpected question? Questions like, “Why is a manhole cover round?” or “What’s the most crucial part of a sandwich?” or even “What three items would you want if you were stranded on a deserted island?

Rest assured, it’s unlikely that your job will require you to survive on a deserted island. So, why do interviewers ask such perplexing questions? The truth is, these questions serve a purpose, and it’s not necessarily to hear your answer.

What recruiters are really interested in is what your responses reveal about your character and problem-solving abilities.

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Categories of Unconventional Questions

Before we delve deeper, let’s explore the range of these unconventional questions. Glassdoor is an excellent resource for discovering some of the most peculiar questions ever asked by companies. For example:

  1. How many cows are in Canada?” – Google
  2. How many quarters would it take to reach the height of the Empire State Building?” – Jet Blue
  3. “In an ideal world, how would people communicate?” – Novell
  4. Can you estimate the number of windows in New York?” – Bain & Company
  5. What is the angle between the hands of a clock at 11:50?” – Bank of America
puzzled about weird questions

Looks like we’re in a tight spot, aren’t we?

What’s the Objective?

Contrary to popular belief, the answer isn’t the most crucial part. If interviewers are skilled at their job (more on that later), they’re generally interested in three key aspects:

  1. Assessing your confidence level and how you handle unexpected situations
  2. Understanding your ability to think creatively and bring more than just academic qualifications to the table
  3. Evaluating your problem-solving skills, especially for new challenges that may not have textbook solutions
Be Prepared for Anything

Keep in mind that these questions are designed to catch you off guard. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that there’s a ‘correct’ answer. Your goal should be to come up with a response better than “I don’t know, what’s the answer?”

If your reply is along the lines of seeking someone else’s opinion or simply saying “I don’t know” (or “I don’t really care”), don’t expect a callback anytime soon.

be prepared
Understanding Concepts

If you’re the type who likes a challenge, remember that your approach to the question often matters more than the answer itself. While academic settings focus on the right answer, real-world problems emphasize the importance of the underlying concepts.

Think Creatively

Consider the question: How would you fit an elephant into a fridge in three steps? Take a moment to ponder if this is new to you. Done? Simply open the fridge, place the elephant inside, and close the door. It’s a straightforward answer to an unconventional question, meeting the three-step criteria.

come up with creative idea

The only obstacle to this answer is the common assumption that an elephant is too large for a fridge. Discard that notion, and you have an elegantly simple solution that even Einstein would appreciate.

Here’s another variation involving a miniaturized you and a blender, along with one author’s suggested answer.

Guidelines and Suggestions

These puzzling questions often go viral due to their ambiguous nature. By the time you’re in the interview, the questions have likely changed. So, can you really prepare for them?

Here are three tips that might help:

  1. Remember that the questions are related to the job role or the company’s operations. Keep this in mind throughout the interview.
  2. Recruiters may use these questions as tie-breakers. So, make a lasting impression.
  3. Lastly, don’t take it too seriously. Sometimes, even the interviewers are unsure about what they’re doing.
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Inexperienced Interviewers

Indeed, not all interviewers are experts. In smaller firms, the boss or managers, rather than HR professionals trained in recruitment, conduct interviews. Some companies use unconventional questions simply because they’re trendy.

inexperienced interviwer

Research suggests that questions designed to intimidate should be eliminated from the interview process. A company could miss out on an excellent candidate who excels in all other areas but stumbles on one puzzling question.

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The Optimal Strategy

So, what’s the best course of action when faced with such questions? Engage with them creatively, but aim to leave a memorable impression on the interviewers. For instance, consider the question about using penguins to measure the North Pole.

If asked, I’d likely respond that while I don’t know the exact answer, it’s worth noting that penguins don’t inhabit the North Pole. Moreover, the North Pole isn’t a physical location with defined boundaries; it’s just ice, everywhere. Then, I’d hope they don’t follow up with a question about using unicorns to measure rainbows.