Just the thought of a job interview can make even the most confident prospective employee nervous. So much is riding on how you answer seemingly random questions asked by people you may never have met before.
Will they dig into the technical aspects of the job, making you wish for a calculator and a cheat sheet? Do they prefer those old cliche questions such as “What’s your biggest weakness?” Or do your interviewers subscribe to the wacky logic school of questions, like “Explain why manholes are round”?
You can’t buy an SAT prep book to prepare for a job interview, but here are some of the toughest job interview questions around, with tips on how to answer them gracefully, without breaking into a chorus of “Take This Job and Shove It.”
1. How weird are you?
Online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos is known for posing some real stumpers to job candidates. The late Tony Hsieh, who was CEO of the firm, reportedly liked asking job candidates: “On a scale of one to 10, how weird are you?”
Tips: This is one of those no-right-answer questions. Interviewers are likely looking to see if you can think on your feet and produce a decent response off the top of your head. They also want to know how you’d fit into their culture. One of Zappos’ core values is: “Create Fun & a Little Weirdness.”
2. Sell me this pencil
Job site Monster.com singles out “Sell me this pencil” as a job-interview challenge sometimes faced by those seeking sales jobs. It kind of makes sense — we’ve all met natural salespeople, and turning on that kind of charm in an interview can reveal whether you’re one of them.
Tips: Your interviewer is looking for confidence, so avoid stammering or trailing off when searching for uses for the writing instrument. The best salespeople know to ask a prospective buyer plenty of questions first, to determine if he or she needs the product they’re hawking.
3. Why are manhole covers round?
It’s a cliche interview question, but that doesn’t mean an interviewer won’t throw it at you: “Why are manhole covers round?”
While not all employers use this kind of question, you don’t want to be unprepared if they do.
Tips: The most common answer is that the cover won’t fall into the hole, but if you can defend a different answer, go with it. It may be as simple as redefining the question — pointing out that manhole covers need to fit a manhole, and in this country, at least, manholes are generally round.
4. What are you most passionate about?
Another question is to ask candidates to explain what they are most passionate about. It’s a cliche, but it’s widely used, so be prepared.
Tips: Your answer doesn’t need to be related to your career field. If you brew beer at home, explain how that’s done. If you raise pugs or play fantasy football or know all the best tricks for collecting frequent-flyer miles, that could be your response. Your interviewer probably wants to see how well you explain yourself, how you think about process and how you deal with ambiguity — all vital skills in the workplace.
5. The cup of water challenge
This one’s not a question but a hidden challenge. An interviewer might brings you a disposable cup of water to drink. It looks like a simple act of hospitality, but you may be under observation to see if you clean up after yourself and dispose of the cup when done.
Tips: Just as those signs in office break rooms say, your mother doesn’t work here. (And even if she did, it’s not her job.) Remember the cup example as a way of reminding yourself that sly interviewers may be watching everything you do, even if it doesn’t seem directly related to the position you are applying for.
6. Why shouldn’t I hire you?
You’re sitting there telling the employer all about why he or she should hire you — and you’re hit with the opposite question: Some managers ask why they shouldn’t hire you. Ugh, nice curveball. Be ready to swing away.
Tips: A similar question some interviewers like to ask is, “What would your enemy say about you?” Think about the position you want. If you’re never going to have to make sales calls, it won’t hurt to admit that you aren’t a cold-calling salesperson at heart. But salespeople also come with a natural enthusiasm about their product or business, so be careful to find a way to show you have that.
7. Where should we eat?
Mike O’Neill, the CEO of music-rights company BMI, has asked job candidates to choose the restaurant where their interview will be held. He wants to see if they’re trying to impress or please the possible future boss, or if they’re honestly choosing a place they like.
Tips: O’Neill likes honesty to be on the menu as part of his restaurant test. He notes that he loves it when candidates confess that choosing the restaurant made them nervous — there’s nothing like candor, even if it makes the candidate look less than perfect. We’d steer clear of either end of the budget spectrum — neither fast-food nor four-star dining. Go for something eclectic, yet reliable — like you!
8. Are you smart, or do you work hard?
Another tried and true interview question is this: Which would you say is more true of you, that you are smart or that you work hard?
We’re thinking most candidates want to say they’re both, but imagine you have to choose.
Tips: Some bosses believe that hard work, showing up, diligence and consistency matter more than brains. Whatever you say, don’t explain that your intelligence means you don’t have to work hard. Humility matters a great deal in the workplace.
9. Where does your boss think you are right now?
Making time for a job interview when you’re still employed can be tough. It suddenly can get a lot tougher if your interviewer asks where your current boss thinks you are right at that moment. Uh, busted?
Tips: The interviewer probably wants to know how you treat your current boss as a sign of how you will treat your boss at a new company. Be honest but tactful. Sure, you may not have specified to your current boss that you were going on an interview, but make it clear that you are not taking time you’re not entitled to and that, of course, you’ll finish whatever work needed to be done while you were out.
10. How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?
Some interviewers relish the bizarre logic of questions like “How many tennis balls can you fit into a limousine?” Or “How many golf balls can fit into a school bus?”
Tips: You don’t need to get the answer right — no one knows the answer anyway. What interviewers want here is to see how you walk them through the method you use to attempt a solution, says job search site The Muse. Talk through the size of the bus and the size of the golf balls, and make sure you think of oddball elements of the problem, like the space needed for the bus seats. Even a nongolfer can take a swing at this one.
11. Would you rather fight 1 horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?
This is another of those inane questions meant not to elicit a precise answer but to see how you think on your feet: Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?
Tips: Don’t quack up, you can get this. It’s likely that the interviewer wants to know if you can stay poised under pressure and how you will break down a problem to solve it. Like the golf balls in the school bus question, there’s no right answer. And unlike that one, this requires less knowledge of sizes and spatial awareness and relies more on creativity. Think about the pros and cons of each battle, and then go ahead and wing it.
12. How have you solved tough problems?
Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of electric motor company Tesla, CEO of SpaceX and the world’s richest person, has said that he asks job candidates this: “Tell me about some of the most difficult problems you worked on and how you solved them.” While he may want to hear the answer, it is another tricky interview question.
Tips: The question may not be bizarre, but Musk’s motive is unusual. CNBC explains that he asks it to screen for liars. “The people who really solved the problem know exactly how they solved it,” Musk said. “They know and can describe the little details.”
13. Which state would you get rid of?
Another well-used job interview question you might encounter is this: “If you were to get rid of one U.S. state, which one would it be, and why?”
It’s reminiscent of a bit on “The Simpsons,” when Grandpa writes to the president of the United States to lobby for eliminating three states. “There are too many states nowadays, he grumbles, adding, “P.S.: I am not a crackpot.”
Tips: This is another zany question that tests how your thought process works. Be aware: It may also reveal plenty about you and your values. Maybe you would start with Alaska or Hawaii for practical distance reasons. You might think outside the box and suggest combining two similar states, say, North and South Dakota, into one. Really, any thoughtful answer should be fine, but don’t bring politics or some weird personal grudge against, say, Rhode Island, into the picture.
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