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Just the thought of a job interview can make even the most confident wannabe 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”?
While you can’t buy an SAT prep book to prepare for a job interview, here’s the next best thing. We’ve rounded up 20 of the oddest job interview questions, and offered up some tips on how to answer them without breaking into a chorus of “Take This Job and Shove It.”
1. If you had to plan a parade, what would be the theme?
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Online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos likes to pose some real stumpers to its job candidates, according to Business Insider. Candidates might be asked to rate their own weirdness on a scale of 1 to 10, or use their favorite curse word in a sentence about their last job. (Watch your @$%!$ mouth on that one.) But perhaps the most novel query: Some would-be employees are asked to provide the theme they would choose if they had to plan a parade.
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 plan off the top of your head. The parade can be to express your devotion to the Chicago Cubs or why Weird Al Yankovic is better than the Beatles — it doesn’t matter, as long as you come up with something and back it up with logical reasoning. Just don’t pull an obvious suck-up move by planning your parade around “responsibility” or “office cleanliness.” No one wants to hire Eddie Haskell.
2. Sell me this pencil
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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 don’t stammer and trail off when trying to find uses for the writing instrument. But don’t just rattle off a description. The best salespeople know to ask a prospective buyer plenty of questions first, to determine if he or she needs the product you’re hawking. If the stubborn response is, “I never write,” you’d be best to admit that not every product is for everyone, Monster notes.
3. Explain a database to an 8-year-old
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These days, it may seem like the youngest generation knows more about computers than their parents. But according to Forbes, some Google interviewers ask candidates how they would explain a database to their 8-year-old nephew. It’s obvious why: If databases are something you know well, you should have no trouble breaking them down into simple, clear terms that even a child would understand.
Tips: Don’t condescend to your imaginary nephew, but don’t assume you’re taking to Baby Einstein either. Start with a nod to something the child almost certainly knows about computers — maybe school math-practice sites or YouTube videos — and compare the two. And don’t go on and on, or the make-believe kid will be wandering off to play make-believe Minecraft while you’re droning.
4. What would your enemy say about you?
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Another question from Forbes’ list of all-time toughies asks job candidates to describe themselves from the point of view of someone who dislikes the candidate. Obviously, everyone has someone who dislikes them, but the idea of dragging up one’s own negative qualities in an interview seems like a terrible idea.
Tips: Pretending that no one dislikes you or trying to pass off a strength as a weakness — e.g. “He hates that I’m always on time” — is only going to make you look as if you have zero self-awareness. Yet don’t go overboard and flog yourself. Try for a middle ground. Maybe you’re a total techie who had to learn to communicate with those who don’t speak in computerese, but note that you’ve worked on improving whatever rubbed your enemy the wrong way.
5. Why are manhole covers round?
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At least one Microsoft manager has admitted to asking job candidates, “Why are manhole covers round?” It’s become one of the cliche brainteaser questions, and 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.
6. What are you most passionate about?
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Brendan Browne, head of recruiting for LinkedIn, told Business Insider that he hands job candidates an erasable marker and points them to a whiteboard. He then asks candidates to use the board to explain what they are most passionate about.
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. Browne says he’s not just looking for the topic, but for how well you can explain yourself, how you think about process, and how you deal with ambiguity — all vital skills in the workplace.
7. The cup of water challenge
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This one’s not a question, but a hidden challenge. David Cancel of software developer and marketer HubSpot told Fast Company he brings the interviewer a disposable cup of water to drink, then watches to see if they clean up and dispose of the cup after the interview.
Tips: You’d clean up after yourself, right? Like all those signs you’ve seen in various office break rooms say, your mother doesn’t work here. (And even if she did, it’s not her job.) But use the cup example to remind yourself that sly interviewers may be watching everything you do, even if it doesn’t seem directly related to the position.
8. Why shouldn’t I hire you?
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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, and you’re got no choice but to swing away.
Tips: This one’s similar to the “What would your enemy say about you?” question listed at No. 4. 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.
9. Where should we eat?
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Mike O’Neill, the CEO of music-rights company BMI, told the New York Times he has job candidates 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. Also, we wouldn’t pick either fast-food or four-star dining. Instead, go for something eclectic, yet reliable — like you!
10. What do you like least about your parents?
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Your parents can’t come with you on a job interview — but they may make an appearance anyway. Bob Brennan, CEO of information-management company Iron Mountain, told the New York Times that he isn’t afraid to get personal on job interviews. Brennan may even ask applicants which qualities they like most and least about their parents.
Tips: Brennan says he’s interested in whether applicants are willing to open up to him, and doesn’t care about more general topics such as why you chose Wharton. If you get this question, be honest — maybe you admire your parents’ dedication and loyalty, but wish they’d be a little more willing to adopt new technology. Both of those display positive traits in a would-be employee, and you haven’t really dissed Mom and Dad.
11. Are you smart, or do you work hard?
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It’s good to be smart — right? In interviews, Daniel S. Schwartz, CEO of Restaurant Brands International, told the New York Times that he will ask candidates whether they’re smart, or whether they work hard. We’re thinking most candidates want to say they’re both, but imagine you have to choose.
Tips: Schwartz is looking for hard workers over brainiacs, and he’s not a fan of those who say their intelligence means they don’t have to work hard. “Humility is important,” he says.
12. Have you ever stolen a pen from work?
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No one likes to think of themselves as a thief, but sometimes office supplies might find their way home with you. In the book “Why You? 101 Interview Questions You’ll Never Fear Again,” James Reed says hiring managers may ask you if you’ve ever stolen a pen from work.
Tips: Confessing to taking a pen home is hardly grand theft auto, but according to Business Insider, you should still take the question seriously. He suggests you admit you might have done so, but note that you don’t make a habit of it, and the pen usually finds its way back to work. Reed doesn’t suggest you sanctimoniously claim you brought each borrowed pen back instantly the next day, because that sounds weird and unrealistic. You want to show you have the write stuff.
13. Where does your boss think you are right now?
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Making time for a job interview when you’re still employed can be tough, and it gets tougher if an interviewer asks you where your current boss thinks you are right at that moment. Uh, busted?
Tips: The interviewer 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, Business Insider suggests. 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 you’ll finish whatever work needed to be done while you were out.
14. How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?
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Some people relish the bizarre logic of questions like “How many golf balls can fit into a school bus?” This one reportedly shows up in Google interviews, says Lifehacker. It sounds nutty, but don’t get teed off.
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. 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.
15. Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?
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A classic topic that internet commenters kick around just for fun was supposedly asked in a Whole Foods job interview: Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?
Tips: Don’t quack up, you can get this. 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.
16. What would the name of your debut album be?
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If you’ve ever spent any time musing on what life as a rock star would be like, you might have answered this Urban Outfitters question already: “What would the name of your debut album be?”
Tips: Another no-wrong-answer question, but think carefully. Any workplace that asks this question is likely more laid-back than some employers, but you’ll want your answer to be entertaining and tasteful. It’s OK to go punny or funny, but keep it clean, and maybe not too obscure, if you want your interviewer to feel he or she is in on the joke.
17. How many basketballs would fit in this room?
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You don’t have to be LeBron James to take this shot. Delta Air Lines reportedly has asked candidates, “How many basketballs can fit in this room?”
Tips: Like the golf-ball and school-bus query, this is more about how you go about seeking an answer and less about what that answer is. As you think through your estimate, don’t be afraid to pose questions: Are the basketballs inflated? Is the room exactly as it appears, or emptied of furniture? Just don’t get too caught up in fine-tuning the question that you neglect to venture an educated guess. You don’t score if you forget to shoot.
18. How does a hot dog split?
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One question used by SpaceX asks: “When a hot dog expands, in which direction does it split, and why?”
Tips: Let’s be frank. You may never have considered this one before, but if you know even a little about physics, you can likely talk through it. Think about what you’ve seen hot dogs do when cooked, and about the pressure that heat is putting on the tasty little snack. Glassdoor readers compiled a bunch of semi-scientific answers, but most make the point that hot dogs split lengthwise. Those interviewing for a SpaceX-style job probably know enough engineering to relish explaining why.
19. How many cows are in Canada?
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This moooo-ving question, supposedly used by Google, asks “How many cows are in Canada?” It may seem udder-ly crazy, but like some of the other brainteasers already mentioned, it’s looking for you to demonstrate your thought process.
Tips: Maybe begin with the population of Canada (spoiler: about 36 million), and start discussing the various needs for dairy and beef cattle for that size population. And if you’re really interviewing with Google, we’d be tempted to point out how Googling various statistics (“How much milk does the average person drink,” “How many people in a certain population are vegetarians”) would assist in your answer.
20. Which state would you get rid of?
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Forrester Research reportedly has asked: “If you were to get rid of one U.S. state, which one would it be, and why?” (You might have seen this on “The Simpsons,” when Grandpa asks the president to eliminate three states, adding the postscript, “P.S.: I am not a crackpot.”)
Tips: This zany question is another test of how your thought process works. 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, as long as you don’t bring politics or some weird personal grudge against, say, Alabama, into the picture. Roll Tide.
What interview questions have you encountered that surprised you? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page and be sure to share this post with anyone you know who is in the job market.