Curveballs and brain teasers
“How many ping pong balls can fit in a Boeing 747?”
“Why is a manhole cover round?”
“How tall is the spire on top of this building?”
Not all companies ask these notorious interview questions. When they do, it’s to see how you think on your feet, how you handle pressure, whether you are a gut-reaction or thoughtful analysis type, and how creative you are.
Of course nobody expects you to know the answers. These are not right/wrong pass/fail questions. They’re gauging the way you respond to the question, which is more interesting than if you happen to know the answer.
It’s not about faking it, but about revealing your true personality and work style. That helps take the pressure off. Just be you! How would you respond if a friend asked you that?
You can laugh, tell a joke, ask why they asked the question, make up a silly answer, attempt an educated guess, ask if you can Google it real quick, or whatever else feels natural and right to you.
You’re unlikely to get an extreme brain teaser like this, but if you get something that seems like a random curveball, don’t treat it like a pop quiz you didn’t study for in school. Treat is as an interesting conversation starter.
Situation-behavior-outcome questions (SBOs)
This is probably the most common structure of an interview question. It’s widely used because it’s better than open-ended questions at helping interviewers learn about your character and personality.
Typical SBO-style question look like this:
“Tell me about a time when you felt overwhelmed (situation). What did you do (behavior) and what was the result (outcome)?”
“Have you ever had a group project where someone wasn’t helping at all (situation)? How did you respond (behavior)? Did it work (outcome)?”
Some SBOs will only ask about a situation, but this should be a hint for you to respond by also adding your behavior and the outcome.
These are great questions that give you a chance to tell your story and pick examples from your life that highlight your personality, talents, and traits relevant to the job. Think back to situations like these in past jobs or school, and prepare a few examples so you don’t have to sit and think for a long time.
Hypothetical situation questions
“What will you do in your first 30 days if we hire you?”
Some interviewers may ask you to tell them what you would do in your first 30 days, or how you see yourself growing in the role or with the company. This is your chance to paint a picture for them of what it would be like to have you on their team.
Let your passion and interest show!
Even if not asked, take any opportunity to describe what you would love to do in the role. Show how eager you are to learn the ropes and add value in specific ways.
Before the interview, imagine yourself in the role and think about what you would do and how you’d plan to grow. If you’ve pitched yourself
well, this part is easy. 😉
Many interview questions ask you to describe yourself. How you work is important, but even more important is that you have an accurate—and not deluded—view of yourself, and that you are honest and don’t just try to say what people want to hear.
I like asking this one:
“If there’s a continuum with impulsive action on one end and endless analysis on the other, where would you fit on that continuum? Close to action or analysis?”
I’m not looking for a specific right answer. Both action-biased and analysis-biased people can be a great fit, depending on the role. I’m looking for not only which they are, but more importantly, which they think they are.
The interviewer probably has a pretty good read on your personality, so when they ask you to assess yourself, it has as much to do with seeing what kind of self-knowledge, honesty, and judgement you have as figuring out your traits.
“What are your greatest strengths?”
“What do you feel are your weaknesses?”
fall into this category. Saying, “My biggest weakness is that I work too hard” is a sign of cluelessness, or arrogance, or a fear of giving a ‘wrong’ answer. Just be honest! (Learn to properly turn weaknesses into strengths down below.)
Knowing about yourself is really important. You can learn more about yourself by asking your friends, answering these questions to people who know you well and seeing if they agree, and by taking personality assessments like our Discover quiz
Big picture ‘why’ questions
Interview or not, this is a great question to answer for yourself:
“What gets you out of bed fired up in the morning?”
People who work with you want to know what motivates you. What are you all about? What are your core values? What makes you tick? Not just money or job security—but beyond
that: the things you want to achieve once you have money, security, etc.
Then, how does this job fit into that?
Be prepared and be honest. If you don’t feel like you have a calling or clear career goal, that’s OK! But you still have an identity. You still have motivations. What are they? Be ready to answer. Again, our Discover quiz
might help if you’re not sure.
Some questions are designed to give you a chance to reveal what is most unique about you. PayPal founder and investor Peter Thiel made this question famous:
Interview or not, this is a great question to answer for yourself:
“What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”
He explains in Zero to One
“This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.”
You may not think you believe anything unusual, or have any world-class abilities, but you almost assuredly do. Often, things that seem normal or commonplace to you are extraordinary or rare to others.
There are other, slightly less daunting questions that aim to get at how you might stand out.
“What’s one thing you’re world-class at?”
“What’s something that is difficult for most people that comes easily to you?”
These might feel like a setup to reveal your arrogance, but they are really a way to see what’s most unique about you and how comfortable you are with your uniqueness. Personally, I find talking to an audience to be pretty easy and fun. It doesn’t feel like a superpower, but I’ve learned that it is, because most people are very uncomfortable with it.
Think about the things that separate you from most people, and if faced with these questions, be truthful without condescending others. Stay humble.
The best interviewers aren’t just looking for what you know or can do now. They want to see a combination of present AND expected future value. They want to know how you approach problems and skills and tasks. Sure, they want to see enough basic skill to handle the job, but they really want to see eagerness to learn and evidence that you’ll get more valuable over time.