How to handle those impossible interview questions

How to handle those impossible interview questions

As it stands, the job search process appears stacked against job seekers. You try to impress employers and say the right things in order to get an offer, because the number of applicants outnumbers the number of positions. Only when the offer is extended do you feel as if you’re in power.

A bad handshake.

A tie that’s too bright.

Not making eye contact.

Not speaking with enough authority.

All of these little things can cost me an offer? you ask.

Depending on the employer, yes. Fair or not, that’s the truth. And according to a new survey from, a job search website, employers are messing even more with your mind. They’re not trying to make your life difficult; they simply want to find the strongest candidate for the job. In order to do that, they don’t stick to the standard questions. You might hear, Tell me about yourself one moment and then, How would you describe an orange? another.

Seriously. According to a recent analysis of major technology companies, in one interview, Hewlett-Packard asked a software engineer applicant to describe an orange. These questions are causing serious concern for job seekers who don’t know how to answer them and what they have to do with their performance. Consequently, many companies are rated high on the list of places to work but low on the list of places to interview.

In his article, author Mike Swift explains that these are popular jobs at popular companies. The companies can afford to be selective and applicants are willing to put up with the hassle. He writes:

The interview process wasn’t a breeze at any of the dozen tech companies in the Glassdoor analysis, a group that also includes Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Oracle, Microsoft and Dell. Job candidates at all 12 tech companies rated the interview experience as more difficult than the average rating for the 17,000 companies for which Glassdoor collects data.

No matter how difficult the interview questions or process might be, there is a silver lining for some tech job-seekers. Demand is intense for software engineers right now, with Google, Facebook and some other companies hiring rapidly, recruiters say.

Such brain teasers have been around for a while, but they are growing more popular, especially in certain competitive industries. Job seekers consistently want to know: Why do they ask me a question I couldn’t possibly know the answer to?

Because they want to see how you reason out the answer and handle the pressure. Think about the drills you had to do in order to try out for cheer-leading or basketball in high school. You don’t actually ever run back and forth between a series of cones during a game, but you have to prove that you have the power to do it and are willing to try. Job interviews are similar.

A precise answer is rarely the goal. ˜In many cases, hiring managers have told me that they don’t even know the answer.’ The interviewers ˜are interested to see the logic and problem-solving ability of the candidate,’ [says Greg Moran, managing partner of Better People, a recruitment outsourcing firm].

Other questions are used simply to evoke a reaction from a candidate. Moran often asks, ˜Beside this question, what is the worst interview question you have ever been asked?’ He wants to see how a candidate will perform if hired. ˜It gives our recruiters a good idea of the candidate’s sense of humor while seeing if they can engage with a good story.’ He considers it a good test for candidates applying for a sales position.

One sure-fire way to fail this test is to say that you don’t know. Who’s going to pick the cheerleader who doesn’t even attempt to do back flips or a handstand? As with a coach, employers want to know that you’re not going to give up in the face of a challenge.

Think about how you would answer one of these seemingly impossible questions if you heard them in an interview ” all of which were asked of engineer job seekers for the respective company:

  • Approximately how many garbage men are there in California? (Apple)
  • Given an array of integers, find the maximum number that can be reached by summing the best possible consecutive sub-sequence of the array. (Facebook)
  • Estimate the volume of water on the Earth. (Yahoo)
  • Find the anagrams in a dictionary. (Microsoft)