Stress-based interviews: the Brain Teaser

The Brainteaser Interview question

As I mentioned in my last post, there are three types of stress-based interviews. The third type of stressful interview question is the brainteaser. This is an unanswerable Zen-Koan type question that has no easy answer and is designed to test whether you are going to drop dead when faced with difficult questions on the job. The key is to not panic, but to take a deep breath and then use your quantitative and analytical skills as well as political awareness to take a stab at answering the question.

  • The brainteaser question is used mainly by consulting firms and investment banks, but is not unheard of in the nonprofit or government world. It includes classic questions like “Why are manhole covers round?” (Answer: because that’s the only shape that won’t fall in; because they can be easily rolled down the street; etc.)
  • “How many windows are there inNew York City?” (Answer: ask background questions like—are you asking just aboutManhattan, or all five boroughs? How many streets are there in NYC—approximately 200 blocks; then make some assumptions, which you spell out, about how many buildings there are on each block, how many stories an average building is, how many windows are on each story, then just do the math to estimate a number).
  • “How many BMW’s are there inSwitzerland?” (see above)
  • “How many ping-pong balls could we fit in this room?” (see above)
  • “Tell me ten uses for this paperclip” (Do a brainstorm—think outside the box and make assumptions like “If we expand the size of the paperclip to 100 times the current size, then we can use it as a construction crane”).

Sometimes the question isn’t designed to find out your actual analytical skills, but instead to assess your political awareness or how much you align with the mission of the organization. This is especially true in politically-charged nonprofit organizations or work with elected officials. Some examples I’ve heard are:

  • “Why are people poor?” –asked by a progressive nonprofit serving the poor
  • “What arguments can you make FOR child abuse?” –asked by a nonpartisan legislative research organization, to ensure people can think through both sides of the question
  • “What does social justice mean to you?” –asked by a private liberal arts university.
  • “How do you deal with cultural misunderstandings, and/or the power differences between yourself as an expat aid worker and the people you are empowering with your work?”—asked by international development organizations
  • “What have you done to end racial injustice?”—asked by a progressive city government.

Here, the response must be well-researched to use the politically correct answer that fits with the organization’s mission. It must show your understanding of what they value and what their culture is about. If you make a mis-step, it will cost you the job. Having deep knowledge of what is appropriate to the organization is the only way to get through these questions. Do your homework and your informational interviews in advance of the real interview, and you can talk the right talk to win the job.

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