How to answer off-the-wall interview questions
If you’re asked an off-the-wall interview question you need to keep your nerve and try to engage with it, however random, strange or challenging it may seem. Employers sometimes use unexpected interview questions to see how you cope with being put on the spot and to find evidence of skills such as logical thinking and numeracy.
These brainteasers are particularly likely to be used by big graduate recruiters in investment banking and consulting, and may also be used by tech employers and advertising agencies.
Here are some of the different types of weird or surprising questions that you could be asked in a job interview:
- Questions designed to assess your personality
- Questions that assess numerical ability and logic
- General knowledge questions
- Questions that test other skills, such as your powers of persuasion.
Read on to find examples and model answers.
Off-the-wall interview questions that test personality
Surprising interview questions designed to assess your personality include the following:
- 'Who do you think you are?'
- 'Which novelist are you most like?'
- 'Who would you have round for tea: Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader?'
- 'How elastic is your personality?'
- 'Who should play you in a film?'
- 'How would your enemy describe you?'
Don’t let this type of question throw you. However personal it may seem, these questions are intended to find out whether you can keep a cool head, think on your feet and answer logically as much as anything else.
You can practise your answers to tricky interview questions using resources from our partners at Shortlist.Me.
Demonstrating you can handle stress during assessment centres
'How would your enemy describe you?’
A recruiter who asks this wants to find out how you handle your personal power. This kind of question is challenging because it seems to be asking you to show yourself in a bad light, similar to questions about your biggest weakness or failure. One way of approaching questions like this is to identify a quality that could be perceived in a negative way or as a strength, and highlight how this characteristic could be seen more positively.
How to answer: reassure the recruiter that you don’t go around making enemies. However, you might admit to being friendly rivals with someone – perhaps a sports fan or someone in a debating society. You also might say that when you put yourself in a winning position you maintain a constructive relationship with your opposition – and try to ensure they walk away with something they can feel good about too.
This question is tricky to answer because it’s couched in such emotive, personal language, but it becomes easier to respond to if you use different terms in your reply. For example, you could talk about competition and conflict. Have there been times when being competitive has pushed you and others to achieve more than you might have done otherwise? Can you give an example of how you’ve resolved a conflict successfully?
Our advice on answering questions about how you deal with conflict should give you some more ideas.
Don’t say: ‘All of my enemies are dead.’
You’ll find tips on how to answer two other tricky interview questions that are designed to assess your personality in our tricky interview questions section:
- 'If you could have dinner with five people, who would it be with and why?’
- ‘If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?’
Off-the-wall interview questions that test numerical ability and logic
Unusual interview questions designed to test your numerical ability and logic include the following:
- 'How do you fit an elephant into a cupboard?'
- 'How many hens are there in the UK?'
- 'How much does an airliner taking off from London Heathrow en route to Hong Kong weigh?'
- 'How many postmen/women are there in this city?'
- 'How many calories are there in a supermarket?'
Usually, there isn’t one right answer to this type of question, but the interviewer will be interested in your thought processes. What do you need to know to answer the airliner question? Factors to consider could include the weight of the plane and fuel, the average number of passengers per flight and the likely combined weight of the passengers, which could involve estimating the average weight of an adult passenger and a child passenger and making a reasonable guess about how many of each are likely to be on board.
The salary riddle
Sometimes questions that seem numerical are really lateral thinking questions, like this example: ‘There are three people with different salaries who all want to know their average salary. However, none of them wants to tell the other two what they are paid. How do they do it?'
Do say: 'Each of them should write their salary down and pass the information to a fourth person who calculates the average.' (It’s not question that demands a number as an answer).
With any question of this kind, you’re being asked to think logically and quickly. Don’t panic.
Don’t say: ‘Maths has never been my strength.’
Off-the-wall interview questions that seem conceptual… but they’re not
- 'Why are manhole covers round?'
This question was used by Microsoft at one time, and it’s become so well known as a tricky interview question that you might not actually have to face it – but it’s a good example of the kind of thing recruiters may come up with when they’re trying to find out how you approach a puzzle.
Do say: ‘Round manhole covers are easy to roll, which is useful as it makes them easier to move and they are likely to be heavy. It’s also easier to fit a round manhole correctly in place in a round hole than it is to align a square manhole with a square hole.’
You could also discuss why shafts and tunnels are often round (because they are more structurally stable and the stresses around them are more evenly distributed), which means that the surface opening is also likely to be round and need a round cover. There are numerous other possible answers you could give.
Don’t say: 'Because they aren’t any other shape.’ (Apparently, as a trawl through online discussion of this question reveals, this is not always the case.)
- 'Why are pizza boxes square?'
Do say: ‘It’s cheaper and easier to make than round ones and easier to flatpack, stack and assemble them. Square boxes also look bigger.’
Don’t say: ‘Now I come to think about it, they really should be round, shouldn’t they?’
Off-the-wall interview questions that test other skills and competencies
- ‘If you were advising Donald Trump, how would you convince him that climate change is real?’
You’ll need to draw on a number of different skills and competencies to answer this hypothetical question, including influencing and persuasion, problem solving and analysis.
Our advice about influencing skills gives some tips about what you’d need to do in this situation: ‘Having influence is about getting true “buy in” from colleagues, clients and bosses for a business decision or on the best way forward. It will involve good communication, it will involve persuasion, it may involve negotiation – but ultimately getting buy-in involves selling your vision for the future.’
Do say: ‘On the basis that what matters is not just what he believes but what he is willing to do, I’d seek to understand how to make the issues around climate change relevant to his agenda and interests. How could taking a position on climate change affect his place in history and his self-image as a winner? How could it shape his legacy and the standing of the US around the world?’
Don’t say: ‘No point trying. He’s incapable of being persuaded.’