Interview Brainteasers and How to Answer

Gone are the days when the hardest question you’d answer in an interview was “What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?”

Especially if you are interviewing in the world of technology, brainteasers and riddles are an integral part of the interview process. They show your ability to think through a complex problem, reason through your thought process out loud, and arrive at a solution to a seemingly unsolvable dilemma.

Some of these brainteasers may seem impossible, because some of them are. But more important than the right answer is the right progression of logic.

According to experts, only 2% of job applicants are brought in for an interview. And 250 people apply for the average job, so if you’ve made it to this stage, you are closer to your goal than you may realize. And you can set yourself apart by acing the tough interview questions.

Here is a look at 12 common brainteasers you may be asked in an interview and how to answer them.

“Explain This Complex Idea” Questions

There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. The goal is to show you can convey complex concepts in simple ways. After all, once you get into the workplace, you will be crossing paths with all kinds of non-technical coworkers.

  1. Describe the Sunset to a Blind Person

Think of adjectives and remember the blind person won’t know what pink, yellow and orange look like, so you’ll have to describe them. Try something like:

“Sunset isn’t a harsh heat like noon, it’s a warm embrace that you wish would last longer. Sometimes clouds can make it hard for the sun to peak through. The softness covers the sky, and the sun is like the last bite of your favorite meal sitting on the plate.”

  1. Explain How to Make a Loaf of Bread

Don’t panic if you aren’t a whiz in the kitchen. Instead, show your resourcefulness with information already available. You might say:

“I’d recommend the Pioneer Woman’s Pull Apart Bread. No fancy bread machine needed. Her recipe is simple to follow, and you won’t have to worry about making too much, because it always disappears!”

  1. Explain Our Product to Someone Who’s Been Living in a Remote Village Their Whole Lives

This is a particularly popular one with tech companies. You could break the product down into very simple terms, or you could use this as a chance to tell an anecdote from your own life, such as:

“It is so important to be able to communicate about technology to everyone. My 81-year-old grandmother recently joined Skype, and I’m the one who taught her how to use it. Here is how I did that, and I’d take a similar approach to explaining this product.”

“How Many Are There?” Questions

Some brainteasers aren’t subjective; there can be right answers. With this these types of questions, you may not come up with an exact answer, but you should explain how you’d reason to get to the right answer.

  1. Twenty-Five Million Pounds of Candy Corn Are Made Each Year. How Many Of Them Fit Inside a Swimming Pool?

First, you’d need to know how big a candy corn is and what size the swimming pool is. Is the pool empty, or are there steps, bulkheads or ladders? Ask your interviewer several questions to show how you can work through to the solution.

  1. How Many Windows Are in This City?

You could ask if they are talking about residential or businesses to start. Then you could find out how many people live in the city, and estimate two windows per apartment. Explain your reasoning:

“I’ve lived in this city for ten years. Part of that time I had a roommate, and we had four windows total. Now I live on my own, and there are two windows in my apartment, so that averages to 2 windows per person. If there are 5,000 people in this town, then that is 10,000 windows for residential units.

“I’d follow a similar formula for office buildings but realize these would only be estimates. I know people of people have cubicles with no windows, and some people save money by living in basements.”

  1. How Many Football Players Are There in The United States?

Again, show how you can sort through data:

“If you are talking about the pros, I could call the NFL Players Association and it would tell me 2,166 active or “associate” NFL members. If you are including even casual players, I’d start by finding out how many footballs are manufactured in the U.S., and then take off 25% to account for sales to teams and schools or personal use.”

“How Do You Do Something Crazy” Question

We’re back to looking at subjective questions. Oftentimes these absurdist questions could be answered in a clever way that doesn’t necessitate calculations.

  1. How Would You Move the Atlantic Ocean?

You could answer this question by explaining the Atlantic Ocean is already moving, thanks to the ebbs and flows of the tide and the Earth rotating on an axis. Or you could take an empty bottle to the beach, fill it with water, and carry it home.

  1. How Do You Know the Light in Your Fridge Works When the Door Is Closed?

This is a chance to acknowledge that you could reason through it, but also that you are practical: “I don’t need the light when the door is closed. But if I needed to, I could put my camera phone on the video setting, place it in the fridge, and shut the door.”

  1. How Do You Kill A Bear?

You can also use this type of question to show your sense of humor and ability to improvise:

  • “Very carefully.”
  • “By climbing on its back so it can’t swipe at me.”
  • “With a gun.”
  • “I’m a good enough camper that I know to keep my trash and food in metal containers or hung on a bear pole.”
  • “I spend more time with gummy bears than I do in the wilderness, so this probably won’t happen unless there is a gummy bear apocalypse.”

Just don’t get graphic with this answer, that is not the point!

“Quick Mental Math” Questions

Back to questions with a right and wrong answer. If you are interviewing for a job in computer science, you’ll probably be asked one or two of these types of questions to establish your credentials. Take your time. There is some comfort in knowing at least these question do have an answer.

  1. The Time Is 3:15 p.m. The Hour Hand and Minute Hand Are How Far Apart on the Clock, In Degrees?

You might want a pen and paper to do this one. A circle is 360 degrees, so divide that by 12 to get 30 degrees per hour. Divide that by 60 for every minute that passes in the hour to see the hour hand moves 0.5 degrees per minute, or 7.5 degrees in 15 minutes.

  1. How Do You Measure Four Gallons When You Only Have Two Containers, One That Measures Five Gallons and One That Measures Three?

Fill the smaller container full and pour it into the five gallon, then do it again until the five gallon is full. That will leave one gallon in the three-gallon container. Empty the previously full five-gallon container completely and pour in the one gallon of water. Then fill up the three-gallon container again and pour it into the five-gallon one, and you’ll have four total.

  1. How Do You Add up Eight Eights to Get 1,000?

The trick here is to think beyond just the integer 8. What about 888? And 88? You’ll get there quickly: 888+88+8+8+8=1,000.


Help Yourself During Your Interview

No matter which question you get, you can answer any brainteaser by:

  • Asking clarifying questions
  • Breaking down the answer into manageable parts
  • Working your way through step by step

Your first response to any brainteaser, no matter the type, should be to get some further information:

“So when you ask me how many games 5,000 people would need to play in a single-elimination tournament until the winner is chosen, are those 5,000 people playing as individuals or are they on teams? Teams of how many people?”

You can see how your follow up questions will give you a path to solving the problem and also demonstrate your curiosity. No matter what question you get, do not try to answer it while you are still thinking through the possible solutions. That’s like a singer recording the final song while they are first writing out the lyrics.


What was the toughest question you were asked in a job interview? Do you have a brainteaser to add to this list? Leave your advice in the comments!

Preparation for interviews is just some of the advice we provide to help your job search be successful. Get news, resources and career advice delivered right to you by signing up for the Punched Clock newsletter.

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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

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