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I am usually perplexed at the level of absurdity of a few interview questions. For example like this and the 'tell me a joke' interview question I have never been able to fathom how a person's aptitude for a job can be measured/inferred by their ability to solve brain teasers, puzzles and such.

What exactly do interviewers hope to gain from asking these questions, and is there anything I can do to better prepare for them?

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    I'm not sure why the question you linked to is relevant. Knowing how my employees will stay upto date with the technologies we are using and may use in the future is extremely relevant to their job aptitude and whether I want them on a team or not. Admittedly this question is only good for certain types of jobs, but in context it's not absurd at all. – Frank B Jul 12 '13 at 18:34
  • @FrankB I agree. In fact, I always go out of my way to mention ways I keep up with my field, and have in the past held long discussions with interviewers about the specific merits to whatever latest networking technique/standard was being developed. – acolyte Jul 12 '13 at 19:18
  • This question appears to be off-topic because it is an excuse to rant. A valid rant, but still a rant. – user9158 Jul 14 '13 at 23:55
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What exactly do interviewers hope to gain from asking these questions, and is there anything I can do to better prepare for them?

Interviewers will often tell you that they use these questions to "see how you think", or "see how you think out of the box", or "see how you think under pressure" or some variant of that.

Apparently, Google no longer believes such questions are useful, and has some idea of the real purpose of these sorts of questions: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/20/business/in-head-hunting-big-data-may-not-be-such-a-big-deal.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

According to Laszlo Bock, senior vice president for people operations at Google: "They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart."

I agree with Laszlo.

is there anything I can do to better prepare for them?

Search the internet. You'll find many references to this style of interview question. Read through them and try to come up with a reasonable answer without letting the absurdity bother you. Practice helps!

Often, the folks asking such questions pick them off of the same searches, so you might get lucky and have already read the one they are asking.

This might help get you started: http://www.allthingsquality.com/2010/04/qa-and-testing-interview-questions-and.html

And after you are hired and advance in your career such that you are the hiring manager - choose better interview questions!

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Because workplaces OFTEN involve things that are patently absurd. They want to know how you'll handle being invited to 3 different status meetings with 3 different groups. They want to know how you'll approach a problem that is essentially unsolvable. They want to know if you're clever enough to win the no-win scenario. And sometimes they're curious if you're the sort who will memorize the answers to these puzzles to pass a job interview.

All are fairly telling to an interviewer, even if that has only a tenuous relation to your success at the job.

(or simply, absurdity in the workplace spills over into interviews)

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    -1 for the first sentence. Wait, I'm at work, +1 instead. Err... – enderland Jul 12 '13 at 19:25
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Having been involved in interview processes I can tell you what I and my team were thinking. Whether this is generally the case I can't say, but take it for what it's worth.

When we would ask questions that required any type of problem solving, that question usually reflected business cases we encountered commonly but disguised as a brain teaser. The reason for this is that we were more interested in the thought process behind finding a solution than the solution itself. We wanted to see if you had the type of thinking that would work for the type of problems within our company.

As for other questions that seem irrelevant like, 'Tell me a joke', these were usually to test your fit with the team. We need to know more than your skills. We need to know if you fit in and have a personality that can mesh well. In many cases this was more important than your skill set because we can teach you the requisite skills, but we can't teach you how to get along with our team.

  • Concerning the joke part, just because someone bothers to memorize something to please other, probably due to lack of self-esteem, doesn't mean he's a better fit than someone who's confident enough to not needing to memorize jokes. – Jonast92 Jun 13 '14 at 11:48
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In order to answer the first part of this question, regarding how to tackle/handle such odd/off questions, I first need to explain what, in my experience, interviewers look for when they ask such questions.

Why They're Asked

When preparing for an interview,there are a few "golden questions" that most people prepare answers to. These are questions that are asked almost all the time, and have had papers and entire doctorate theses focused around them. Standards like "where do you see yourself in 5 years" tend to result in semi-rehearsed, or at least pre-thought-out responses. Many employers are looking for something...extra. A semi-canned response to a popular question tells an employer nothing about an interviewee's ability to adapt and think on their feet.

In most modern workplaces, sometimes, situations will arise. circumstances will come about that you can't predict. It might be a certain server spontaneously die, or even something as simple as a caller becoming aggressive and obstinate. In such cases, an employer wants to know that you could be trusted to, if not handle things perfectly, at the least keep your cool. They ask off-beat questions in interviews to judge your impromptu problem solving skills, your ability to be outside your comfort zone, and generally how easy it is to phase you. Now, to transition into actually answering such questions...

How to Answer

There is one good thing to say about these questions, there are very few wrong answers. The only way you can give a wrong answer is to give an answer that would not be appropriate in society. Things that are blatantly illegal or unethical are BAD ideas.

Indeed, other than such responses, the content of your answer doesn't matter. Rather the manner you answer is important. fumbling around, stalling for time, saying "ummm" or "ahhh" like you're at the doctor can show your interviewer that you have some trouble thinking on your feet. It also reeks of low confidence. If you're not confident in your abilities and yourself, why should a stranger be?

Speaking calmly, clearly, and succinctly is your best course of action. If I am asked a wacko question, I normally chuckle if I find the question amusing, and then I don't think too hard, I just talk. I give AN answer. Of course, I make sure to not give any sort of...unsavory answer, but within three minutes of being asked, I have given an answer to whatever question has been asked, and remained calm. Being flustered is alright, it's expected. But letting yourself be impeded by it is bad.

How to Prepare

Here is the fun part. Preparing. If you understand why these questions come up, you're halfway there! If you want practice, try paying attention to how conversations with your friends flow, how you tend not to stop, consider, and rehearse your interactions, and rather how you simply respond. It's a different mindset that many people have trouble falling into consciously. I can tell you that taking classes in improvisational theater has helped me immensely. Not only has it assisted me with interviews, but knowing how to field these weird questions has helped my public speaking, phone support, and general problem-solving skills more than any formal training or the like.

  • Plural of "thesis" is "theses", but I like your versions better. – Hydronium Jul 12 '13 at 19:32
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What exactly do interviewers hope to gain from asking these questions, and is there anything I can do to better prepare for them?

The hope is to gain some insight into the combination of attitudes, beliefs and perceptions a person has about the world to know how will they handle these kinds of questions.

Sometimes in a workplace one may get asked a question that is a bit odd and so there is that question of whether or not someone could be freaked out by someone asking, "Hey, mind if I borrow your pants?" or something similar. There can be the idea that in asking really odd questions that something deeply personal can be revealed.

You can prepare for them by knowing how you want to handle them. Do you want to try to short circuit the question? Do you want to jump past this part of the interview? There are lots of different approaches you could use and depending on what you want to do, it may work or it may backfire.

  • Not as public knowledge, though I do remember one really rainy day where I wished I had some backup pants at the office. – JB King Jul 13 '13 at 15:35

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