How to answer awkward job interview questions?

There’s a point in most job interviews when you start to relax. No matter how nervous you were beforehand, eventually you give an answer or get a response from the interviewer that settles you down. Your confidence builds as each question offers another perfect opportunity to lay out a well-rehearsed example. You’re definitely getting this job.

And then they ask, ‘so, how many balloons would fit in this room?’

You take a breath, smile, and try to gather your thoughts. All the while a voice in your head is screaming, ‘WHAT?!?!’

Don’t panic!

First thing’s first, don’t panic. These questions are designed to catch you off-guard so the interviewer won’t expect you to have an answer straight away. Frankly, if you did have a prepared answer, it would be downright weird. Having said that, these questions are more common than you might imagine. According to our latest Employment Monitor, more than 60% of employers said they had used awkward questions to wrong-foot candidates.  If you get asked an unusual or seemingly random question like this, the first step is to give yourself a moment to think.

You don’t need to give an ‘answer’

Then remember that the interviewer isn’t actually asking you for an answer they just want to see how you handle the question. They didn’t spend a few hours with a ticker and helium pump before the interview started. This is all about your ability to think on your feet – the answer itself isn’t actually important. In fact, the worst thing you can do in this situation is just guess, ‘472?’

Show your work

Just like your Leaving Cert maths, you need to show your work. Let’s take the balloons question as an example. You can demonstrate your problem solving and analytical skills by walking yourself through the answer. Think about what you need to know to answer that question – the size of the room and the size of a balloon. Then, what do you need to do with that information to get the answer. In this instance it’s simple division, the size of the room divided by the size of a balloon. Don’t just do this in your head, say it out loud and explain why you’re taking each step.

Known unknowns

Since you don’t know the numbers, you can make them up; or at least give a rough estimate. Make the equation simple. Assume the room is 10 feet wide by 10 deep by 10 high, in other words 1000 cubic feet. Then assume that each balloon is the same size and that size is 2 cubic feet. 1000/2=500 balloons. It’s not perfect, and if you’re interviewing for a maths oriented role you’ll have to be more detailed in calculating the size of the balloons, but that answer clearly demonstrates an ability to think critically.

To simplify it even further, figure out what you don’t know and then talk through what you would do with that information if you did know. That process works whether you’re asked ‘how many blades of grass in Ireland?’ (Number of blades of grass per square mile, number of square miles of grassland) or ‘how much would you charge to wash every window in New York?’ (Windows per building, no. of buildings in New York, price per window).

If you can, add extra details like different prices for different areas of the city or different calculations for residential gardens vs. farmland or forests. That’s mainly for roles where those mathematical and analytical skills are a key part of the job –but the more detail you can offer the better.

The correct answer is…

Finally, try not to let these questions overwhelm you. Remember that there is no ‘right’ answer, but there is a wrong one. Never say ‘I don’t know’. Without the aforementioned ticker and helium pump, no one will ever know how many balloons actually fit in the office. The interviewer doesn’t even want to know the answer, they just want find out how to get there.


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