The Riddle of Job Interviews

It’s the latest twist in hiring techniques — asking brainteaser questions on obscure subjects to test for mental agility. Be prepared!

You’re on your way to that all-important job interview, and this time you’re prepared. You found the company’s home page on the Web and checked Nexis for the latest news. You’ve rehearsed your answers to the questions they’re bound to ask: Why do you want this job? Where do you see yourself in five years?


Those are the wrong questions. Sorry, you’re not prepared.

Blame it on Microsoft. Ever since Microsoft made headlines for its unconventional approach to interviewing (key question: How many gas stations are there in the United States?), more and more companies are looking for that certain approach that will uncover just the right quality of mind.

To help you really prepare, here are some brainbusters that are making the rounds in the world of knowledge work.

Say your interview is at Goldman Sachs. The problem (1) is likely to involve eight balls, one of which is slightly heavier than the others. You have a two-armed scale, which you are allowed to use only twice. Your challenge: find the ball that’s heavier. Another typical Goldman Sachs brainteaser (2) is to ask you to calculate the number of degrees between the hour hand and the minute hand of a clock (nondigital) that reads 3:15.

At Smith Barney, the problem (3) involves water instead of balls. You have two containers, one holds five gallons, the other holds three. You can have as much water as you want. Your task: measure exactly four gallons of water into the five-gallon container.

Bankers Trust offers this familiar puzzle (4) : You wake up one morning and there’s been a power outage. You know you have 12 black socks and 8 blue ones. How many socks do you need to pull out before you’ve got a match?


Another Wall Street puzzle (5) involves the truthtellers and the liars. It goes like this: You’re trying to get to Truthtown. You come to a fork in the road. One road leads to Truthtown (where everyone tells the truth), the other to Liartown (where everyone lies). At the fork is a man from one of those towns — but which one? You get to ask him one question to discover the way. What’s the question?

One management consulting firm asks (6) why manhole covers are round. Another asks
(7) how many barbers there are in Chicago.

The National Economic Research Association (NERA) goes straight to the economic hypothetical cases — but watch out for the twist. Its question (8) : The government is building a highway through your neighborhood and you’re forced to sell your home. How do you arrive at your asking price? One firm that finances large public works projects asks (9) how many cubes are at the center of a Rubik’s Cube.

But based on our research, the one group you want to look out for are the mergers and acquisitions boutiques. There, be prepared for a question that is downright bizarre. For example, at Rothchild Inc., they are likely to ask you to solve this problem (10) : You are in solitary confinement. It is Friday afternoon and you absolutely must have a cigarette. The only person who can give you one is the guard outside your cell. What do you do?

Remember, the job is riding on your answer!

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