If you’re ever in a position to be interviewed by Elon Musk for a job at Tesla or SpaceX, chances are he’ll ask you this: “You’re standing on the surface of the Earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?”
According to Ashlee Vance, author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, most candidates come up with the correct answer—the North Pole. But Musk will then ask where else it could be? Few can come up with option two, which, Vance shares in his book, is somewhere close to the South Pole, where, if you walk one mile south, the circumference of the Earth becomes one mile.
And if the thought of being in an interview with Musk sounds exhausting, you’re not alone. Resume.io, a résumé-building platform, recently did a survey to find out the worst questions candidates are asked, and the first one was an unusual one such as Musk’s.
The worst offenders
“How many gas stations are there in the United States?” was ranked the hardest question to answer.
“It’s a bit of a trick question,” says Rolf Bax, chief human resources officer at Resume.io. “Unless you’re interviewing for BP, your interviewer doesn’t really need this figure. Rather, they want to see how you think.”
Vance writes that “[Musk] tends to care less about whether or not the person gets the answer than about how they describe the problem and their approach to solving it.”
Another question candidates dislike is when they’re given a challenge like this: You have one minute to persuade me to buy this pen.
“The interviewer is not intending to confuse them,” says Bax. “Instead, they are trying to learn how well they execute common sales tactics: How they gather, respond, and deliver information about the pen, as well as how well they conclude the pitch with a persuasive statement.”
A common question that is also hard to answer is “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
“Most people don’t have a five-year life plan, but that doesn’t matter,” says Bax. “What the interviewer wants to know is two main things. The first is your commitment to the company—in other words, are you going to stick around for the next five years? The second is about your ambition. If you’re being hired as an assistant, do you see yourself as an executive or a manager in five years? You probably should.”
What is your biggest weakness? And why should we hire you? Both of these questions were listed as being hard to answer. They’re also more often asked of women than men.
“Women are expected to prove their worth in job interviews,” says Bax. “They are more commonly asked about their strengths and weaknesses, and even why they should be hired.”
How to prepare
There are some questions that candidates can prepare for, says Bax.
“For example, answers to questions like ‘Where do you see yourself in five years? and ‘What is your biggest weakness?’ can be devised before the interview, no matter what the role or industry is,” he says. “Those that are much harder to prepare for are the random on-the-spot style questions.”
To practice a sales-driven challenge, such as “Sell me this pen,” Bax suggests focusing on positive features of the item. And to determine how many gas stations, Starbucks, or any other type of business could be in the United States, come up with a methodical solving process that you could later explain to the interviewer. For example, guess how many gas stations could be in each state, multiply that number by 50, and increase the number for states where you know there’s a higher population.
The overarching theme of these questions is one that attempts to dig deeper into the psyche of the interviewee, says Bax.
“Difficult questions are divided between thought experiments like the gas stations and relatively sensible but tough real-world inquiries,” he says. “Both types of questions put the candidate on the spot to check their thought process. Some of them may seem daunting, but showing a calm, methodical approach is, in most cases, more important than the actual answer.”