Brain teasers in interviews: Just say no

by Aaron

Using brain teasers as interview criteria is one of the worst decisions you can make as a recruiter.

When I interviewed for internships back in college, many companies tried to test how well you think “outside the box” by asking these brain teasers like: “You have 9 jars that are filled with marbles that are 1 gram in weight…” I strongly oppose the use of brain teasers in job interviews.

If you want to find out how good I am at what I do, ask me to solve a real-world problem. Don’t ask me to figure out which jar has the 0.9 gram marbles. I’ll take a page from SNL here and say: Really? Did you really think that because I couldn’t solve that brain teaser, I’m not a good candidate? Really?


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3 Responses to “Brain teasers in interviews: Just say no”

  1. Anonymous on December 29th, 2007 6:36 pm

    Haha, sweet senior year interviewing memories. If I have an (N * N * N) cube composed of (n * n * n) smaller cubes, and I paint all of the faces of the (N * N * N) cube black, how many (n * n * n) cubes have a painted face?

    Got asked this a million times during interviews and thought it was a stupid question, now I love asking a variation of it (usually where N=10 and n=1) every time someone asks me to conduct a “stress” style interview.

    Reason being?
    1. It’s fun watching some kids come close to crying as they try to solve this fairly easy question (good to see how they react to pressure)
    2. I’m amazed at how many different approaches kids come up with in an attempt to solve it. Can ask it to 10 different people and get 10 different styles and approaches. Like a little, albeit sinister science experiment.

    Regardless, ability to answer it correctly is never as important as a cool-headed, thoughtful reply.

  2. Aaron on December 29th, 2007 6:58 pm

    Haha, that’s an interesting brain teaser and you make a couple of really good points. Perhaps my strong opposition to such brain teasers is the result of me not being particularly good at answering them. I usually find myself doing one of the following:

    • Asking questions to help clarify the question and stall for time while the gears in my head are furiously turning to find an answer
    • Trying to find the more “complex” answer, reluctant to give the answer that’s just the inefficient, easy way out (the answer everyone can come up with)

    I think people (including myself!) definitely get caught up on having to come up with the “right” answer. It’s important for interviewers to remind the candidate that they’re more interested in the thought process than the actual answer. Granted, describing your thought process can be hard too! :)

    I personally like using “brain teaser”-type questions that could apply to real-world situations (although not necessarily things they’re used to working with). Although it may not be as fun ;) I feel like I can get a good idea about the candidate based on those questions.

    Or maybe I just don’t want people to go through the same stuff I went through :p

  3. Laura on January 7th, 2008 4:14 pm

    Gotta love a nice SNL reference. :D

    I like brain teasers, but a job interview isn’t the place… I’m all for thinking on your feet, but when it comes to brain teasers, some of the most creative solutions can come from just spending some peaceful time mulling over it all.