Top 10 Elite Job Interview Questions

ChairAs CEOs and HR directors focus more on leadership, leadership potential and leadership development, we might consider some of these questions. Remember that interview questions should rarely be asked simply for curiosity. There are usually expected answers, but less factual information or looking for the “one right answer” than insights to analysis, evaluation and presentation.

There is an old guideline for good writing: “Show, don't tell.”  What this means is that the best authors don't tell the reader information directly. They don't explicitly spell out what a character's personality is. Instead, they reveal information through dialogue, and place the character in situations where that character's morals and mindset can show through. Showing a character to readers is generally better than just dumping their personality on the reader.

In many ways, the same is true of interviewing. A skilled interviewer will get the interviewee talking about themselves in ways that reveal their abilities and disposition. This style of interviewing tells them more about the job applicant, and it's a much more honest picture, too.  Asking an interviewee “what are your weaknesses” will always earn you a canned speech, but getting them telling a story will often give insight into their work style and potential shortcomings.

So, if better interviewing leads to better hires, it's no shock to learn that the world's elite companies ask some unusual and effective questions. Read on as we look at 10 of the top questions asked by companies that shape the world around us.

My comments and applications are noted at the end of each question.


No. 10. What do wood and alcohol have in common?

If you haven't heard of Guardsmark, they are major security company in the U.S. and UK. The role of a security officer is a complicated one: the officer has to sift through tons of information including visual information, and try to separate out anything suspicious. Questions like this one test the applicant's response time, intelligence level and how they tie together different threads of information. Finally, the way the applicant “sells” their comparison to the interviewer shows how well they interact with other people, which is key to being a successful security officer.

If we asked it in an interview, what would you say to the response: “I have no idea.”


No. 9. What would you do if you just inherited a pizzeria from your uncle?

Volkswagen asks this to people applying for a Business Analyst position. Obviously, they are asking the interviewee to analyze a business on a small scale. What would the applicant do first? Review the financials? Inspect the facility? Put it up for sale? By asking the potential analyst to work through the problem of inheriting a pizzeria, they discover what the analyst considers the key aspects of a businesses success or failure, and what they would do to influence that.

It would be interesting to ask what an applicant would do if they were assigned to head a branch, starting Monday, with an improvement plan needed in a week.

No. 8. Given the numbers 1 to 1000, what is the minimum number of guesses needed to find a specific number if you are given the hint “Higher or Lower”.

This question is used for applicants to be a software engineer at Facebook. Once you know it's for a software position, this question is pretty straightforward. It tests problem solving and mathematical skills, and there is a right answer. Does the applicant try to “brute-force” solve the problem with pen and paper? Do they write a formula that outlines the math behind the question? How the interviewee sets out to solve the problem shows their work process, and their ability to create and code for a solution. You're asking the interviewee to think on their feet, but when hiring for a programmer, you don't want somebody to wing it. They should have the math needed to solve the problem.

I confess that I have no idea, but then no one should hire me for a software engineer… I also think that the question is incomplete. A software enginner friend offered this advice: I would assume (but check this assumption) that someone has chosen a number between 1 and 1000, inclusive. When you guess a number, they tell you whether you are higher or lower. In theory, the guesses could then be considered a “binary search”, where you divide the possible pool of numbers in half with each guess. In that case, the maximum number of guesses should be 10 ceiling(ln(1000)/ln(2)). In other words, 1000 is between 2^9 and 2^10, so a binary search could take 10 guesses.

So there…

No. 7. How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?

Like several of the questions on this list, this question is not so much about the answer the applicant gives as the process they use to get there. By design, the question is meant to be difficult to answer. Virtually no applicant will know how much space there is inside a school bus, and the use of golf balls as a unit of measurement is designed to make the question harder. So, when they get thrown in at the deep end, how does the candidate respond? The path they take to arrive at an answer reveals a lot about their ability to think under pressure, and to solve difficult problems when they don't have all the information.

In my opinion, an applicant’s response to the question itself, and it being asked, would be interesting and useful.

No. 6. Explain to me what has happened in this country in the last 10 years.

Boston Consulting
Consulting is about communicating complex ideas in a simple way. This question gets interviewees to summarize events and present them to the listener — something they will do a lot of in their work for the company. The way the applicant presents their summary to the interviewer shows how good they are at communicating, and swaying people to see things as the applicant sees them. Finally, you can learn a lot about the applicant by what they consider important from the last 10 years. This gives insight into their personality, outlook and even how attentive they are to the world around them.

One of the complaints one hears about librarians and library managers is their inability to communicate to staff with less education and experience…. and of course our predilection to keep our views private… unless they are left-wing…


No. 5. How would you investigate a technology without letting anyone know you were investigating it?

A fitting question for Apple. A company as famous as Apple for secrecy wants to know its workers are capable of the same. Given Apple's current position as a leading tastemaker, they have a strong incentive to keep the competition off their trail for as long as possible, and thus gain an early lead on the race to their “next big thing.” Seeing how an individual worker would approach that problem gives Apple insight into the worker's thought process and creative thinking skills as well.

Given the challenge of change, this is not unreasonable given that the technology may not be pursued, so why cause undue stress or anxiety. Some would choose full and open disclosure and others not, depending on the culture and commitment to improvement. Sometimes a private investigation is more appropriate, whether technology or a new performance management system.


No. 4. You are shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a glass blender. The blades will turn on in 60 seconds. What do you do?

Goldman Sachs
Investment Banking is a high stakes industry, where the best laid plans can change in a millisecond. This question throws the interviewee into a very high stakes, life-or-death situation that they (obviously) have no prior experience in dealing with. Interviewees' responses tell the interviewer a lot about their creative problem solving and ability to quickly analyze a situation. Finally, since the question is so absurd, it tests the interviewee's ability to “play along” even in circumstances that are way outside their comfort zone. This tells you whether the person is a “that's not in my job description” type, or willing to do whatever it takes to get results.

Given the current crisis in funding of libraries, this may be more relevant than it seems…


No. 3. Explain a database to your 8-year-old nephew in three sentences.

Google has gained a reputation as a company that makes cutting edge technology approachable, even to the least tech-savvy among us. Beginning with their roots as the internet's leading search engine, Google's MO is to provide us the information we need in a format that's understandable and relevant to our needs. By asking interviewees to explain a database, they ensure that the potential hire understands the tech concepts behind the work that they'll be doing. However, by asking them to explain it in three sentences, and in a way a child could understand, they also test the applicant's ability to turn this deep knowledge into something easily understood and used. That's Google's mission as a company, so it's important that individual workers possess that talent as well.

Personally, I think every professional librarian should be asked how they would explain the catalogue to an eight year old, then to an adult, then to an IT specialist…


No. 2. You are testing a prototype vending machine that takes a $1 bill and gives 75 cents of product, but isn't giving out change. How do you assess the problem?

Another problem solving question. This asks the interviewee to think through an issue, decide what the likely cause or causes could be, and come up with a plan. Obviously, the question isn't meant to test what the interviewee knows about vending machines, but how they approach a problem when they don't know where to start.
A few answers: Put a quarter in the machine, then hit the change return button. If you don't get your quarter back, the change return is blocked. Or, try to buy a product using three quarters. If the machine does not vend, the machine has been incorrectly set to charge $1, and so was not giving change.

Just think of a few challenges in your environment: self-check out/in, photocopier, terminal timer…


No. 1. Why Are Manhole Covers Round?

Microsoft, now used by Google and others
This classic has been asked since the days of Microsoft's rise to the top of the computer world. Since then, other companies like Google have taken to asking it as well. This fame (or infamy) is the reason it tops our list, but it's also a very good question that has been proven effective. This question is psychological, and tests how the interviewee approaches a question that 1) has more than one correct answer, and 2) requires them to think on their feet. By watching how the interviewee arrives at an answer, draws in evidence to support their idea and “sells” it to the interviewer, they demonstrate their creativity, confidence and persuasive skills.
A few answers: answers range from the obvious “because manholes are round” to the practical “a round cover can be rolled, letting workers move it more easily.” What other solutions can you think of? Let us know in the comments.
These questions were sent to me. On checking, they have been taken from this source, without modification:


And what are your favorite questions and why?


About Ken Haycock

Ken Haycock is currently Research Professor of Management and Organization at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, where he coordinates graduate programs in Library and Information Management.

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7 Responses to Top 10 Elite Job Interview Questions

  1. Sarah Naumann May 14, 2013 at 12:02 am #

    Pretending I am in an interview (and unable to look this up) and asked why manhole covers are round, I would say:

    A round manhole cover is easier to set back in place as there are no specific angles that need to be matched up.

    I like the answer about rolling it out of the way too.

  2. Ryan Deschamps May 14, 2013 at 2:50 am #

    The response to the Goldman Sachs question (I thought it was Google) is merely “jump out.” Shrinking down to that size reduces weight and proportionally can make it possible for someone to jump out of the blender.

    Maintenance hole covers are round to prevent them from being able to fall inside the hole (square covers can fall in if they are set diagonally).

  3. Sue Scott May 14, 2013 at 5:21 am #

    No 4 (still laughing) … as a “pencil in a blender” I would center my stick profile on the screw holding the blade, ‘go’ to that tropical place, and ride it out. Blender action is usually quick.

  4. Tara Wong May 14, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

    Although, I have been asked the manhole question in an interview before (I went with the because they can’t fall in answer as well), the oddest interview question I ever got was before my library career and was:

    You have 24hrs to find out how many pay phones are within the city limits. You have $200 cash. How would you go about it?

    Definitely threw me for a minute. After reading the article above, I know have a better sense of the type of information/ skill set they were getting at.

    For the record, I got the job 😉

  5. David Bruce May 14, 2013 at 10:28 pm #

    Thanks – these are fun…and interesting to think about our own answers:

    Wood and alcohol, eh? The word “grain” jumps to mind…not sure how I’d sell that answer though…

    And the golf balls in a school bus reminds me of a math problem I read about 15 years ago in /In Code: A Mathematical Journey/ by Sarah Flannery: There are more hairs on the average human head than there are people in Dublin (Ireland). True or false. (Obviously you could Google the two numbers…)

  6. Sue Scott May 20, 2013 at 6:14 am #

    re:Elite Interview Questions

    I agree with your inline comments, and have an alternate perspective of this recruitment technique that I am interested to know your thoughts on.

    Each question rational is understandable and while most are validated by plausible answers, two questions – #10 and #4 seek speculative responses. For me, a person not into speculation, such questions are gimmicky, a sign of possible evasiveness and indecision. This can be valuable for a candidate to assess their suitability to work with a particular firm, but when reversed, is this assessment realized in similar context to benefit a recruiting professional?

    The top 10 elite questions are a good mass applicant short-listing technique as responses could be parsed by algorithm, thus evaluation is more quantitative than qualitative. Interview questions that ask a person to produce-solve a ‘real’ asset-issue of the firm are most insightful of a person’s capacity to reason and show their skills … your thoughts?

    Resource forward … Lou Adler’s, Essential Guide for Hiring and Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013) describes performance-based recruiting – seems aligned with your work.

    thank you!


    • Ken Haycock May 20, 2013 at 9:04 pm #

      I am trying to get people to take interviewing more seriously — where does this question lead? what are you looking for? Interviewing is not an opportunity to explore curiosities (although that is sometimes important), it is to determine purpose, select a question and appropriate response, and test it. Did this question/response differentiate candidates? Over time? How?