Great Brain Teaser Interview Questions (With Answers)

By Chris Kolmar - Dec. 9, 2020
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Brain teasers are useful for assessing a number of necessary workplace skills. Answering brain teasers correctly can involve critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, and close listening skills. For these reasons, they’re commonly used during interviews to see how well and how quickly a candidate can think on his or her feet.

Some of the biggest, most well-known, and most highly sought after companies use brain teaser questions as part of their interview process. Companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and other tech industry titans are known for asking unique and difficult brain teaser questions to find candidates who stand out from the crowd.

Whether you’re thinking about using brain teaser questions to test a candidate’s skills or you’re preparing for an interview yourself, this article gives a rundown of some of the best strategies.

We’ll cover brain teaser interview questions, why an employer might use them, and how to answer them with these examples.

What Are Brain Teasers?

Brain teasers are a form of puzzle that tests one’s thinking and problem-solving abilities. With brain teasers, the answer is never straightforward. Instead, brain teasers require a creative thought process known as lateral thinking, or arriving at answers in unconventional ways. They may also involve the creative use of mathematics and formal logic.

Brain teasers date back to ancient Greece, where they took the form of math and logic puzzles. Answering (and inventing) riddles has historically been a sign of wit and clever thinking.

Brain teaser questions can reveal a lot about how a person thinks, which is why they are such a popular option for job interviews. Often, your answer ends up being less important than how you arrived at your answer – the hiring manager values being able to see your thought process.

There are many different kinds of brain teasers, all involving various types of intelligence and thinking to solve. Some might require math skills, others may test your close listening abilities, and others might rely on creativity and boldness.

A brain teaser might have one right answer, it may have multiple solutions, or it may be open-ended with no definite correct answer.

Why Interviewers Ask Brain Teaser Questions

Interviewers use brain teaser questions during interviews as an alternative way of getting to know a candidate and getting a deeper insight into how they might solve an unexpected problem. Brain teasers are asked alongside more typical interview questions and help form a more complete understanding of a candidate.

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As mentioned earlier, asking brain teaser questions isn’t about seeing whether a potential employee has the right answers, but seeing how they think about and approach difficult problems.

Brain teasers can be used to reveal a candidate’s skills and abilities. They give crucial insight into how someone assesses and utilizes information and how they solve problems. They can also provide a good look into how well a potential employee deals with stress, how attentively they listen, and how well they can eloquently present their solutions.

However, there are some potential drawbacks to using brain teaser questions during interviews. One potential concern is that, unless you make up your own riddles, the candidate could already be familiar with the question you are asking and its correct answer. So there could be concerns about unfair advantages in that regard.

Brain teaser questions can also be more difficult for people who have a primarily visual learning style. Following verbal instructions (as opposed to written instructions) is more challenging for visual learners, and this may translate to an incorrect assessment of their skills.

Still, brain teaser questions are generally a good way of seeing how someone deals with pressure and moments when they feel “put on the spot.” As an interviewer, it’s essential to ask each candidate to explain aloud as they think through a problem for a more revealing exchange.

Tips for Answering Brain Teaser Interview Questions

Along with prepping for all the common interview questions and best practices, it can be helpful to come up with a strategy for answering brain teaser questions. If you want to know how to answer brain teaser interview questions like a pro, these tips can help:

  1. Come prepared. First things first, you’ll want to understand the underlying aims of asking these types of questions. Questions like these can provoke our inner test anxiety but understand that the interviewer is simply trying to get a picture of how you work through and communicate difficult issues.

    Take a couple of deep breaths before your interview (and remember to stay breathing during the process) to help your nerves settle and bring about a state of mind that’s ready to take on challenging tasks. Bring a pen and paper to your interview to take notes or work out calculations.

    Lastly, try to review your basic math skills before coming in. Many brain teasers rely on creative uses of simple math skills, so it can be super helpful to brush up on some algorithms and formulas from your last math class.

  2. Listen closely. One of the most important things you can do to accurately and cleverly solve a brain teaser is to listen attentively to the words. Many brain teasers rely on small but crucial pieces of information getting past you, so close listening is always the best first step in answering these questions.

    Don’t try to answer the questions as they’re being asked to you or immediately after. With this strategy, you’re sure to become attached to certain pieces of information while ignoring other (potentially vital) pieces of information. Sometimes the answer can even be hidden within the question, so pay attention.

    It’s also important to ask any clarifying questions you might have. For instance, if they want you to estimate how many basketballs would fit in your office building, you might ask whether the basketballs have to be inflated with air. State out loud any loopholes or concerns that come up in your mind.

  3. Do all your thinking out loud. Remember that brain teaser questions are asked to get insight into your thinking. State every thought you have in regards to answering this question out loud. Any assumptions or estimations that you make should be stated to the interviewer.

    Make sure you have a methodical approach to answering the question. Come up with a working strategy that you can use and take the interviewer along for the ride. Come up with a formula for mathematical questions.

    At the end, if you’d like, offer some caveats to your answer. Mention the things that you might have left out or not taken into account.

Six Brain Teaser Question Examples

  • Closed-ended. These brain teaser questions have a “right” answer that you arrive at through creative problem-solving.

  1. “You have a three-gallon bucket and a five-gallon bucket. How do you measure out exactly four gallons?”

    Answer: The three-gallon bucket is too small, and the five-gallon bucket is too large. This is a given fact, and along with it comes the assumption that our final four gallons will end up in the five-gallon bucket.

    The first step is to fill the three-gallon bucket. Then, pour all three gallons into the five-gallon bucket. Now the five-gallon bucket has three gallons in it, and the three-gallon bucket is empty.

    Because 5-3=2, we know that only two more gallons can fit into the five-gallon bucket before it is full. So we’d fill the three-gallon bucket again and slowly pour it into the five-gallon bucket until it’s full. 3-2=1, so there is one gallon in the three-gallon bucket.

    We dump out the five-gallon bucket completely, then pour the one gallon into it. Finally, we fill up the three-gallon bucket and pour it into the five-gallon bucket. We end up with precisely four gallons.

  2. “The Beatles need to cross a bridge at night to get to a concert. They only have one flashlight, and they have seventeen minutes to get there. The bridge must be crossed with the flashlight and can only support two people at a time. John can cross in one minute, Paul can cross in two minutes, George can cross in five minutes, and Ringo takes ten minutes to cross. How can they all make it to the concert on time?

    Answer: First, John takes the flashlight and crosses the bridge with Paul. This takes two minutes. John then returns across the bridge with the flashlight taking one more minute (three minutes have passed so far). John gives the flashlight to George, and George and Ringo cross together, taking ten minutes (thirteen minutes have passed so far).

    George gives the flashlight to Paul, who recrosses the bridge taking two minutes (fifteen minutes have passed at this point). John and Paul now cross the bridge together, taking two more minutes. All end up across the bridge at the concert in exactly seventeen minutes.

  3. “You are standing outside of a room that has no windows. The room has three light bulbs and three switches outside of the room. Each switch controls one of the light bulbs. You can only enter the room one time. How do you find out what switch goes to which light bulb?

    Answer: Turn on the first light switch and wait five minutes or so. After this time, turn off the first light switch and turn on the second switch. At this point, one light bulb (corresponding to the second switch) will be on, and one light bulb (corresponding to the first switch) will be turned off but warm from being on previously.

    Walk into the room, and feel the two turned-off light bulbs. The warm light bulb belongs to the first switch, the turned-on light bulb belongs to the second switch, and the remaining light bulb belongs to the third switch.

  • Open-ended. These brain teaser questions have no single right answer that you have to figure out. Instead, these questions can be answered in any way that makes sense to you and are meant to show off your unique approach to making sense of what’s asked of you.

  1. “How many people are using Instagram in San Francisco at 1:30 pm on a Thursday?”

    How to Answer: This question not only tests your knowledge of certain crucial pieces of data (e.g., knowing how many people use Instagram at a given time throughout the day, knowing how many people live in San Francisco), but it also tests how you combine these different pieces of knowledge (or educated guesses).

    This question may also take the form of “how many [things] are there in [place]? To answer this and similar questions, utilize educated guesses about the various parts involved and develop a formula that makes sense to you.

  2. “How would you describe a sunset to a blind person?”

    How to Answer: This question tests your knowledge and grasp of a given concept, as well as being an opportunity to display tremendous amounts of creativity in your answer. This question might also take the form of “Explain [a difficult concept] to [someone it would be difficult to explain it to].”

    Dig deeply into your powers of creative description, as well as everything you know about the concept or thing you are meant to describe. Remember that being able to teach a concept at varying levels is a mark of understanding it very well, so lean heavily on your knowledge of the subject.

  3. “Sell me my iPhone.”

    How to Answer: This is a brain teaser as well as a practical test of your skills as a salesperson. The interviewer will pick an object around the room close by, such as their phone or a pen, and ask you to convince them to buy it.

    It may seem like a difficult, nerve-wracking task at first, but remember that they already own this item, so there are already a wealth of reasons for you to work with. The best strategy is to emphasize the need – why does this person need this thing? What value does it serve?

    However, rather than simply stating the facts, try and paint a vivid picture. Stimulate the interviewer’s imagination, perhaps, by describing in detail a time when this object may be a lifesaver.

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Chris Kolmar

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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