How do you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Certainly feels like an absurd interview question, but managers are trying to suss out your critical thinking, creativity, and ability to work under pressure. So here’s how to answer.
BY JARED LINDZON
What would you do if you found a penguin in the freezer? How would you describe the color yellow to a blind person? How many square feet of pizza is eaten in the U.S. each year?
The questions may sound absurd, but they’ve all been asked in professional interviews, and may have even been the most consequential test of the entire hiring process.
That’s because employers know that candidates can list skills like critical thinking, creativity, and ability to work under pressure on their resume, but the best way to test their abilities is often through seemingly absurd and unexpected questions. Furthermore, in an age where candidates can research, anticipate, and prepare for likely interview questions, the unexpected and unrehearsed responses often prove the most revealing.
“These kinds of questions allow us to dive deeper into a candidate’s thought process and kind of gauge their personality,” said Michael Pearce, a health care recruiter with Addison Group.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE BOARD GAME?
Pearce says that when evaluating candidates he typically asks them to name their favorite board game, explaining that their response often reveals more about their personality and professional strengths than their resume.
“For example, if a candidate chose Risk, it highlights to me that they’re methodical and strategy focused and would best fit into a role that requires those skill sets,” he says.
HOW DO YOU MAKE A PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY SANDWICH?
When recruiters ask open-ended questions, Pearce says, there’s often no wrong answer, but warns that a more specific question could suggest the they’re looking for something precise. For example, Pearce says one client requested that he ask each candidate how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“They were specifically looking for people to be as descriptive as possible,” he says, adding that the role required strong communication skills. “They’re looking to see if the candidate included a step-by-step process as if they’re explaining it to someone that’s never heard of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE BREAKFAST FOOD AND WHY?
Glassdoor’s senior director of corporate communications, Scott Dobroski, similarly makes a distinction between two different oddball question categories. He explains that the open ended questions are often intended to test creativity and critical thinking, while more quantitative questions are designed to test how the candidate solves problems under pressure.
In either case, however, Dobroski says that hiring managers are often more interested in the thought process behind the answer than the answer itself.
“It could be ‘what’s your favorite breakfast food and why?’ and someone might say ‘Cheerios, because it’s the breakfast of champions,’ and explain how they’re a champion in the workplace,” he says. “It’s the open ended questions where you’re given the opportunity to take something quirky and relate it to the workplace and who you are as an employee and what you bring that’s different from competitors.”
Dobroski adds that it also reveals something about the candidate’s personality, which can help determine whether they’d fit with the company’s culture.
HOW MANY PENCILS COULD YOU FIT INTO THIS ROOM?
Quantitative questions are similarly intended to evoke a detailed explanation, but attempt to reveal how the candidate approaches challenges under pressure rather than something about their personality. One example employers could ask is how many pencils they could fit in the interview room.
“What they’re looking for is not a one-word response, but thinking out loud on how you would get to a solution or a conclusion, because that’s what we do all day when we’re working,” says Dobroski. “We’re faced with planned and unplanned challenges, and problem solving is an asset in every job.”
He explains that when faced with a quantitative question candidates should do their best to think out loud, feel free to ask questions, and even request more time to think it over before responding.
“You want to ask questions to get to the best answer,” he says. “Like ‘Are they standard sized pencils?’ ‘What’s the thickness of the pencil?’ Do I have anything at my disposal to chop up the pencil before?'”
IF YOU WERE A NEW ADDITION TO THE CRAYON BOX, WHAT COLOR WOULD YOU BE AND WHY?
When it comes to odd interview questions there’s often little candidates can do to anticipate them, and that’s okay, explains author and job search expert for The Balance Careers, Alison Doyle.
“Don’t even try, because you can’t anticipate them,” she says, explaining that there are other ways to prepare. “What you might think about is if you’re asked something off the wall, what’s the best way to respond.”
Doyle explains that instead of trying to practice answers to wacky questions, candidates should instead practice how they would approach them in more general terms.
“Stay calm, think about it a little bit, and remember that you can ask questions if you need to,” she says. “Try and be creative, like if they ask, ‘Iif you’re a new addition to a crayon box, which color would you be and why?’ they’re looking at how you answer more than the answer itself.”
When asked an odd question in a job interview Doyle says it’s far more important for candidates to remain composed and demonstrate an ability to defend their answer than it is to arrive at the “right” answer. After all, responses can be as absurd as the questions themselves, as long as there’s also an equal amount of thought and purpose behind them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist born, raised and residing in Toronto, covering technology, entrepreneurship, entertainment and more for a wide variety of publications in Canada, the United States and around the world. When he's not playing with gadgets, interviewing entrepreneurs or traveling to music festivals and tech conferences you can usually find him diligently practicing his third-person bio writing skills.