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Expect the Unexpected: How to Handle Interview Brainteasers

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Some questions you can prepare for. You can rehearse. Maybe even memorize an answer. But all the studying in the world won’t help you when the hiring manager asks you something out of left field, like,  “How many potholes are on Manhattan Island?”

That element of surprise is the whole purpose of the interview brainteaser. And hiring managers in the finance world love to toss these out to see how you approach, analyze, and solve problems (especially those that are wildly unfamiliar). Of course, they also want to see how you react to the unexpected — in other words, how you handle stress.

Because brainteasers are generally unstructured, it’s difficult to lay-out a proven methodology to answer them. But here are a couple ways to prepare yourself for the unexpected.

Tip #1:  Take notes

Make sure to take notes when the hiring manager is giving you the brainteaser, especially if it’s heavy on the numbers. This will help you think through your response — and ensure that you don’t get flustered trying to keep it all straight! You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget the simplest numbers when you’re under pressure.

Taking notes also shows the interviewer that you’re detail-oriented and an active listener — great qualities in any potential employee.

Tip #2: Treat the brainteaser as a conversation/intellectual exploration

The good news is: the right answer is not necessarily the most important part of the brainteaser. How you arrive at your answer is every bit as telling.

It’s important to have a clear framework with which to tackle the problem. One way to do it: think of this situation as a conversation over coffee with a friend. Pretend the hiring manager asking the brain teaser doesn’t know the answer (he might not!), so it will feel like you’re trying to solve the problem together. In a conversation, it’s perfectly fine to ask for more data or information.

(This conversation approach may also paint you as more of an “intellectual team player” than a “competitive know-it-all.”)

Tip #3:  Try answering the problem out loud

When it comes to brainteasers, the questions you ask speak volumes about your thought process. So once you outline the framework, explore possible answers and alternatives out loud. With this strategy, you’re taking the conversation approach one step further.

This method also gives the interviewer a chance to help you out. If you do get off track, he or she will know it right away and can redirect you. That gives you a second chance to try again — and at least save face. And who knows — that redirection just might help you come up with the right answer!

While you can’t know what to expect from a brainteaser, you can at least have a strategy for handling them. Next time you’re at a bookstore, why not pick up a book of brainteasers and practice with your friends.

Above all: remember to relax. Be open-minded and creative, but rational.

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