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How to Answer Problem Solving Interview Questions

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How to Answer Problem Solving Interview Questions

Summary: Problem solving interview questions are more common with employers today. Prepare yourself to answer these kinds of questions before your next interview.

I call these interview questions “Smart” or “Problem Solving” questions. While it seems like a silly question to be asking in a job interview, this style of questioning is growing in popularity among professional interviewers.

Popularized by Microsoft, the “Smart” or “Problem Solving” question is designed give the interviewer a sample of your mental horsepower, ability to think on your feet, and flexibility and creativity.

You are not supposed to actually know the answer. The interview question is to see if you can come up with a credible answer and back that answer up with some kind of logic, calculation, or reasoned analysis.

Don’t throw your hands up in frustration and whine, “I don’t know!” You will be judged as inflexible and easily frustrated by out-of-the-box ideas. You don’t want to give that impression in a job interview situation.

Do act intrigued by the question (even if you’re not). Show that you are willing to engage in an off-beat exercise. Have some fun with it. Relax.

Do puzzle your way to an answer, even if you know it’s probably wrong. Think out loud. Let the interviewer know how you are going to try to get to your best answer.

Do ask clarifying questions of the interviewer if you need more information to get to the answer. Interviewers like to see some give and take during these questions.

Don’t get carried away and ask too many detailed questions that delay the interview. It’s not important to be right. You just have to come up with a credible answer that you can back up with a credible analysis of some kind. It is possible to be too detail oriented and lose sight of the goal of the question. Don’t fall into this trap.

Do feel comfortable making assumptions, but be careful to state them to the interviewer.

If these kinds of questions are difficult for you, buy yourself a mental exercise puzzle book and practice-practice-practice until you become more comfortable. You can try making up your own questions, or have a friend make up a few, and go to town on them.

Case interviews are more in-depth, but are very similar. Practice case interviews would seriously help you answer these questions also.

Sample Answer:

You: “Do you want the quarters stacked on their flat side, or stacked on the tall sides?”

Me: “For now, assume I need to know how many quarters stacked on the tall sides.”

You: “Ok. I’m going to have to give you an estimate, and I hope that will be OK. I don’t actually know how tall the Empire State Building is, but I can give you a sample of how I might figure this out.

“I’ll assume that your average quarter is about 1 inch tall. I have no idea how tall the Empire State Building is, but I know it’s tall, so I am going to assume it’s about 100 stories tall. I’m also going to assume that each floor is about 10 feet high.

“There are 12 inches per foot, 10 feet per floor, and 100 floors in the building. That translates to 1000 feet. At 12 inches per foot, that’s 12,000 inches tall. If a quarter is 1 inch tall, your building is about 12,000 quarters tall.”

Notice you don’t actually need to know anything to get to an answer. The interviewer is looking for a solid analytical process, reasonable assumptions, and good reasoning. He doesn’t care about the actual answer.

How to Answer Problem Solving Interview Questions by
Authored by: Granted Contributor