The worst job interview questions Wall Street hiring managers ask – and how you should respond to them

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If you're interviewing for an investment banking job, expect some curveball questions. Most Wall Street firms have pulled back from the so-called trick questions, but some questions can be be just plain bad - whether that's deceptive, irrelevant, blasé or even offensive.

Here are some of the worst interview questions that Wall Street hiring managers ask, along with some suggestions for how to respond.

If you were an animal/color, what type of animal/color would you be?

The purpose of such as question is to test the creativity of the candidate.

“In a finance role, creativity is not necessarily what [hiring managers] are looking for,” said Christian Novissimo, managing partner of accounting and finance at Lucas Group, an executive search firm. “It might put a candidate under pressure and force them to think on their feet, but perhaps it’s not best suited for financial professionals who are more quantitative.”

Find a creative way to steer the conversation back to your skills and experience.

Why don’t you tell me a joke? What are your hobbies?

Most recruiters have never studied effective interviewing methodology and ask questions that might not seem relevant or go after indications of future success.

“Most managers are looking to solve a problem and don’t want to bash the potential solution with questions designed to have people fail,” said Peter Laughter, CEO of Wall Street Services. “If candidates get questions that are off topic, it is important to identify the concern behind the question and speak to that concern.”

If the question is “Why don’t you tell me a joke?” perhaps the concern is whether or not the candidate will be able to fit into an office culture that values humor. Oblige if you can, preferably something that ties into the particular role or the industry in general.

What is 13 cubed? What is the square root of 100,000?

In both of these examples, hiring managers care less about the candidate giving the correct answer and more about the approach the individual takes to solve it.

“Lately, firms have been asking more non-modeling questions,” said Simon Lewis, managing director and head of the banking & financial services practice of Page Executive and Michael Page. “They have been asking brain-teasers to see how candidates react to unexpected questions they wouldn’t otherwise prepare for.”

If you owned the George Washington Bridge, for how much would you sell it to me?

This or something similar sometimes crops up in an interview for a sales or IBD role at a financial institution.

The best way to respond would be to guesstimate the approximate value of the scrap metal that could be salvaged from the bridge.

“I would guess it wouldn’t help hiring managers too much,” Novissimo said. “Some are working off of a script and don’t always understand what they’re looking for.

What’s one of your weaknesses? What are you weak at?

The stock answer to this question always used to be, “I work too hard,” but nobody wants to hear that anymore.’

“They want you to be humble and honest,” Novissimo said. “Take the question and rephrase it, for example, ‘In the past, an area of improvement for me has been…’”

“Identify it, and say ‘This is what I’ve done to get better at it,’ acknowledging that you’re not perfect but that you’ve taken steps to become more perfect,” he said.

Taking a negative and rephrasing it to be a positive is a tried-and-true tactic for financial services candidates to respond well to potentially unflattering questions.

How many gas stations are there in the U.S.? How many ping pong balls could you fit into this room?

This is another common type of question that catches people off guard, and there are a lot of different ways to ask it. Financial services professionals need to be quantitative, so hiring managers want to gauge whether they can think on their feet and arrive at a good answer.

Start by estimating that a ping pong ball is approximately one inch by one inch, and go from there. Hiring managers want to see your ability to quantify a number and explain how you got that answer.

“Especially people in quantitative roles, it requires making assumptions, so sometimes you need to make educated assumptions, demonstrate the ability to think quickly on your feet and derive a good answer,” Novissimo said.

What negative things would co-workers say about you?

This is a tricky one. Always attribute the negatives to a few and not the entire group.

Career coach Jane Cranston suggests trying "I guess some may think I can be too passionate and a bit defensive when it comes to a project I’m working on.” And maybe that’s true from their perspective. Say something to the effect of: "In general, I get along with my co-workers, clients and vendors. We don’t always agree but we can work together to get the job done.”

Photo credit: avemario/iStock/Thinkstock

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