Part 4 of “Breaking down the interview”: how to approach brain teasers and numeric questions

On our last article ahead of Christmas break we bring another instalment of the series on the different part of the Finance job interview. Today we focus on the numeric questions. These can have many different natures, as brain-teasers, logic questions and or math problems.

The overarching message is: remain calm and be prepared. Besides testing whether you can confirm your experience, CV and savvy you claim to bring to the table, the interviewer will use this segment of to see beyond your rehearsed answers and see you thinking in real time. Furthermore, “cornering” a candidate with a number of tough numerical questions or brainteasers, can be as close to real life as it gets in a 45-60 minute interview, and the interviewer will be able to see you as if you were under stress with a project deadline.

When I was preparing for interviewing in the Winter of 2007, an American banker actually revealed that he liked to throw some brain teasers or simple mathematical questions at the end of the interview (ie. Throwing you tough multiplication as 23 times 338), as this was really as close as you can test the reaction of an associate or analyst when, after the adrenaline and wearing of long nights, you get yet another round of comments to the document or model.

Now let’s look at some practical points:

  • If you know the teaser, tell it to the interviewer and ask to have a different one. It will project honesty and seriousness and send a good signal.
  • Whenever possible, ask if OK to take paper out and sketch your thoughts and the solution. In one further step, a good friend in Argentina who at the time was coaching me to get into Private Equity, suggested I not only asked if OK to take out a note pad, but that also after some minutes of working on a case study, I rolled up my sleeves to show I am ready to work a lot and my potential bosses saw me as an analyst that was ready to work long hours
  • Do not jump into the solution. Rarely are the numeric questions or brain teaser the type of questions you were asked in primary school. For example, when I started interviewing candidates for analysts in PE in Buenos Aires, I used to ask them “What is the amount of hot dogs sold and eaten in the City of Buenos Aires on any given Monday?” Most of the candidates broke down the problem and try to work out some plausible number; however, the weaker candidates threw random numbers up in the air, including one that said “30,000”…seeing my poker face he changed to “300,000”…and then went down to “3,000” to then say “OK what is the number”. So that was the wrong answer!
  • Instead, show them how you think! Explain the steps you take to break down the problem
  • Practice! I can’t say this enough times. Practice at home, at school or in a friend’s office. Practice under real time pressure, so that when the tough numeric question comes up, you are ready to answer.

With the Christmas break almost with us, I take the opportunity to wish you all a happy holiday season, to try and re-connect with your loved ones in this strange year. And after all this happens, use the extra down time to practice for the hopefully busy recruiting season when the New Year comes.

Until then, subscribe to our newsletter or get in touch with us through info@breakingintofinance.info to discuss our BIF Program or anything else we may be of help with.

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