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Incomprehensible Entrance Exam

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"The best kind of interview is one where the applicant doesn't know he's being evaluated!"
Jeremiah Fink, Bioshock Infinite

Whether you're applying for enrollment, seeking employment, or hoping for membership, entrance exams are generally straightforward affairs: the main issue is having the knowledge, qualifications and character traits the organization's looking for in a successful candidate. Sometimes, however, it's not as simple as that.

Sometimes, the examiners aren't interested in meeting their students halfway: the tests are difficult beyond acceptable levels, the subject matter is irrelevant, the selection criteria make no sense, or the exam takes place under bewildering conditions, and in some cases, a character may actually end up being tested for something else entirely without their knowledge or consent. Sometimes, the examinees don't even know what this entrance exam is for at all, having been summoned to the test with no prior notification and no idea of what they'll gain by passing. In extreme cases, they don't even know that there is a test until it's already over.

To those inside the organization, the test may make perfect sense: there may be a legitimate purpose at the heart of it, and as strange as it is, it may even be a stepping stone to bigger and better things for those who manage to succeed against all odds. To outsiders, though, it's nothing short of incomprehensible — weird at best and maddening at worst.

Alternatively, it might just be a sign of the organization being unhealthily dysfunctional, if not completely insane.

A hallmark of only the most extreme schools, employers and organizations, this trope may involve Training from Hell — though it's just as likely to involve a nastily-complicated written examination, a series of bewildering errands, or just a Terrible Interviewees Montage. Possibly utilized by the Stealth Mentor — or the Pointy-Haired Boss.

Compare Initiation Ceremony, which can be just as bewildering but is generally more ritualistic in nature and less based on determining individual merit. Contrast Ultimate Final Exam.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Bungo Stray Dogs: Each of the Armed Detective Agency's entrance exams is a customized Secret Test of Character. Atsushi, the main character, receives his test when he shows up for his interview and finds the office being menaced by a suicide bomber. He ultimately passes by jumping on top of the bomb just before it goes off - at which point it is revealed that the entire thing was staged. The employee who was playing the role of the bomber later confesses that his own exam was so traumatic that he had to erase it from his memory.
  • Naruto: The Chunin Exam starts with a written test that asks a series of bizarre, overly complicated questions that no one short of a genius could possibly figure out. Naturally, being a test for Ninjas, the applicants are expected to spy on other students to get the right answers (there are a few plants in the class to get the ball rolling). Unique to Naruto's class is the secret Final Question, where failing will bar them from retaking the exam. The test proctor lets people quit and leave before giving it. Afterwards he reveals it was a Secret Test of Character meant to test their courage, and anyone who stayed would pass.

    Fan Works 
  • Deconstructed in Danganronpa: Despair Time. Min Jeung earned her title as the Ultimate Student by passing a special exam that was announced twelve years before it was held, with a coveted spot at the famous academy as the prize. However, she later began questioning her success, realizing that the school might not have been looking for the best or brightest, but for those willing to devote their whole childhood to studying for a single test. Min's family was also approached by a Mysterious Benefactor who offered to sponsor them and cover many of their expenses, contingent upon her taking the exam once the time came.
  • In the Discworld Expanded Universe of A.A. Pessimal, the Assassins' Guild local office in Rimwards Howondaland is running a selection course for talented local prospects who can be offered sponsored places at the Guild School in Ankh-Morpork. One of the final group, who have already been put through more conventional selection tests, is baffled when after a tangential discussion which was only marginally related to being an Assassin, the woman heading the selection panel offers him a saxophone and instructs him to play it. Afterwards, he realizes they already knew he was a competent musician; what swings it for his application is that his interviewer wanted to send the Guild School somebody with musical as well as Assassin potential, as a favour to the Music teacher she quite likes.
    Quite like him to have somebody with a bit of talent. He was already beginning to twitch when I graduated six years ago, poor man.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • To join the League of Shadows in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is told to retrieve a mysterious blue flower from a remote mountain and then deliver it to a secluded monastery with no indication of what the flower might be for or even what's expected of him there. For good measure, once he actually arrives there, he's made to participate in a fist-fight with his mentor, despite being exhausted to the point of collapse. The flower is actually a hallucinogen used in the League's Ultimate Final Exam; by collecting it, Bruce has been unwittingly setting the stage for his graduation.
  • Exam is about eight job applicants vying for an amazing (but vague) position in a mysterious but powerful company. They are given a speech about the rules of the exam and that they are to answer a single question. They are left to their own devices for eighty minutes with no apparent question to answer. The main conflict comes from the applicants trying to understand what the question is, tricking or forcing each other into disqualifying themselves, and eventually using more extreme and violent methods to do either. "There is no law in this room but our law, and the only rules in here are our rules. There is one question before you, and one answer is required. If you try to communicate with myself or the guard, you will be disqualified. If you spoil your paper, intentionally or accidentally, you will be disqualified. If you choose to leave this room for any reason, you will be disqualified. Any questions?" The answer: Turning in an unspoiled paper and answering "no" as there are no questions.
  • In Inception, Cobb interviews Ariadne for the role of team architect entirely without warning and without actually telling her what the job is, reasoning that he has to know she can actually do it before he can give her the details. Over the course of the impromptu test, he challenges her to draw a maze in two minutes that he can't solve in one minute. She gets it right on the third try.
  • The eponymous Men in Black draws in applicants from the very best in the military and police for a series of exams — without ever telling them what exactly the test will be like. It starts with an incredibly awkward written exam in inconvenient egg-shaped chairs with no desks. After that, the applicants are pitted against a variety of menacing-looking aliens in a shooting range. The entire class flunks out and has their memory of the incident erased — except for NYPD officer James Edwards, the future J. It's implied that the purpose of the tests was to find someone who uses common sense and initiative; the egg-shaped chairs are in a large room with a single table in the middle, and J was the only one who thought to drag it over to his chair to overcome the deskless egg-shaped chair problem, even though doing so caused a huge racket. He passes a test of perception and discretion in the alien shooting gallery, as the one little girl target he ended up shooting was holding an advanced physics book and the said aliens were actually in middle of harmless activities, such as exercising or about to sneeze. They were looking for someone who can independently deduce and can take the initiative, not someone who follows orders blindly. He gets bonus points for being the only applicant to think it's peculiar (and to him amusing) that none of the applicants know what exactly is going on. J had already caught Agent K's eye by having the tenacity to run down a superhuman alien on foot.
  • Parodied in the Postal film adaptation: the interview process for one Incompetence, Inc. involves ever more surreal and nonsensical questions, asked by a hostile stenographer who doesn't even bother to wait for answers, until the Postal Dude snaps entirely. His outburst gets him to the top of the list.
    Interviewer: Last question. What is the difference between a duck?
    Postal Dude: ...and? [Beat] What the hell is wrong with you people?! A duck?! I came here for a job!

  • AQUARIUM contains a description of the protagonist's exhausting six-day entrance exam for the Soviet intelligence agency, GRU. The exam consists of thousands of questions, asked very rapidly (about one per minute), for 17 hours every day, with almost no breaks allowed. They include questions about random military topics ("What is the pressure exerted per centimeter of ground by the M-60 tank?", "Describe how would you modernize the B-58 bomber"), personality tests ("What is your favorite kind of woman?"), memory tests ("Here's 200 photographs, pick the people you've seen in this room exactly once"), or simple mental math ("What is 262 times 16?" — with a (false) answer scribbled on the table in an attempt to trick the candidate). The main purpose isn't to actually test the candidate's knowledge — in fact, people who score over 90% on the exam are rejected as "too smart" — but rather their ability to perform mentally under extreme pressure.
  • The Discworld novel Interesting Times has an exaggerated version of the Imperial Examination system for nearly everyone in the Agatean Empire, not just bureaucrats — making it very much a version of the dysfunctional kind. Rincewind observes that one examinee's test for the post of night soil operativenote  has zero questions on whether he knows how to use a shovel, and Lord Hong himself briefly considers that their cannons might not explode so often if they started rating metalworkers on their handiwork instead of their poetry.
    • Ironically, one of the applicants for the night-soil job anticipates the useless nature of the questions, and shows up with a suitable poem about the mists rising over water written on his arm so he can cheat.
  • In The Magicians, potential students at Brakebills College are given a borderline-Daliesque entrance exam to prove if they have what it takes to wield magic. Among other things, examinees can be transported to Brakebills without warning and without even knowing that magic exists; they can be challenged to guess what's on the other side of a playing card, to draw a rabbit that moves as they try to finish drawing it, to describe how they would stop the exam paper from escaping, and even to invent a new language, detail its history, and translate a passage from The Tempest into the language and back. Following the written portion, they are given a number of seemingly nonsensical tasks, including map-drawing, conjuring tricks, blitz chess and knot-unraveling, before entrants are finally provoked into unveiling their magical powers. Though this seems eccentric, it's actually very good at identifying students with the intelligence, obsession and aptitudes necessary for spellcasting. However, Brakebills accepts only the best, and anyone who fails the exam for any reason will have their memories of the college erased... and out of a huge class of potential students, only two are accepted.
  • In The Mysterious Benedict Society, the second test the kids take to join the titular society is full of dense, long-winded questions about subjects like the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Reynie passes the test when he realizes it's really about reading comprehension and following instructions — the answer to each question is found somewhere in a different question. Meanwhile, George "Sticky" Washington doesn't figure out the puzzle, but passes by stunning the examiners and getting nearly every question right on his own knowledge, only missing the last few because of panicking due to the allotted time running out.
  • The Pilo Family Circus subjects Jamie to this very early in the novel. Having accidentally managed to amuse the Circus clown division while they were vandalizing his home, he's told he has three days to pass his audition: he has to make them laugh - no matter who gets hurt or killed as a result. Other than that, there's no explanations, no opportunity to back out, and no way of knowing if the clowns are being serious or just fucking with him again. For good measure, the clown division spends the next few days stalking Jamie, leaving menacing letters, torturing his friends, threatening to blow up his workplace and even making it look like they murdered one of his flatmates. The goal is to scare Jamie into a Freak Out so as to see how funny he can be when he stops caring about social conventions. In the end, he passes the audition by creating a fake bomb scare with the aid of fireworks, then sprinting naked through a shopping center with a pillowcase over his head and a swastika painted on his chest.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Game of Thrones, Arya attempts to join the Faceless Men with the Braavosi coin she was way given back in Season 2, only to be turned away from the House of Black and White. She spends the rest of the day waiting on the steps, before giving up and throwing the coin into the canal. However, she is inexplicably rescued from a mugging by the same priest who turned her away, who then invites her inside. No explanation for why she was refused, why she was accepted or even what the Faceless Men hoped to achieve by making her wait is ever given. note 
  • Kamen Rider Gotchard: For Houtarou to enter the Alchemist Academy, he must somehow make the weights of two Chemies be equal through alchemy. But since Houtarou doesn't know alchemy, he decides to simply ask the two Chemies to change their diets. The instructor that assigned him the exam gets a laugh out of it and gives him a pass, despite also pointing out that his solution defeats the point of the exam.
  • Admission to the drug trials in Maniac requires test subjects to participate in a strange and somewhat surreal test of their suitability for the experiments; it actually ends with the examiner asking the participants to look directly at her while she asks the final question - only to stare at them in complete silence for the next few seconds.
  • The Silly Job Interview sketch of Monty Python's Flying Circus, which features the unfortunate applicant being put through a baffling series of instructions and queries with no rhyme or reason, in keeping with the show's absurdist sense of humor. The sketch ends with the employer telling the applicant that the job was already taken and that he was just Trolling him.
  • Victorious: At Hollywood Arts, in order to audition for plays, students must perform "The Bird Scene". Tori performs this scene, asking her teacher if she's passed each time, to which he tells her no. Eventually she gets frustrated and says that she feels she did a good job. Her teacher then tells her she passed. He tells her that the purpose of the test is to see if the student trusts their artistic instincts and all one has to do to pass is to be confident in their performance.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation:
    • Wesley Crusher's first attempt to enter Starfleet Academy required a bizarre exam of trick questions and a Secret Test of Character. He doesn't get in.
    • After several seasons being a Commander due to her position as ship's counselor, Troi decides to take the bridge officer's test to qualify for an actual command rank. Much like Starfleet Academy's infamous ''Kobayashi Maru'' exam, this was also a psychological test; in this case, they were testing Troi's willingness to send a colleague to their death to save the rest of the ship.

    Print Media 
  • GAMES Magazine published an article called "The Elastic Aptitude Test" which presented itself on initial inspection to be a nightmare of obscure trivia and impossible problems. More careful examination, and some lateral thinking, allowed the taker to answer most of the test, though the final essay question was just a pun.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Exalted, possible recruits for the All-Seeing Eye (an espionage group) have a piece of paper bearing the Eye's logo slipped into their belongings. If the recruit tells anyone about it, they are assassinated a few days later. If they keep their mouths shut, they're offered a job in the organization.
  • Some clans in Vampire: The Masquerade prefer to test their potential members before Embracing them, and given the need to uphold the Masquerade, few candidates ever realize that they're being tested at all until they become vampires - and even if they do become aware of being part of a test, it's not uncommon for them to be tricked into believing that they failed. Two such clans, the Lasombra and the Followers of Set, often go out of their way to deliberately ruin a potential member's life in any way they can - sabotaging their careers, undermining their relationships, crushing their hopes, even leading them into addiction - but for different reasons: the Lasombra are determined to Embrace only the strongest, and the tests are designed to weed out any who cannot withstand hardship; by contrast, the Setites want to completely break their "students" and show them the true nature of the universe.
  • In Paranoia, upon being promoted into the Troubleshooters, characters are put through the Mandatory Bonus Duty test to see which role each one should have on the team. The few comprehensible questions are less about the ability to do each job and more about how much the character fits that role's most aggravating stereotypes. This doesn't take into account the questions that don't match the provided answers, the answers that are tantamount to confessions of treason, completely innocuous answers that are still considered confessions of treason... or the instructions to the Game Master to "lose" one of the players' test papers.

    Video Games 
  • Perhaps halfway through Bioshock Infinite, Booker is abruptly roped into a job interview with Jeremiah Fink, who treats him as if he's applied for the job of security chief and came to Finkton for that very reason; turns out Fink was evaluating Booker for the role ever since the incident at the raffle, testing him without his knowledge. The final stage of this exam really takes the cake, however: rather than testing the "applicant" on his ability to manage men, deal with labor disputes or assess threats to the company, Fink just has Booker participate in a fight to the death against three other applicants and their henchmen — wasting god only knows how many valuable resources in the process. In this case, there's no valuable hidden purpose to the whole thing — Fink is just a gibbering lunatic.
  • In Control, Jesse Faden has no idea she's even being considered for employment when she arrives at the Federal Bureau of Control in the hopes of uncovering its secrets, much less that she's being evaluated for the post of director. It's not until she finds the previous director dead in his office and is ordered to pick up the murder weapon that she's finally notified of her application... but not before she's unceremoniously flung into the Astral Plane for the test. For good measure, she's belatedly warned that failing the test will result in the "murder weapon" fatally shooting her in the head. It's later revealed that she's been considered for the role for many years, having been kept monitored by Bureau agents ever since the Ordinary incident; however, her brother took priority, having been kidnapped and unwillingly groomed for the role before her.
  • Fallout 3 kicks off adult life for inhabitants of Vault 101 by presenting them with the G.O.A.T. test, an exam that should decide the entrant's place in the society of the Vault. In practice, the questions are quite bizarre, often end up with examinees in jobs that seem quite contrary to the specialties they've selected, and the final "question" is a flat-out statement of devotion to the Vault's Overseer. Still, it establishes your skills for the game, so it's not completely worthless.
    • The sequel, Fallout 4 features a settlement by the name of Covenant, that has a test identical to the GOAT called the SAFE Test for entry. The purpose is to filter out Synths created by the Institute. A side quest reveals that Covenant isnít as it seems, with the whole place being designed to identify and capture synths for interrogation in a near by compound. The one who is responsible admits that the SAFE test isnít perfect as the only way to know for sure that a person is or isnít a synth is the presence of an implant in their brain, meaning that many innocent wastelanders may have met their unfortunate end here.
  • Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail has a "registration" of more than a hundred questions, many of which pertain to llamas and women's underwear. It's also a Chekhov's Gun for the Bridge scene, with your answers taking the place of the Bridgekeeper's "these questions three."
  • Joining one of the Big Three requires varying degrees of this in The Secret World. Sometimes there's something akin to a test involved, but mostly there's just a series of hoops to jump through. The incomprehensible aspect appears partly due to the outwardly nonsensical nature of the whole thing but mostly because none of the faction representatives explain what's expected of you up until it's too late to leave.
    • Once you've been given the invitation from the Templars, you're required to trespass on a cordoned-off district of London and told to witness one of the Fallen King's sermons; after that, everything's relatively straightforward — you head to Temple Hall, present yourself to Richard Sonnac, and that's it. Essentially, the test here is "follow your orders and don't be an idiot."
    • The Illuminati actually want you to make some intellectual effort in joining up, so after you're given the job offer with a veiled threat, you head to Brooklyn... and then you actually have to find their headquarters. Doing so means interviewing a conspiracy theorist, then following a series of graffiti signs across town, then navigating the maze of sewer tunnels until you finally stumble upon the Illuminati Labyrinth — whereupon you're immediately tasered and hauled off to be implanted with a tracking chip.
    • The Dragon take the cake: you're knocked out and wake up in Seoul with no passport, no money and no way of getting home. From there, you have to follow a flight of butterflies through the pouring rain, then accept a lecture from a history professor, before being dragged into a room at the local hotel and having sex with a mystery woman — the experience sending your mind into the Tokyo incident. It's not until you're out of the hotel that you actually receive the employment pitch, and by then, it's too late to back out. Needless to say, the Dragon are big fans of chaos and confusion.
  • Sunless Skies: The exam to join the Royal Horological Office subverts this: It presents itself as an overlong nightmare with 250 questions that look highly complicated, but quickly become much easier to answer once you figure out the one and only principle you need to know to be a Horological Office member: No matter how many Hours are spent, no matter how differently time flows between locations, no matter how much the very fabric of chronology and reality falls the hell apart on the very spot, London, Albion time is the only time. This is so marked that the officer overseeing your test may watch you answer the first two questions and decide to either pass or fail you right then and there before you've even touched the third.
  • In Ultima VII, the Avatar has the option to join the Fellowship, "going undercover" to learn more about the organization. The entrance test to join the Fellowship is cruelly rigged to make anyone who takes it come off as a miserable wretch who desperately needs the Fellowship's guidance. This is a deliberate parody of the similar test that opens later Ultima games, but while the normal test has no wrong answers and reflects the Avatar's philosophy perfectly, the Fellowship's test has no right answers and has nothing to do with the Fellowship's teachings.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Hustle Cat, when Avery applies to work at the cat cafe, Graves interviews them by giving a series of ridiculous questions such as 'If you were a genre of music, what would you be?' Avery is understandably nonplussed, but answers as seriously as they're able to, and ultimately is allowed to join.

    Real Life 
  • One urban legend tells the story of a job applicant who enters a seemingly empty building and notices all the lights are on during the day time. He irritably switches them off as he climbs the floors to the Interview Room. When he enters, the interviewer tells him he got the job because of his attention to the small details.
  • Tests that feel like this are one of the greatest problems in (and with) standardized testing. Questions that are meant to test reading comprehension, in particular, may include unspoken assumptions from the test writer's background. Those assumptions may be dated (assuming students know the difference between AM and FM radio), localized (assuming milk is sold in cardboard cartons in every country), parochial (assuming everyone knows the religious significance of Good Friday), or normative (assuming that a person with a wife must be male). The end result is students from differing backgrounds being unable to answer the questions despite having the reading comprehension skills expected. This led to things such as the Chitling Test which attempted to point it out.
  • Certain teachers like to begin the first day of class with a test whose first line is "Read everything before doing anything." This instruction is then followed by a list of twenty to thirty numbered tasks, such as circling random words, making drawings in the margin, doing odd things with the paper, or standing up and reciting something. The bottom then reads something like "Ignore all previous instructions, write the name at the top of the paper, and stop." Theoretically, this is a test of following instructions, but most published versions are phrased incorrectly and don't work. The real purpose of the exam is to humiliate the first person to get it wrong, hence one of the instructions usually involving reading something aloud.
  • Many tech companies such as Microsoft tested applicants with lateral-thinking puzzles during job interviews (now derided as "interview 2.0"), such as the infamous "three lights in a box" problem. These questions are intended to help expose the applicant's logical thinking and problem-solving approach, but more often it comes down to whether you can derive the specific answer the interviewer is looking for (or already know it from another source) by using certain unspoken assumptions.
    • Averted in the late 2010's, where many tech companies switched to coding assessments commonly known as "Leetcode"note  in developer communities. Those assessments not only test the applicant's thought process (if done live) but also their coding competency, particularly data structures and algorithms.
  • Trainee astronauts are often given rapid-fire series of incomprehensible or useless tasks to carry out, often with an intentionally-tight time limit, and with complicated restrictions about the manner in which the tasks are to be fulfilled (e.g. "Place a red ball between every four green or two yellow ones, using only your left hand for green and only your right for yellow"). The purpose of such drills is to demonstrate how meticulously and consistently the trainees can carry out detailed instructions under high-stakes, time-sensitive circumstances.
  • Jim Crow Era literacy exams that were designed to disqualify the newly enfranchised African-Americans and immigrants from voting were intentionally worded to have multiple possible "correct" answers, in other words, no matter what you say, it will be marked as wrong.


Video Example(s):


The Service Weapon

Jesse Faden finds herself unexpectedly participating in a test of her worthiness to become the new Director of the Federal Bureau of Control - by being nudged into picking up the ex-director's Service Weapon and plunged into the Astral Plane, with the warning that failing will result in the weapon blowing her head off.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (6 votes)

Example of:

Main / IncomprehensibleEntranceExam

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