To ace your coding interview for a software engineering job, you’ll need to understand sorting. It is the basis for a lot of other algorithms and makes it possible to solve a lot of problems quickly, from CPU optimization to searching and getting data.
We’ll look at 54 sorting questions below and give you links to good answers to each one.
Sorting algorithms are a critical topic that commonly comes up during programming interviews. As a candidate, having a solid grasp of sorting algorithms, their runtime complexities, tradeoffs, and implementation details will better prepare you to tackle sorting problems and demonstrate your technical skills.
In this comprehensive guide, we will provide an overview of key sorting algorithms and equip you with targeted preparation strategies to ace sorting interview questions.
Why Sorting Algorithms Matter for Interviews
The significance of sorting algorithms stems from the following reasons

Sorting is an essential task in computer science and comes up frequently in realworld applications Interviewers use sorting problems to assess your problemsolving abilities

There are many distinct sorting algorithms, each with different time and space complexities. Understanding the nuances shows deeper knowledge.

Implementing sorting algorithms demonstrates proficiency in data structures, algorithms, and programming.

Optimizing sorting performance requires analyzing tradeoffs. This aligns with an interviewer’s goal of evaluating analytical thinking.
Common Sorting Algorithms to Know
Here are some of the most important sorting algorithms to review:

Insertion Sort: Simple sorting algorithm that builds the final sorted array one element at a time. Efficient for small data sets. Time Complexity: O(n^2)

Selection Sort: Repeatedly selects the minimum element and swaps it into the correct position. Inefficient on large arrays. Time Complexity: O(n^2)

Bubble Sort: Compares adjacent elements and swaps them if in wrong order. Very simple but extremely inefficient. Time Complexity: O(n^2)

Merge Sort: Divideandconquer algorithm. Recursively splits input, sorts subarrays, and merges sorted subarrays. Time Complexity: O(n log n)

Quick Sort: Divideandconquer algorithm. Chooses a pivot element, partitions the array, and recursively sorts the subarrays. Time Complexity: O(n log n) average, O(n^2) worst case.

Heap Sort: Converts array into max heap, repeatedly extracts max element from heap and places at end of array. Time Complexity: O(n log n)

Counting Sort: Counts number of objects having distinct key values. Then does prefix sum to get positions of each key value. Time Complexity: O(n+k) where k is range of key values

Radix Sort: Sorts data with integer keys by grouping keys by individual digits. Time Complexity: O(nk) where k is number of digits*
This list covers the most essential sorting algorithms. Make sure to know the key traits, runtimes, and how each algorithm works at a high level.
Common Sorting Interview Questions
Here are some of the most frequently asked sorting algorithm questions in interviews:

Compare and contrast sorting algorithms. Explain the critical attributes and tradeoffs of key sorting algorithms. Analyze their time complexities.

Implement a specific sorting algorithm. Candidates may be asked to code out a full sorting algorithm like merge sort. Be prepared to write clean, wellorganized code.

Optimize a sorting algorithm. Interviewers may provide a sorting algorithm code snippet and ask you to optimize it. Identify inefficiencies and improve the algorithm.

Sorting algorithm puzzles. You may be given an array of numbers and tasked with sorting it under special constraints or optimizations.

Realworld sorting problems. Questions may involve sorting scenarios encountered in the real world. Ex: Sorting player standings in a leaderboard.

Analysis of best/worst case. Give the bestcase and worstcase time complexities for key sorting algorithms and describe what causes them.

Stability. Explain what stability means for sorting algorithms and why it matters. Identify stable vs unstable sorts.
Prepare explanations for the sorting algorithms you know, practice implementing them cleanly, analyze their efficiencies, and review sorting algorithm puzzles. These steps will help you tackle the most common types of sorting interview questions.
Tips for Answering Sorting Interview Questions
Here are some tips to ace sorting algorithm questions:

Explain your approach – When tackling a sorting problem, describe your highlevel approach before coding. This demonstrates strategic thinking.

Start with simple examples – Use small or simplified input samples to illustrate your sorting algorithm’s logic and build up from there.

Analyze out loud – Verbalize your analysis of time/space complexity and optimality when discussing sorting algorithms. This gives insights into your analytical skills.

Use optimal data structures – Choose appropriate data structures like heaps or balanced BSTs when needed for efficient sorting.

Space/time tradeoffs – If implementing a sorting algorithm, discuss potential optimizations like using extra space to improve time complexity.

Test thoroughly – Walk through examples to verify your sorting algorithm handles all cases like duplicates, stability, worstcase etc.

Use visuals – Draw diagrams or visualizations when discussing sorting algorithms to improve communication.
Mastering these strategies will help you convey an accurate, thorough understanding of sorting algorithms during an interview.
Sorting Algorithm Practice Resources
Some helpful resources to practice with sorting algorithms are:

LeetCode – Has many categorized sorting problems of varying difficulties.

InterviewCake – Includes sorting algorithm practice questions with detailed explanations.

GeeksforGeeks – Contains an extensive set of coding problems for sorting algorithms.

CodeSignal – Good source for practicing implementing sorting algorithms within time constraints.

Algorithms textbooks – Review sorting chapters and implement sorts in your chosen programming language.
The more practice you get implementing, analyzing, and solving sorting problems, the better prepared you will be to address sorting algorithm questions during interviews.
Sorting algorithms form a fundamental part of computer science that is very likely to be covered in coding interviews. Mastering the major sorting algorithms, analyzing their efficiencies, and practicing solving sorting problems will help instill confidence when confronted with sorting interview questions.
1 Related algorithms and techniques
The information on the above cheat sheet is a summary of what you might need to know for an interview. However, it’s usually not enough to just memorize it. Instead, aim to understand each result so that you can give the answer in context.
There are time complexity and space complexity columns on the cheat sheet. These columns show how much time and memory are needed for sorting. Sorting is related to several data structures, which are also included in the cheat sheet.
Read our full guide to bigO notation and complexity analysis to learn more about how much time and space different algorithms need.
Insertion sort has two nested loops, which makes it take O(n^2) time. In the best case, only the inner while loop can end early if the list is already sorted, which makes it take O(n) time.
In the worst case, Quicksort might pick the item that is the smallest or largest as a pivot every time it runs. This will cause each recursion to operate on i – 1 items for n recursion times. In the end this gives a O(n^2) worst time complexity. In the best case, the list is split perfectly, so no items need to be moved. This has a recursive depth of log_2(n), and each level will process n items, giving it an O(n log_2 n) complexity. The average complexity is also O(n log_2 n).
Mergesort does a perfect division on each recursive call to give a total of log_2(n) recursive calls. For each recursive call, a total of n items need to be moved to the merged list when two sublists are merged. This gives the time complexity O(n log_2 n). These exact steps happen for the worst, average, and best case.
Heapsort builds the heap and keeps it in order with the heapify function. The heapify function loops through the list like a tree, going from parent to child to give log_2(n) loops. Building the heap runs a loop for n/2 times, calling heapify each time. And the sorting runs n times, also calling heapify each time. This gives a total time complexity of O(n log_2 n) for the worst, average, and best case.
Counting sort goes through the array three times: once to create the accumulated array, once to move each item to its correct spot in the temporary array, and once to move the items from the temporary array to the sorted array. The accumulated array has k items, where k is the highest value in the original array. This adds up to 3n operations. To turn the counts into an accumulation, there is one loop that goes over the accumulated array k times. This gives a total time complexity of O(n + k) in the worst, average, and best case.
Insertion sort reuses the original array for a space complexity of O(1). However, insertion sort has a bad swapping performance since swaps happen inside a nested loop. In the best case, this means that the swap takes only one second, but in the worst case, it takes two times as long.
Quicksort also reuses the original array for O(1) space complexity, but it also includes many swaps. In the worst case, if the list is sorted backwards, the pivot could be the largest item each time, which would lead to n – 1 recursions. It will take i swaps, or O(n^2) swaps in total, to move the pivot, which is the largest item on the list. For every log_2(n) recursion, the best case picks a perfect pivot. This means that n swaps happen on each recursion, for a total of O(n log_2 n) swaps. The average case is also O(n log_2 n) swaps.
There is a temporary array for each merge operation in mergesort. The merge operations happen one layer at a time, with n items in each layer. This gives mergesort a space complexity of O(n). In terms of swaps, mergesort has log_2(n) recursions with n swaps on each recursion. So there are O(n log_2 n) swaps in the worst, average, and best case.
Heapsort reuses the original array for a space complexity of O(1). Heapsort will call heapify n/2 times to build the heap and then n times to sort the list by worst, average, and best case. If everything goes well, the list might already be in order, so no swaps are needed when the heap is being built. However, log_2(n) swaps will be needed when the list is being sorted. The list will need log_2(n) swaps during the build process and another log_2(n) swaps during the sort process in the worst case. In total, the number of swaps needed are O(n log_2 n) in the worst, average, and best case.
For counting sort, you need a temporary array with n items and an accumulated array with k items. The kth item in the accumulated array is the array’s highest value. This gives a total space complexity of O(n + k). Each item is moved directly to its correct spot in the temporary array and then back to the original array. In the worst, average, and best cases, this amounts to O(n) swaps.
While the “sort” function from the C STL doesn’t require a specific sorting algorithm, it does need an algorithm that works faster than O(n log n). This requirement isn’t met by the worst case of Quicksort, but there is a function in C called “qsort” that does meet it. “qsort” is in the standard C library.
Timsort was specifically created by Tim Peters to be the sorting algorithm for Python in 2002. Calling “sort” since Python 2. 3 uses Timsort. Java also used a variant of Timsort when sorting objects since Java 7.
Medium sorting interview questions
Here are some moderatelevel questions that are often asked in a video call or onsite interview. You should be prepared to write code or sketch out the solutions on a whiteboard if asked.
Top 7 Algorithms for Coding Interviews Explained SIMPLY
FAQ
Is sorting asked in an interview?
What are the 3 basic sorting categories?
What is sorting in programming?
Do you need a sorting algorithm in a coding interview?
In coding interviews, you may not often be asked to implement a sorting algorithm from scratch, but understanding the principles behind these algorithms can lead to an efficient solution. Moreover, sorting algorithms are often used as subroutines in other algorithms, such as searching algorithms that require a sorted list as input.
What is a sorting algorithm in a tech interview?
These algorithms, which include Bubble Sort, Merge Sort, Quick Sort, and others, vary in their implementation details, efficiency, and use cases. In a tech interview, understanding Sorting Algorithms demonstrates a candidate’s grasp of algorithmic complexity, time and space tradeoffs, recursion, and practical data structure manipulation.
How do you answer sorting interview questions?
In a sorting interview, you are given a string s and an integer k (Question 1). You can choose one of the first k letters of s and append it at the end of the string (Question 1). Return the lexicographically smallest string you could have after applying the mentioned step any number of moves (Question 1). Given an array nums (Question 2), sort the array in ascending order.
Why is sorting important in programming?
Sorting is often useful for canonicalising data and for producing humanreadable output. Follow along and check 21 most commonly asked Sorting Algorithms Interview Questions and Answers that experienced developers must know before their next programming interview.