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Informational Interview Tips – A guide to the Interview Before the Interview

Informational Interview Tips – A guide to the Interview Before the Interview

An informational or exploratory interview is often the first step toward landing your dream job.

You just found out that Uncle Stu got you an interview with the #1 company on your employer wish list. Then, you read a little further into the email. Exploratory interview? What is there to explore? I want an interview for a position!

Well, an exploratory or informational interview is often a necessary first step in landing your dream job. This type of interview is a way to expand your network of professional contacts, gain information about a position, company or industry (beyond what’s available publicly), and determine whether a chosen career path is right for you. Plus, it’s always helpful to gain more interviewing experience.

For the employer, exploratory interviews provide the opportunity to learn about job candidates’ skills and experiences, recruit strong, proactive applicants, and offer interested job seekers a look into the culture and hiring environment of the company. It’s also a way for the company, specifically the person you meet with, to get to know you, and how you would benefit the company if hired.

While they may not be hiring at the time of your interview, some companies want to create a pool of candidates to choose from once a position needs to be filled. Exploratory interviews allow you to make a great impression on your interviewer, face-to-face. That way, when that dream position opens up, you’ll be the first candidate they contact to interview for the job.

Landing an Informational or Exploratory Interview

Be proactive and identify a list of companies that you’d like to learn more about. The easiest way to set up an informational interview is through someone you know.  Network with friends, family, former co-workers, clients and employers, and anyone who can connect you with a person at a company where you would like to interview. Even if your contact at the company works outside your desired department, you can learn a lot about the company culture and perhaps get introduced to other contacts within the firm.

If a contact refers you to someone at a target company, the best way to approach is via email. Send a brief note that explains who referred you, describes your interest in learning more about the company or career path, and outlines your request for a 30-minute informational interview at their convenience.

Make it as easy as possible for the person to say yes, but don’t be offended if you don’t receive a reply right away. People get busy. It’s okay to follow up if there is no response after a week or so. It sometimes helps to offer up a few days/times when you are available. It’s best to meet in person if you can, but if your new contact can only make time for a phone interview, happily accept the invitation.

If you can’t find an in through your network, you can also try contacting the Human Resources department (by email or phone) and ask to set up an informational interview. Express your interest in learning more about the company, a specific department or position, and what you hope to gain from the interview.

Clearly communicating your interest and purpose is the likeliest way to land an in-person meeting with an HR person. Again, you may need to follow up. Many Human Resources representatives hear from hundreds of potential candidates each day.

Preparing for Your Informational Interview

Explore the company’s website, especially the Careers section, to learn more about current openings. Visit the Press section to read recent press releases and articles that mention the company. Review any information available about the company’s products and services. You should also research industry trends by browsing industry websites, blogs and competitor web sites.

Although this is not an official job interview, you should prepare talking points to concisely communicate your background,  your strengths, and why you are interested in the company and career path.  If things go extremely well, your informational interview could very well morph into a real job interview, so be prepared to present yourself in the best possible light.

Expect the interviewer to ask:

  • What kind of experience do you have in the field?
  • What former job responsibilities would allow you to succeed in this industry?
  • Why do you want to work at this company?
  • What are your short and long-term professional goals?
  • How do you plan to achieve those goals?

In addition, write down some questions you have for the interviewer, and be sure to ask:

  • What are the day-to-day responsibilities of an employee working in this position or department?
  • What are the most satisfying and least satisfying aspects of working at this company?
  • What is the typical path of professional development in this field, and at this company?
  • What is one job skill, trait or experience missing from my resume that would make me a better candidate for a position here?
  • What is the company’s hiring outlook for positions in this department?

Acing the Informational Interview

As with any interview, be presentable, on time, and well-dressed. Bring extra copies of your resume and a pen and paper to take notes.

Your goals are to make a great impression on your new contact and to learn as much as you can. Ask about the company, but also listen carefully to any career advice offered.

This may be your opportunity to get some honest feedback about your qualifications and where you may be able to improve your odds of landing a job (through a more polished resume or additional experience or training). After all, you rarely get truly honest feedback after a real job interview.

Remember, you are NOT applying for a specific position when participating in an informational interview, so don’t repeatedly ask about available positions or applying for a job now. This will only make your interviewer uncomfortable and less likely to keep you in mind for future opportunities.

However, if the interviewer doesn’t, you should conclude the interview by asking the best way to stay in contact, in order to communicate about applying for positions in the future.

Follow Up and Thank You

Be sure to follow up with the interviewer directly (by email within 24 hours and/or promptly by hand-written letter). Thank the interviewer for taking the time to meet with you and for the opportunity to learn more about the industry and the company. Ask any additional questions you may have.

Also, ask to be kept in mind if a position becomes available that aligns with your skills and experience. Communicate that you would be interested in applying when the time comes.

Staying Connected

Continue to periodically check the company’s site for new openings. When you find a position that looks like a good fit, reach out to your informational interviewer and politely ask for advice on the best way to apply. If you made a positive impression, your new contact may be willing to forward your information directly to the hiring decision-makers, improving your chances of getting a call.

Remain vigilant and proactive in seeking job opportunities at the company. Do not rely on the interviewer to come to you. Hirers will be more impressed if you initiate the conversation regarding an open position.

In sum, if you find out that your big interview is not for a specific position, but an exploratory or informational interview, don’t be too disappointed. An informational interview is a great chance to get your foot in the door, or at least become known by someone at the company.

So take it seriously, as you would any interview, and use the opportunity to explore and learn as much as you can.

Gaining employment is a process, and an exploratory interview may be your first step.

Main Photo Credit: -sel

Pamela Skillings
Pamela is the co-founder of BigInterview and an expert interview coach on a mission to help job seekers get their dream jobs. As an HR authority, she also provides consulting services to companies wishing to streamline their hiring process.

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