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How to Ace the Informational Interview

22 Feb

With all the clamor about how networking is the way to find your next job, how traditional job boards are dead, how the place to be is the “hidden job market” (how hidden can it be, when everyone with a URL and a dream seems to know about it?), we’re seeing a substantial shift in the way interviews are being granted by companies. Your first meeting is becoming less about a specific job and more about an “informational” interview. Now I’m not talking about that lunch you set up with your sister-in-law’s cousin Fred in accounting – I mean a meeting with either a member of the management team or an HR/Recruitment team: someone who will be directly involved with any hiring decisions that are made.

The strategy for a job-specific interview is simple. Be ready and prepared to explain how you are the most perfectly qualified for the job based on the description and your knowledge of the company. When it comes to an informational interview, however, you don’t have as many tools in your arsenal. Therefore your preparation work is even more vital.

When I call someone in for an informational interview it’s usually for one of two reasons. Either:

  1.  I have multiple open positions with similar qualifications that the candidate might fit into, or
  2. There isn’t anything appropriate open at the moment, but I anticipate a need down the road for someone with the candidate’s particular skill set and background.

In either case, I’m looking to not only make sure that what I perceive on paper is confirmed in person but also to figure out if there is an intangible culture fit, which you can’t get from a resume. I’m not necessarily judging against a job description and qualifications, but against an idea of what I think the ideal candidate would be.

So the job of the informational interview candidate is to establish a connection, be specific in laying out the value s/he would add to the organization, but be vague enough to not disqualify him/herself from any potential opportunities. Not necessarily an easy job. If you’re called in for an informational interview by a company you’re interested in potentially working for, there are a couple of easy steps you can take that will help your cause.

Before the interview, do the same research you’d do for any job interview. Visit the company’s website and do an exhaustive internet search to make sure you’re not missing any information, positive or negative, that you should have on hand. In addition, look at any and all job postings the company has put out recently to see what kinds of positions it’s looking to fill. Google searches and aggregators like Indeed.com are great for this kind of search, because they can contain out-dated listings and give you insight into jobs that have recently been filled.

Next, make a list down the left side of a piece of paper of the company’s stated goals and endeavors from its website or press releases, and add the job responsibilities from any current or past job descriptions that are appropriate for you. On the right side of that paper, opposite the appropriate list entry, write down the skills and experiences you possess that match each goal or requisite. You probably won’t have a match for every left-side entry, but you’ll be left with a pretty good list of why you’re good for the company. Now memorize it – it doesn’t look good to read from your notes when talking about yourself.

Now pretend you’re preparing for any other interview: Know where you’re going, dress appropriately, show up 10 minutes early.

During the interview, you’ll probably be able to get the information you need to make the rest of your case, while starting to think about whether this is the right opportunity/company for you. Don’t be afraid to ask for the answers you seek. There’s nothing wrong with, at some point during the conversation, asking your interviewer what it was about your resume or background that made him/her call you in. There’s nothing shameful about asking about the kind of role your interviewer can envision you playing in the company. Hopefully you’ll be able to glean this information during the course of the interview and not wait until the very end. If you wait too long, you won’t have time to work this new-found knowledge into your talking points to make sure the interviewer knows s/he was right to call you in.

Usually at the end of the conversation, one of three things will happen.

  1. The interviewer will tell you about a specific position that’s open (cue “hidden job market” theme music) and ask you if you’d be interested in such a position
  2. The interviewer will tell you that there’s nothing immediately available that’s right for you, but there will likely be some opportunities coming up in the near future and that s/he would love to keep in touch.
  3. “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”

Regardless of which one you get, ask for an appropriate time frame when your interviewer might have more information (if you haven’t already agreed on next steps). If it’s 1 or 2, you’ve gotten what you’ve come for – and so has your interviewer. You’ve found a potential match in either a current or future position.

If it’s #3, it wasn’t the right place for you anyway.

Either way, you’ve just had a successful informational interview. Congratulations, and keep up the good work!

Questions or comments about this topic or any other? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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4 Responses to “How to Ace the Informational Interview”

  1. Heather Li February 22, 2011 at 4:43 pm #

    The happened to me unwittingly. I met with an editor to discuss his side project, a small magazine about food — meanwhile his full-time job was editorial director at a custom publisher.

    He took an interest in me as an all-around journalist and No. 1 was happening for the custom publisher without me even realizing.

    It was a pleasant surprise that sometimes being yourself and passionate about your industry is sometimes enough preparation for the informational interview.

    • HR Dave February 22, 2011 at 4:48 pm #

      Thanks for the comment, Heather! Informational interviews are happening all around – at coffee shops, at parties, at networking events. They’re not always formal and they’re not always expected. If you’re true to yourself and your professional mission you’ll usually be in good shape.

  2. Eesha, January 7, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    Well, I’m a temp at a company and I am interested in full-time opportunities with this firm. I’m thinking about meeting the hiring manager just for some ‘advice’ and review my experiences and resume, is there anything other that what you’ve mentioned in the article that I should talk him about?

    • HR Dave January 14, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

      You’re actually in a uniquely fantastic position to conduct an informational interview. Since you’re already in the company (albeit in a temp capacity) you’ve had the chance to see first-hand what goes on and how things work. I’d prep by listing out the things you like about the company itself, as well as some examples of specific positions that you might want to grow into – either in the short or long term. Then when you speak with the manager you’ll be able to come across like you know what you’re talking about and know where you want to go professionally. These are very good traits to bring into that first meeting. Good luck!

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