Career Advice

The Best Questions to Ask in an Informational Interview

min read
Mikaela Thompson

It’s a tough business trying to get a job in today’s Covid-19 marketplace. More than ever, you need to make yourself stand out from the mob of applicants. Being sufficiently prepared to sniff out an appropriate new position needs a Herculean, job search-savvy effort on your part. Forget the ‘filling out online applications nonchalantly approach’. It’s time to get real. You need to do much more! Your first port of call should be to do your marketplace research. And, what’s the most effective way to do this, while also increasing your chances of getting that elusive interview and ultimately being hired? Say hello to the informational interview! But what exactly is that?

Simply put, an informational interview is talking to someone who already has the job you want, or think you want. In this case though, you’re asking the questions and the professional is doing the talking. Why do this? To meet three essential goals: to create advocates; to learn insider secrets (to get an edge over your competitors); and to effectively grow your network, (in a fun, painless way). All three are achievable if you take the time to learn how.

Okay, let’s cut to the chase. The truth is you want to create a pool of champions, who will go in to bat for you, inside organisations you want to work in. Those people who will pull for you to get that job, ergo people who like you, and are far more willing to help you. How can you make this happen? The easiest way is to be interested. Yes, it’s that simple, according to Forbes writer and leadership coach, Kristi Hedges.  The worst thing you can do is to talk about yourself. It’s a turn-off to everyone except you. Being interested in your interviewee is interesting to them. Keep in mind, this isn’t a job interview, it’s an exploratory, information gathering meeting.

What informational questions will help me keep the professional talking?

1) Knowing what to ask and why, is the key. Keep the focus on the interviewee. S/he should be talking 95% of the time so keep the interviewee interested by focusing on him/her, e.g., Why did you choose this career? How did you get into this job? What’s it like to work at your company? What current projects are you working on? Etc.

2) Ask questions tailored to the interviewee’s industry and role. Be prepared to customize your questions as it makes sense to do so e.g., Can you tell me how you worked your way to your current position as…?(add in the specific position). This will give you a route to follow to get the job. What are the most vital steps to take to prepare for a role such as yours? (this will provide you with some specific milestones you can set goals to achieve). What achievements do you feel set you apart in this industry? (you might learn how to emulate his/her successes and set yourself apart from the other applicants). 

What questions will give me a leg-up?

1) These are informational questions that will get you hired faster because you’ll know the refinements that other applicants won’t e.g., What do you wish someone had told you before you started this career? What’s the biggest reward of your job? What’s the most notable downside of your job? If you could go back in time, what would you do differently? How will this job change over the next 10 years? Of course, the answers to these may well set you on a different career path, perhaps even one you never knew existed!

2) The questions that you need to ask to multiply your network contacts exponentially and significantly boost your chances of getting hired are: Who else should I talk to about this kind of career? Could you refer me to a couple of other people who could give me tips about this … job (add in the specific position e.g., software designer)?

Right, you know what type of questions to ask, but how do you go about getting, and conducting, an informational interview with a professional? Here’s a few tips:

1) The informational interview is best done after preliminary research of career fields and employers that interest you, using the internet and print sources.

2) Identify people to interview from your contacts, university alumni, LinkedIn etc.

3) Initiate contact. Yes, it’s a bit intimidating to roll up, call up or email a complete stranger cold and ask about their job. However, it’s likely to be the single most important action you can do for your career. Having a prepared script to follow will ease your jitters and fire up your confidence. Let them know who you are, how you got their name and what you’re wanting from them e.g., a convenient time to chat with them for around 20-30 minutes about their job. 

4) Don’t ask questions that you can find the answers to through the usual channels e.g., via company websites and other social media platforms.

5) Dress neatly as you would for any professional interview. Arrive on time or a few minutes early. Show respect by limiting the interview to the agreed timeframe. Remember it’s up to you to direct the interview.

6) When you first introduce yourself to a prospective interviewee, let them know straight off that you’re not a recruiter and you’re not asking for a job. You need to get a foot in the door before it’s slammed shut. Most professionals will be happy to have a break from their routine to answer questions about themselves, so make sure they know this is an informational/explorational interview request from the get-go and that it’s part of your job search research. This will help motivate them to say ‘yes’. They may catch you off guard and suggest now is a good time for them. Make sure you’ve got your list of prepared questions on you, as well as pen and paper! 

7) Have at least 5 to 10 questions ready but also be open to customizing these as you go and ruling out ones which have been covered as the interview progresses. It’s essential to tailor your questions to the target career field of your professional and relevant stage of decision-making.

8) Use active listening skills to make the interviewee feel good and so you will get the most out of your interview. Remember, you’re trying to make insider allies. If s/he is relaxed and apparently liking you, then you may, at least, get to ask a few extra questions, or avoid being cut off short. At most, you may have made an invaluable advocate within your target industry who may send you job leads in the future and expand your network of contacts. 

9) During the interview, take notes to help you retain information, show you’re interested in what’s being said and keep you from talking too much.

10) Don’t whip out your resume too early and risk undermining your own research goals. It may be received better later in the interview for the purposes of getting some pointers from the professional. Be clear on your intent.

11) Keep in touch with the professional, especially if you had a nice conversation with him/her. Better yet, at the end of your interview, ask him/her if you can contact them again in the future with questions.

12) Thank the interviewee for his/her time. A day or two later, send a thank you note including: what you learnt from that interview, how you followed up on their advice and the outcome. Respect shown to your professional won’t be easily forgotten. 

You’re now ready to go forth and conquer!

To further brush up on your interview skills, check out some of our latest tips here!

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