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You’ve researched jobs you’d be interested in, you’ve taken advantage of every networking opportunity, and now you have a contact at a company where you dream of working someday.
You know you can’t and shouldn’t expect them to hand you a job now that they’ve met you, but you also can’t just hold onto a business card forever, hoping to hear from their company’s recruiter.
Take action to form a stronger connection with your contact by asking them if you could conduct an informational interview.
In this article, you’ll learn what this is and how to conduct one.
An informational interview is a casual meeting where you talk with someone about what it’s truly like to work in a position, company, or industry you’re interested in.
Even though it’s called an interview, this meeting is really more like a conversation. It’s a chance for you to understand what comes with an occupation you’d like to have and what it takes to get there.
Most experienced professionals are happy to give you this insight and advice as long as that’s truly what you’re there for and you aren’t expecting any favors or a job offer.
Whether you’re a college student still trying to decide on a career path or an experienced professional looking for a change, an informational interview might give you the insight you need to make the decisions that will help you reach your goals.
It can also result in a contact on the inside who has a good impression of you, which is also incredibly valuable in case any job openings do come down the pike, even if you just ask for advice on how to make your application shine.
Since you’re going to be the one initiating and running the interview, it’s important to be prepared.
Here are some steps to take to make sure your informational interview is a success:
Do Your Research. It’s important to make the most of your interview by looking up as much information as you can beforehand. This will not only give you a point of reference that will help you converse with your contact more easily, but it will also help you ask relevant and helpful questions.
Do a Google search on the industry to find out who its major companies and individuals are. Look up the particular organization your subject works for, and check out their LinkedIn profile, as well as any articles about them that you can find.
This research will allow you to make the most of your time with them and show that you are serious about your goals.
Prepare a list of questions. No journalist or professional interviewer goes into a meeting without at least some idea about the questions they want to ask, and neither should you. Even if you prefer a more casual approach, having questions to ask will help you direct the conversation and give you something to talk about if it lags.
Create a list of open-ended questions (questions that require more than one statement to answer), and keep a pen handy to jot down notes to follow up on as you’re listening.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the difficulties of working for the company or industry as well as the good parts, and feel free to ask what they’d recommend you do to make yourself more marketable to similar companies.
Practice your elevator pitch. While it’s always a good idea to share a little about yourself and your goals, your interviewee doesn’t want to listen to you drone on for ten minutes.
Instead, perfect a brief introduction about yourself and your career goals to give some context to the interview. This can often help your interviewee know a little more about what kind of information you’re looking for.
Respect your contact’s time. When you schedule the interview, be sure to set an ending time and then stick to it. If you’re in the middle of a conversation when time is up, pause and say something like, “I am enjoying this conversation and would like to continue it, but I want to respect your time. If you need to return to work, I understand.”
When you’re scheduling the interview, asking for 20-30 minutes is reasonable. Work around their schedule instead of telling them when works best for you.
On the day of the interview, make sure you arrive on time or a few minutes early.
Send a thank you note. Be intentional about expressing your gratitude by following up with a thank you note. Send it that day, if possible.
You don’t need to be long-winded in your card, but look for a way to add a personal touch and show that you were paying attention and got something valuable from your conversation.
Sending a thank you note is not only courteous, but it also makes you more memorable and solidifies your good impression.
This shouldn’t be the only time you share your appreciation, though. Make sure you start and end your interview by thanking them for meeting with you.
Here are some examples of common questions that you can add to your list, as well as some insight into what types of answers you’ll likely get.
Will you tell me a little about your career path? What attracted you to it, and what led you to your current position?
This is a great question to help get the conversation rolling. It allows you to get to know the person you’re meeting a little better and see what you have in common. Plus, you might find out details such as what certifications you need. For example:
“I’ve always been interested in helping people and in science, which is what led me to nursing to begin with. After working as an RN in a hospital for a few years, I realized that I wanted to be able to serve underprivileged communities, so I became a nurse practitioner, and now I run my own clinic.”
What does your typical work day look like?
This is another great question to ask early on in the interview, since it also gives you a better foundational knowledge of what the person actually does. Their answer can also give you some good followup questions to ask.
For example, if you get an answer like this, you might follow up with a question about what kinds of records they keep:
“Every day is different for me, but it typically involves a lot of reading and responding to emails, answering employee questions, and keeping records for the department.”
What do you enjoy most about your work? What is most rewarding?
If the answer to this question isn’t something that you would enjoy or find fulfilling, don’t bail just yet. This is a question that is pretty specific to the individual, so make sure you ask a few others before you decide if your passions align with this industry.
“I’ve always enjoyed a good puzzle, so balancing accounts is very satisfying for me. I also love that I get to do that for a company that works to improve people’s lives.”
In this example, you might not relate to loving puzzles, but you might enjoy helping people, which could be a consideration in choosing which company you want to work for.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in this role?
This question is starting to dig down into the nitty gritty. It’s also a very important one to ask so that you know what you’d be getting into if you follow in this person’s footsteps.
This might take some drilling down to get the information you want, though. If they answer with something too specific, such as, “working with Mary in accounting,” ask again but this time about their career or the industry. You want an answer like this:
“It can be difficult to both maintain ethical practices and work to further your company in this industry, because the lines are easily blurred.”
What surprised you the most about your current role?
This is a great question to ask, because it gives you a clearer picture of what a role or industry actually looks like. You might get answers ranging from, “I was surprised about how much desk work I have to do,” to “I didn’t know how much I would need to rely on my networking skills to be successful in this position.”
What do you wish you would’ve known about this industry before you began your career?
While it sounds similar to the previous question, this one is intended to be broader than than the individual position, so reword it if you need to clarify your intent. You can even ask what they would tell someone who is just starting out in the industry.
Here is one example of an answer to this question, but you might also get more technical answers, which can be just as helpful:
“I wish I would’ve known to take advantage of every professional development opportunity possible. They not only help you improve at your job, but showing that you’re always learning can help you be more seriously considered for promotions and raises.”
Where do you see yourself in five years?
While it sounds like a typical job interview question and may seem a little out of place in an informational interview, this question can actually give you quite a bit of insight into whether you want to pursue this path or not.
If the person you’re talking to says, “I see myself in a managerial role,” and you would’ve answered, “I see myself designing new products,” it’s a good sign that you might not want to emulate every step this person has taken.
This doesn’t mean that they can’t give you good advice, though, and that you shouldn’t follow the general principles they share with you. It just means that you need to be aware that your goals are different, and that you should also talk to someone whose goals are more similar to yours.
What skills and experience would make someone successful in this industry?
This question is important to ask since it will hopefully outline some steps you can take to prepare for the career that you are pursuing.
“Successful people in this industry have both design and marketing skills and know how to combine them.”
If you get an answer like this, this is a good opportunity to follow up with some more questions about why that is and how most people get their skills.
What previous professional experiences have helped you in this role?
People generally enjoy telling stories about themselves and appreciate being asked questions like this because they know the answer. Hearing their story might spark new ideas or inspiration for you, too.
If they say something like, “My summer working for a landscaping company gave me some good perspective on what it’s like to actually work on the projects that I now design and manage,” you don’t necessarily have to go out and get a landscaping job (although you might want to if you’re trying to end up in a similar position), but you might consider how you could list some similar experiences on your resume.
How should someone prepare for entering a role like yours?
Make sure you carefully word this question so it’s clear you aren’t trying to come after anyone’s job. Most people will understand that you’re asking for advice, though, and will probably speak to you directly. For example, they might say,
“You should take classes in finance and learn how to communicate well. Being able to connect with people is half the battle.”
This is helpful, but you should follow up by asking if they have any classes or resources to recommend (if you aren’t already in college taking those courses) or how they developed those skills themselves.
Do you have any recommendations for other people I should talk to or resources to look into?
This is a great question to wrap up the interview with. If you want, mention at the beginning of the meeting that you are trying to talk to multiple people. This way they can be thinking through who else you should talk to throughout the conversation.
You should also ask what publications or websites you should be reading to keep up to date with the industry.
Would it be alright if I kept in contact with you?
If you ask this question, make sure you do actually keep in contact. This could be through LinkedIn or with questions you have for them as you search for a job and continue through your career path. If the relationship continues, you might eventually ask if they would mentor you, which is the ideal result of an informational interview.
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