How To Nail An Informational Interview (Questions Included)

By Jeff Gillis

Every good job seeker knows the value of research when it comes to preparing for job interviews.

From looking up company websites to reading corporate articles and keeping on top of industry trends and news, it pays to stay up-to-date on everything.

Of course, nothing beats networking for insider information and connecting with the right people within your desired industry is a quick and easy way to make sure you’re in the loop.

Now, what if we told you there was a way to combine and supercharge your research and networking in such a way that it could potentially streamline your entire job search and ultimately help you land that interview you’ve been dreaming about?

Seriously? Wait…is it legal?

Does it involve muffin baskets?

I’m a pretty decent baker…I guess I could make a muffin basket. Or cookies…I bet it involves cookies. Mmm. I like cookies.

No, it doesn’t involve cookies or even muffin baskets…and yes, it’s 100% legal.

Okay, what do I have to do?

You’re going to ask your contact for an informational interview.

An informational interview? What’s that?

I’m so glad you asked…

What is an Informational Interview?

Let’s start out with explaining what an informational interview is…

At its most basic, an informational interview is an opportunity for a potential job seeker to gather more information about a specific job, field, industry, or company through conversations with someone who has that information.

Unlike a traditional interview where the end goal is to secure a job, an information interview is one in which you are primarily gathering, well, information. (Have we said the word information enough times in this paragraph yet?)

Hang on. Let me see if I’m understanding this correctly. You want me to sit down with someone and talk to them about what they do?

Exactly.

And I’m not asking them for a job?

Not directly.

So it’s just a conversation?

Yes…and no.

So it’s more than a conversation?

Absolutely.

I’m so confused!

We understand, but let us tell you, a well done informational interview can actually be one of the most powerful networking tools in your entire job-seeking arsenal.

How you ask? Easy.

Because you’re the one in charge of the questions, you’ll have the opportunity to learn exactly what it takes to get the job you want. Not only that but you’re also building a relationship with your contact and giving them an opportunity to get to know you better, allowing them to assess how you’d fit within their corporate culture.

To strip it down even further and get to the true nitty-gritty, you want to absolutely impress the heck out of whoever you’re doing your informational interview with while simultaneously getting all the insider information you possibly can on how to secure the job you want so the next time a job opening rolls around, yours is the very first name that pops into their head when it comes time to start pulling together potential interview candidates.

Of course, simply conducting an informational interview isn’t a guaranteed instant in, you have to make sure you’re not only interviewing the right person but that you’re also asking the right questions.

Luckily for you, we’re here to help you make sure you’re doing everything right!

So let’s get started.

How To Secure an Informational Interview

The first thing you want to do is figure out who to talk to and that means making lists.

Start by compiling a list of the companies you’d like to work for as well as job titles you’re interested in.

Next, make a list of the people you know (or know of) that work either at those companies or in those jobs. Of course, if you can find people who fill both criteria, focus on them as they’ll be the most help to you. (Check out these networking tips).

Be realistic with your lists and the people you decide to interview. Wanting to shoot for the CEO or President might seem like a bold move, but at the same time, those individuals are incredibly busy and might not be able to meet with you…or even want to.

Once you have your list, you’ll need to determine how you are going to reach out to them and that means determining if they are a direct connection or an indirect referral.

With a direct connection, you’re reaching out directly to that individual and asking for the interview yourself. Direct connections can include personal knowledge beforehand (as in a friend or an acquaintance) or someone you’ve connected with via email, a cold call or through social networking.

When asking a direct contact for an informational interview, make sure you make it clear that you’re not looking for a job (even though you really are.). If you come across as too pushy or your request comes off sounding like you’re simply angling for an interview in disguise, there’s a good chance your potential interviewee will say no or just shuffle you off to HR.

Instead, make sure you let your interviewee know you’re asking for their help. Most people will respond much more positively if they feel you’re genuinely looking for their assistance and want to learn from them.

It also never hurts to add in a bit of genuine flattery when asking for an interview.

Are you impressed with their career path?

Are they doing what you’ve always dreamed of doing?

Do you see them as a true expert you would love to emulate someday?

Let them know exactly why you’re reaching out to them and why you feel their knowledge will help guide your own career path. The more personal you can make the request, the easier it will be for most people to say yes to you.

An indirect referral is one to which you are connected to your informational interviewee by a common acquaintance and is usually done as a favor. In this case, the introduction will generally be made by your common contact.

Avoid These Mistakes

Regardless of how the interview comes about, you want to make sure you avoid these five common informational interview mistakes.

1. DON’T CONFUSE AN INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEW WITH A JOB INTERVIEW…

Even though we’ve said several times that the ultimate goal of an informational interview is to secure a job interview, that’s a step down the road. A great informational interview can quickly go sour if the person you’re interviewing feels you’ve misrepresented your intentions.

Remember, your goal is to impress them so much they want to bring you back for an interview.

2. BUT AT THE SAME TIME…DON’T BE VAGUE

Let your interviewee know what your ultimate goal is with the interview. Be honest and upfront with your ultimate career desires (“I’d really like to hear how you got into competitive macramé and how I can apply what you learned to my own career”).

Being vague and too subtle will only come across as disingenuous and will ultimately make your interview a miserable mess (“So yeah, I just want to talk about, you know…yarn and stuff.”)

3. DON’T TAKE THEIR TIME FOR GRANTED

Often informational interviews are conducted during working hours which means whoever you’re interviewing is taking time out of their schedule to meet with you. Make sure you understand and respect that.

Allow the interviewee to guide how long the meeting will last but expect on average to get only around 30 minutes of time. If they tell you they have only 10 minutes, make sure to prepare your questions ahead of time to allow for that limit.

4. DON’T COME UNPREPARED

Come up with your questions ahead of time and do your research before you sit down with your interviewee. Having everything prepped ahead of time will not only ensure that you’re maximizing your time together, but it will show your interviewee that you’re professional and respect their time as well.

5. DON’T FORGET TO FOLLOW UP

Make sure you follow up with a personal thank you note letting them know how much you appreciated both their time and knowledge. If they gave you advice or suggestions, let them know how you’re implementing their advice or following up with their suggestions.

A thank you note is also a great way to make sure you stay fresh in their mind should a potential opening come up. We actually have an entire other blog article dedicated to thank you notes which you can read by clicking here.

Top 5 Informational Interview Tips

Of course, now that you know what not to do, let’s talk about what you should do!

1. BE PROFESSIONAL

Treat your informational interviews just like you’d treat a regular interview. That means dressing appropriately, showing up on time, and being respectful of your interviewee.

Even though you’re the one asking the questions, ultimately they’re the ones who are looking at you as a potential future hire. That means make sure you’re also up to date on all your normal pre-interview research on the company and/or the job you’re ultimately interested in.

2. HAVE A GOAL IN MIND BEFORE YOU START YOUR INTERVIEW

Sitting down with an expert in your target field for an informal conversation might sound like a lot of fun, but this isn’t a cocktail party and you’re not just making small talk.

If you don’t have an ultimate goal in mind when you sit down with your interviewee, it’ll be hard for them to figure out how to help you achieve that goal.

Your main goal should be three parts: to leave a lasting impression in the mind of the interviewee, to obtain as much information as you can, and to position yourself as a person that the company can circle back to when an opportunity opens up.

3. BE FLEXIBLE

As we’ve said, the informational interview is also an opportunity for your interviewee to get to know you. Be prepared to answer their questions as well.

JEFF'S TIP: This means that it is in your best interest to prepare some quality answers to some traditional job interview questions. It is completely possible that the person giving you the informational interview will be interested in you and decide (on the spot) to dig a little deeper into your experience, skills and abilities. And in this case, this will usually be by asking you some classic interview questions. Don't worry, we have a great article for you to use as part of your preparation, "Top 10 Job Interview Questions (...And How to Answer Them."

4. ASK FOR ADDITIONAL CONTACTS

Because this is an informational interview, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask your interviewee if they have any suggestions or recommendations for other individuals you could talk to as well.

Not only will you grow your network, but with each additional informational interview you conduct, you increase your knowledge of the industry and your odds of landing your target job.

5. RECIPROCATE THE GENEROSITY

At the end of the interview, make sure to thank your interviewee for their time and also let them know that you would like to extend your own help to them should they ever need it.

By doing this you’re not only letting them know how much you appreciate their time and knowledge, you’re making the entire meeting less about how they can help you and more about mutual assistance…and make them more likely to want to continue to help you in the future.

10 Great Informational Questions You Can Ask

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that you need to prepare a diverse list of questions to ask in an informational interview.

Knowing this, we’ve put together a list of to great questions that you can add to your list:

1. How did you get your start and how did that lead you to where you are today?

2. What is it like working here? Can you tell me about a typical day for you?

3. Were you formally trained for this position?

4. What is your next career step?

5. What are the challenges you’ve faced in your position?

6. What interested you the most about this job?

7. What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now about your career?

8. Is this something you’ve always wanted to do?

9. What do you like the most about working for this company and why?

10. What’s the best advice you would give to someone who wanted to do what you’re doing?

 

For more questions you can ask in your informational interview, check out our article Top 14 Questions to Ask in an Interview.

One quick note though. Those questions are primarily for a traditional job interview, so be make sure that the questions you choose make sense for an informational interview.

What To Do After Your Informational Interview

Your interview is done…and it was great! You got a ton of information and advice as well as a list of other individuals your interviewee thought might be able to help you out.

Now what?

First thing’s first…send your thank you note!

Immediately fire off a short and sweet thank you email letting them know how much you appreciated them taking the time to meet with you.

Follow this up with a longer, hand written letter highlighting several moments from your meeting. Be sure to specifically reference any advice or suggestions they gave you and let them know how you plan to follow through with that information.

It’s also a good idea to continue to follow up periodically with them and let them know how your career is progressing and how their advice and knowledge has helped and or guided you. The more personal you can make your connection, the more invested in your success they will become.

Just be careful not to overdo it.

If they gave you a list of additional individuals, make sure you contact them and let them know how you are connected. Continue to branch out and network through more informational interviews.

Putting It All Together

Remember, even though this is an informational interview, just like every other tool in your job seeking toolbox, it requires proper preparation to truly succeed. Although an informational interview is not technically a job interview, preparing for it as though it were one can help bring you that much closer to your target job.

As a student of the Interview Guys, doing your research ahead of time, making sure to prepare thoughtful, intelligent questions, and ensuring that you’re presenting yourself at all times as a true professional should be second nature.

By taking that same professionalism into your informational interviews you’re supercharging your way to the top of the pile of potential job candidates…and your target dream job.

Good luck!

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