Monday, November 12, 2007

Preparing for a Phone Interview

Though I'm still having a hard time believing it myself, I'm finally a college senior, which means that I'm less than nine months from being unemployed if I don't get my act together and find a job. It's a scary but also exciting position to be in, and this month I've begun sending out applications, networking with alums and old co-workers and spending endless hours tweaking details of my resume.

A few days ago I got a callback for my first real job interview, which will occur on the phone in a couple of weeks. I've had phone interviews before, and while they always went fine, I tend to prefer an in-person interview. It's always difficult to get a full picture of what the other person thinks of you when you don't have the benefit of physical cues, and I always feel so disconnected when I can't look someone in the eye when I talk to them for the first time.

But there are benefits to having a phone interview as well. You can sit in the comfort of your own room, in your normal clothes, and most importantly, you can use a cheat sheet to get you through the interview. You can also write down information during the interview (I always try to write down the interviewer's name, so I can thank her by name at the end and then send a thank you note to her office after the interview's over).

I am a huge fan of the phone interview cheat sheet, as it's the best weapon against those moments where you just lose your train of thought, which can often make or break the interview.


To make a cheat sheet, I first come up with a list of all the probable questions I'll be asked. There are generic questions that are asked in just about every interview such as, "Why do you Want this position?," "What makes you qualified for this position?," and "Why do you want to work for our company?" I'll formulate full answers to these questions in my head or practice saying them out loud and then I'll write down a few words or phrases to jog my memory when I'm in the actual interview. Since interviewers love specific answers, I try to make sure that I don't have a generic "I think your company is really cool" responses, and use the word cues to remind myself of really compelling reasons why I want and would be great for the job.

Interviewers often ask situational questions like, "Tell me about a time when you showed leadership.," "Give me an example of a situation where you worked under pressure." or "What do you do when you have to work with people you don't get along with?" These are by far the most difficult questions to answer if you aren't prepared. To prepare for these, I'll list 5-8 different situations that challenged me and but that I overcame through the use of various skills. It's hard to think of these situations, but I try to write down a variety of different experiences working in different jobs, classes or outside organizations. I practice telling the stories, keeping them fairly short and sweet, with the moral of what I learned or how I handled a tough situation, at the core of the story. Writing down these cues really helps when you're racking your brain for a good story during the interview.

Finally, interviewers always ask if you have any questions at the end of the interview. This is a good opportunity to further show your knowledge of the company or their products and services, and I like to write down a few specific questions to ask. To prepare for this, I'll do research on the company by reading everything on their website, searching for news articles about them and if I know someone who has worked in the industry or at the company, asking them what questions they recommend that I ask. This research is really important and can come in useful during the entire interview, as displaying your knowledge of the company shows that you're really serious about the job and want it badly. It can give you an extra edge that separates you from other applicants.

This might sound like a lot of work, but I think that it can make all the difference in the world if you feel confident and prepared when going into an interview. A cheat sheet doesn't have to be a long, formal document, just a list of short phrases to inspire you when you blank on a question. It also can really help to ask a friend to ask you common interview questions, so you can start formulating answers out loud to practice for the real thing. If you're a college student, be sure to take advantage of the resources at your school's career development center. They often can tell you what to expect in your interview, give you more information about the company or industry and help you improve your resume. If your interview is for a job that you really, really want, it only makes sense to do as much as you can to prepare yourself.

Anyone else have tips for surviving a phone interview?

13 comments:

lisa said...

Good tips, Meg! The cheat sheet idea is particularly helpful as long as it's used as a memory aide and not a script; if the interview candidate writes all answers out in full and reads them off the paper, it'll definitely sound scripted over the phone.

I also agree with your suggestion of brainstorming situational stories for some of those tough "talk about a time when you had to..." questions. When I learned how to do interviews via workshops put on by my faculty's co-op program, they taught us the "STAR" method to formulate our answers and keep them concise. STAR stands for situation (contextual details), task (what you had to do or the problem you had to deal with), action (what you did to handle it), and result (what positive thing happened because of what you did).

Sarah said...

The cheat sheet is a great idea-- I wish I'd had that for past phone interviews. Other tips that I've found useful are a bit counter to what you mentioned-- yes, a phone interview allows you to curl up in your favorite chair wearing your favorite sweats-- but you could also wear a suit and stand up during the conversation. It sounds silly, but it works. They can't see you, but you know that you're dressed professionally and you've put in the effort for the interview. Standing also helps you to project better and speak more authoritatively. I've done it for at least the first couple of minutes of an interview-- I find it helps to calm my nerves. I eventually sit down, but in my desk chair with my notes in front of me, and not slouching but sitting up straight the whole time. I think it makes a real difference. Good luck!

kelly said...

One of the best tips I've used is to make a point of smiling when you are talking. Even though they can't see you, it changes the way your voice sounds and the impression that gives. Looking in a mirror while on the phone can help remind you to hold yourself up properly and smile. Sounds hokey but it works.

Raven said...

I sat on the other end of the phone for many interviews in my last position, and my coworkers always loved the candidates who made them laugh. It's impossible to plan that (and may not be appropriate for all positions), but being relaxed and pleasant while still articulate leaves people with a positive feeling -- which is really the point of most interview, since your facts are already available on your resume/CV and cover letter.

I always took pen and paper for notes during in-person interviews as well -- as long as you're not distracted, I think it's totally appropriate.

Anonymous said...

It sounds goofy, but stand up, look in the mirror and smile while doing the interview. It totally changes the way you sound to the other person.

Alison said...

When I was in College and had phone interviews, I always tried to be in front of my computer so that I could google something if I didn't know the answer to. I also kept some accounting/finance textbooks next to me in case they ever asked me any technical questions. Good luck on your interview!

Marie_R said...

Also remember your manners! I did a phone interview with only one person interviewing me. They asked if I could hold for a moment, I was holding in a huge cough so I coughed and cleared my throat. Little did I know that they still had their ear to the phone! If you need to cough, sneeze etc remember to use the mute button.
Good luck with your interview Meg!

Anonymous said...

great tips (and from comments as well)! that's why this blog is so great...not only do you have advice on fashion but also career tips! *2 thumbs up*

Texas said...

Make sure you are in a location where you won't be bothered... where no one will come in and turn on the TV, where your cell phone won't ring, or where sounds of traffic from outside won't make their way in through an open window. There is nothing worse than having to tell a phone interviewer to hang on while you tell your roommate to go in the other room!

Anonymous said...

Hey Meg
I am in a similar position now and its really a really time consuming process. I have been having difficulty coming up with answers for "What is your greatest weakness?" question. There are many tips on what you should say but haven't found them helpful... Say smth that is not related to the job, or say smth that is actually a positive.. all very confusing. So if you have any tips on that...
Thanks,
R

Anonymous said...

OMG. How much more boring can you get- first the gloves, and now phone interviews?- It's like that sex in the city episode where Carrie's life is so dull that she starts writing about her sock drawer "men as socks" - You really need to go out and get laid, then come back and write something interesting!!!

Cate said...

Kelly is 100% correct. Keep a smile on your face the entire time, even if you're faking it!

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous R-- My boss once mentioned that a good idea is to pick something that most everyone has as a weakness, admit to it, but then put a positive spin on it. He always says something like, "Well, I have a tendency to procrastinate. But if I'm given a definite timeline that helps me to stay on top of my work and wrap things up in a timely manner!" No one can really fault you for being a procrastinator-- we all are!-- but they will appreciate your admission of it as well as your search for a solution.