Job-Search Tips: How to Nail a Phone Interview

With nearly five candidates (on average) applying for each available job opening–and with hundreds applying for some positions–many human resource departments and recruiters are using telephone interviews much more extensively to narrow down job-applicant pools. These tips will help keep you in the running.

No more softball!
Until recently, telephone interviews were mainly used to verify your basic qualifications before the “real” interview. So if the position required an MBA and you thought you could sneak in with your good looks and your associate’s degree, the phone interview would be as far as you got. People who met the basic requirements would then field a few softball questions. Preparation for these phone interviews consisted of spitting out your gum before answering.

Today, however, the person on the phone might not be some appointment-setting flunky–you could be speaking to an actual decision-maker. Expect to be grilled.

Before the interview
1. Create a cheat sheet. Keep your resume in front of you, as well as a list of key achievements in previous jobs. Write down the answers to commonly asked interview questions. You know the drill: What are your greatest strengths? What are your career goals? And so on.


2. Research the company. Yes, you didn’t have to do this for phone interviews in the past, but now you do. Think of it as an early opportunity to show your stuff.

3. Take the interview seriously. One hiring manager told the Wall Street Journal that interviewees have put her on hold while taking calls from other people, allowed the interview to be interrupted by screaming children, or had the TV blaring in the background. One applicant on a cell phone actually ordered from a drive-through window during the phone interview!

4. Create the right atmosphere. Treat a phone interview like an important meeting with someone who can change your life–because it just might be. You wouldn’t go to an important meeting in your pajamas, so dress neatly and attractively for your phone call. Sit up straight (you may even prefer to stand) because it makes your voice resonate more effectively. If you plan to use a cell phone, have a friend call you for a practice run to make sure the connection is good. And be alone for your interview. You wouldn’t go to a professional meeting with your mommy by your side or a puppy in your lap, would you?

5. Finally, make sure your outgoing voicemail message sounds professional. (And if you don’t know exactly when the interviewer will call, refrain from answering your phone with “Duuuuude!” during the window of possibility.)

During the interview
1. Be nice. You may speak with the company president. You may speak with a switchboard operator. No matter what, be professional and polite (because the switchboard operator talks to everyone).

2. Remember that the other person can’t see you. If you need to stop speaking in order to write something down, don’t just leave the interviewer with a bunch of dead air. Say something like “Please excuse me while I write that down.”

3. Don’t jump the gun. “So, Mr. Jones, where did you go to s–” “I have a bachelor’s degree in communications and an online MBA.” “As I was saying, where did you go to ski when you lived in Vermont?” Oops. Don’t interrupt the interviewer. It’s rude, and it makes your rehearsed answers sound a bit too rehearsed.

4. Don’t drone on. Some people panic and feel a frantic need to fill up every pause in a conversation–especially when they can’t see the other party. Don’t do this. Drawn-out explanations make it look like you’re either hiding something or trying to exaggerate your qualifications.

6. Ask questions. The phone interview is an opportunity for you to learn about the company and get a better idea of exactly what the hiring manager wants to see. For example, if career training in specific software is required, ask how the program is used. Then if you get an in-person interview, you’ll be able to highlight your proficiency with the software and your ability to use it as required.

Closing the deal
Just as you would when completing an in-person interview, tell the interviewer what you want. At the end of a phone interview, make it clear that you are enthused about the position and that you would like to go further in the process. Be sure to send a prompt “thank you” that also recaps your qualifications and emphasizes your interest in the job. With any luck, you’ll emerge with an appointment for an in-person interview.

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