What is an Informational Interview?

An informational interview is exactly what it sounds like. You are “interviewing” someone for information that you want. As opposed to a traditional job interview, during an informational interview the job seeker or current student is the one doing the interviewing. Informational interviews  traditionally occur between a professional  in a career field that the interviewer is interested in. For instance, an advertising student  interested in landing a job in an advertising agency would set up an informational interview with an owner of a small agency,  asking them questions regarding the industry, their specific company, what the owner does day to day, and how that student could best prepare for going entering that job market.

Why do informational interviews?

Informational interviews are valuable for a number of reasons:

  • You can gain valuable insights from professionals  currently in the position that you aspire towards. What better way to get where you want to go then to pick the brains of those that have already reached that point?
  • You’ll be able to work on your interviewing skills in  a low-pressure situation.  One-on-one  situations with high-up or even lower-level professionals can be intimidating at first. Since you won’t have the pressure of trying to land a job, you’ll naturally be more comfortable and relaxed while engaging in a (hopefully) intelligent conversation with a professional. This comfort level will really translate when you start getting actual interviews.
  • A good interview happens when the job seeker is asking most of the questions. Many of the questions asked in an informational interview can be utilized in a real interview. You might as well practice when you have nothing to lose.
  • You’ll get the chance to do some real life networking. If you press a little bit, you will likely get several names of other professionals that would be willing to do an informational interview with as well.
  • You can set yourself up for a job down the road. There is nothing wrong with doing an informational interview at a place that you aspire to work – in fact it’s greatly encouraged. If you come across well, you will have a huge upper hand when a job does become available. 

Is it hard to get an informational interview?

Believe it or not, high-up professionals are usually very willing to spend a half hour to an hour with a curious job seeker such as yourself.  Engaged professionals in the real world often love to talk about what they do, and who better to spread that knowledge to than someone who is eager to learn? They will also get a sense of satisfaction from helping out a fellow human being. This may sound ridiculous, but for the most part people do like to actually help each other out from time to time.

How do I set up an informational interview and where do they take place?

Find a company that you want to learn more about, and if possible find a specific person within that company and contact them directly via email. Don’t be afraid to contact someone with an intimidating job title. Let them know you are interested in learning more about themselves and their company, and that you would love to have a chat with them over coffee. If you cant get a hold of a specific person, contact the HR department and they will most likely be happy to help you out. It’s not an odd request; the HR department will have set up dozens of these before.

Locations will usually be the office of who you are interviewing, a coffee shop or even lunch somewhere.  While it is standard for you to offer to pay for coffee or lunch, don’t be surprised if your interviewee picks up the tab. This has happened to me on a number of occasions and, well, free lunch is awesome.

What questions should I ask during the actual interview?

First and foremost, you should prepare what types of questions you want to ask before you conduct your informational interview. Not unlike a regular interview, you want to come off as intelligent and interested. Obviously, this latter quality should be a foregone conclusion, or why would you be doing an informational interview in the first place? If you really don’t know what to ask, stick do general questions such as these:

  • What does your company do? (You should probably know what the organization does beforehand, but you can use these questions to lead to sub-questions about the company, such as their customer base, company policy, how many employees there are, and so on.)
  • What types of specific tasks do you do on a day-to-day basis?
  • I’m new in the job market. What would you recommend for someone like me to do to get into your industry?
  • Can you give me some tips on the best way to apply for jobs and conduct (actual) interviews?

Also, if you are talking with someone that does a lot of hiring, you can ask them to look over your resume and cover letter and get advice about possible changes.

Your interviewee will likely talk about many of these things without your prodding, especially if it’s someone who works at a company where they give informational interviews regularly.

Are there questions you should not ask? Of course. Use your common sense and discretion. Don’t ask the person you are interviewing how much money they make. However, it is acceptable to ask how much an entry level person going into their industry and career track would be expected to make. Don’t ask them for a job. You can, however, ask how someone such as yourself might best go about applying for positions in their company. There are always ways to get an answer to a question that you shouldn’t ask, simply by asking a different question.

After the Interview

It’s good practice to send a thank you note or email to the person you interviewed. If possible, do this the next day while the interview is still fresh in your mind, and be sure to mention a couple things that you talked about. This will convey the fact that you were present and attentive. You should also check in with the person you interviewed from time to time in the coming weeks and months. Just as they helped you by giving you an interview, they may also help you by giving you advice afterward. By staying in contact with them will also increase your odds of being considered for a job in their company in the future.

 

Four things that you should get out of an informational interview

  1. Information. I hope that this answer immediately came to your mind. You will want to come out of the interview with knowledge, advice, and insights that you didn’t have before about the industry or company you would like to work with. This will help you both in the short and long run, giving you an edge over those lacking these insider tips from an industry or company insider. If you asked your interviewee to review your resume and cover letter or received other advice related to you applying and getting a job, then you are yet another step ahead of those that have not received that valuable advice from a real working professional
  2. Interview practice. As I touched upon earlier, you can use these situations to practice your interview skills. One of the best interview strategies is to practice becoming the interviewer and asking a lot of questions. That is exactly what you are doing in an informational interview. Become fluid at asking intelligent questions and I guarantee you will fare much better in interviews. Again, depending on who you are interviewing, you may be intimidated some. You will overcome this after a view informational interviews while gaining confidence for when you do interview for an actual position.
  3. Contacts. This is a very important part of the informational interview. Try to get three or so names from your interviewee of other professionals that he or she thinks would be of help to you. As you can imagine, doing this several times will provide a huge list of industry contacts that will know you by face and name if you do this successfully. This means huge bonus points if you come across as intelligent and capable in all of these interviews.
  4. Get a job. Like I mentioned before, you don’t want to ask the interviewee for a job. They know this is what you are looking for, and why you asked to interview them. If you come across well, you will stick in these peoples’ minds as potential candidates later down the road. This is why you want to do as many informational interviews as possible. You have an advantage over other candidates who have not taken the time to conduct an informational interview, without actually doing an interview. You may not get a job that day, that week, or that month from your interviewee or the company they work for, but if you remain in contact and show interest, you will likely be considered as a candidate when a job does turn up.

When should I start setting up informational interviews?

If you are still in college, a good rule of thumb is to start conducting informational interviews as much as one year prior to graduating. This way, you will have time to make a lot of contacts and learn about the profession you are trying to get into. If you have done well enough, you may even have a job waiting for you when you graduate.

If you have already graduated and are on the job market, start doing them now!  If you are having trouble getting actual interviews, this will also help to put you a positive state of mind; conducting informational interviews will give you the knowledge that, despite whatever roadblocks you encounter, you are still working towards your goal of obtaining gainful employment.