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Tips on Interviewing: What You Need to Know About The Informational Interview

Most career searches begin with a casual conversation known as an informational interview. These may be with people who already know us well, or with others with whom we have made a connection through personal networking.

In any case, it's a golden opportunity to try out your interview skills and to do important career research on industry sectors and the job market.

How an Informational Interview is Different from a Job Interview

As the name suggests, this sort of interview differs significantly from interviews where an applicant is being considered for employment. As mentioned above, your goal is to answer important questions related to your career transition and job search. These may focus on a range of topics from industry trends, the workplace impact of new technologies, or predictions for hiring or downsizing. In short, they can include anything and everything of mutual interest to both parties, sticking to business, of course.

The informational interview is an ideal setting for such a conversation. First of all, the atmosphere is more relaxed than in a job interview, and consequently, the conversation can be less structured and more divergent. This gives you the chance to explore topics you might not have thought of going in. You might even uncover new, unexpected areas of opportunity. More on this in a moment.

To some extent the range of topics is also affected by the context. In a large corporation, you may want to discuss the challenges faced by senior management in leading large, complex organizations. In a small business, you might want to explore the impact of legislation or globalization, how "big box" stores force change on Main Street, or entrepreneurial wizardry, always a favorite topic among small business owners.

The "Stealth" Job Interview

There is also a way in which an informational interview is very much like a job interview, and, in fact, may turn into a job interview. It all depends--critically--on how you conduct yourself.

Put yourself on the other side of the table for a moment. Imagine that a likable individual has asked for thirty minutes of your time for an informational interview. During the course of the conversation, you find yourself highly impressed with this person's capabilities and the value of his or her experience. Let's also say that you happen to know of an opening, either within your own company or elsewhere.

Would you exclude this person from consideration simply because this was supposed to be an informational interview? Of course not. Why let the opportunity go by? Why turn this high potential candidate loose for the competition to pick up?

Defining Your Explicit and "Covert" Objectives

When you prepare yourself for your next informational interview, keep these dynamics in mind. But be careful; it's one thing to be observant and open to possibility, it's a very different thing to "bait and switch." Keep your objectives in order: first of all, you are there to learn and make connections. If something else comes up, so much the better.

How to Obtain an Informational Interview

Your best lead sources for interviews are almost always going to be close to home. Before you go any farther afield, make sure you've worked your personal network, community-based organizations in your area, and local business.

Your Personal Network

You probably have, right now, a dozen personal acquaintances who know people who would be happy to talk with you. Start off by making a list of these acquaintances, then approach each one and ask for their help. You're going to be surprised how easy this is once you get started. Generally, people like to be helpful, and there is a tendency for them to feel flattered when approached in the right way. Of course, you will need to give your contacts some direction about the kind of individual you are hoping to meet. Be as specific as you can. For example, if you are interested in human resources, ask if they know anyone in HR or who leads a company with an HR department. Or if you want to go into consulting, find out if they have ever used consultants themselves, or know of anyone who has, or if there any consultants in their Rotary Club, or Chamber of Commerce, or neighborhood association. Give your prompting strategy some thought beforehand. We all know how hard it is to remember anything when we're put on the spot. It's always much easier when someone suggests something that helps us make connections.

Community-Based Organizations

There are also organizations in your community that can help, whether or not you have a personal connection to them. The Chamber of Commerce is a good place to start. The career offices at local colleges can match up candidates with professionals who are willing to spend some time sharing their experience. Because many schools have a strong ethic of community service, enrollment as a student is not always required.

Local Businesses

Also, make phone calls to small businesses in the area and ask if the owner or an experienced employee could spend some time with you. Make it clear that you are only requesting a limited amount of their time, and if they agree be careful to stay within the time limit.Remember, companies are always looking for great employees. In the final analysis, this isn't about being altruistic; it's a matter of survival. If you have talent and can help them stay ahead of the competition, they're going to want to meet you. The informational interview is an excellent way to start beating a path to their door.


The Internet is an obvious place to start your research. Study company websites carefully to learn as much as you can about a their industry, the challenges it faces, its products and services and the people at the top.

Look through the many lists of interview questions available on the web, and pick out those that may be useful. Don't ask obvious questions, of course. On the contrary, you should have a basic command of the issues even for an informational interview. Salary ranges and standard job descriptions, for example, are easily found on industry or federal, state, and local government websites. Visit company websites for specific, detailed information about each one.

The more you know going in, the more you are likely to impress.

Pace Yourself

Break up your online research sessions with phone calls to friends and other people who can assist you. Remember to visit the reference section of your local libraries. Reference librarians are familiar with sources of information unknown to most job seekers. Review current periodicals, newspapers and magazines, and learn to use the electronic repositories that contain periodicals from all over the country.

Only when the research is done should you compile your final list of questions, and the toughest questions, the ones your have been unable to answer despite your best efforts, will very likely be the most important and impressive of all. Your success in isolating these issues demonstrates how thoroughly you have done your homework. Many people have been hired and placed in training programs simply on the strength of their preparedness at an informational interview.

Now You're Ready

Find out what the dress code is, take along your list of questions, and get ready to impress. Yes, it's an informational interview, but remember, you can never afford to miss an opportunity to sell yourself and your abilities. This conversation may be a step along the way or it could be your next big break.

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