Mastering the Art of the Informational Interview

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Finding a job in this economy can be tough. Competition is fierce, and even if you have the skills, it can be a challenge to make yourself known to the right people. To gain an edge over other applicants, Michael Hampton, Director of Career Development and Services at Linfield College, recommends that job-seekers master the art of the informational interview.

An informational interview isn’t the same as a job interview; it’s an opportunity to learn more about a career or company. “The informational interview is designed to help you choose or refine a career path,” says Hampton. “You can learn how to break in and find out if you have what it takes to succeed.”

The first step to conducting an informational interview is to find people with jobs that look intriguing. Next, prepare a list of questions to be sure you get the info you need when you contact these folks. If you’re nervous, says Hampton, approach the interview as if you were a reporter: Pretend you’re gathering facts for a news story.

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Here are some additional tips:

  • Ask politely. If the subject agrees to an interview, set a time and date. If she declines, respect her boundaries.
  • Be prepared. Dress appropriately. Be punctual. Do your homework about the company or field. Be ready ask intelligent, relevant questions.
  • Listen. Ask open-ended questions, and then let the subject talk about herself and the company. Good questions include “What’s your typical workday like?” and “How is your company different from its competitors?”
  • Take notes. You’re conducting this interview to gain insight into a possible career, so write down anything that seems important. Ask follow-up questions.
  • Be brief. Keep track of time. Don’t rush the interview, but don’t overstay your welcome.

Hampton says the cardinal rule of informational interviews is simple: Don’t ask for a job. If you tell somebody you’re only gathering information but then turn the meeting into a job interview, you’re just going to make her cranky. (If the interview subject thinks you’re a promising candidate and she has a position available, she’ll contact you.)

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After the interview, remember to send an e-mail or a brief hand-written note to thank the person for taking time out of her day to meet with you.

Although the primary rule of the informational interview is to never ask for a job, Hampton says there’s one exception. “If you discover a job that you want to apply for, wait. The day after the interview, call the employer and tell your contact that the informational interview not only confirmed your interest in the field, but made you aware of a position that you would like to formally apply for.”

Informational interviews aren’t just for job seekers. You can use them to locate mentors or to pick the brains of experts on a favorite subject. While preparing to write my book, for instance, I interviewed half a dozen authors about their experience with the publishing process.

The best part about the informational interview? Few people use them. Add this weapon to your arsenal, and you’ll have an advantage on everyone else who’s out there looking for a job.