This post originally appeared on April 6, 2009.
Companies are receiving a huge number of resumes for most openings these days. Many have also cut their recruiting staff significantly. As a result, they’re struggling to keep up with the deluge of candidates for open positions. One way companies quickly screen a large volume of candidates is to conduct phone interviews. This allows them to talk to more people who look reasonably qualified, while screening out the freaks. Since you’re not a freak (because all of my readers are fabulous), this is a good thing for you and the company. More people screened means that the odds are greater that you’ll be one of the people who at least gets a chance to talk to a human and show off your fabulosity.
For some people (especially those who haven’t looked for a job for a while) phone interviews are new thing, and they can be a little intimidating. Here are some survival tips:
- Find out how long the interview should take. When the recruiter sets up the interview, she should tell you how long it will take. If she doesn’t, ask. That will allow you to plan (obviously), but it’ll also give you some sense as to how deep the questions are going to be. If it’s 20 minutes, they really ARE just making sure you’re not a freak, gathering some very basic information, and getting the deal-breaker stuff out of the way. If it’s an hour, then you should treat it like a regular interview (more on that next week).
- Make sure it’s quiet. This is a tough one for me. I’m home with a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old, and the only way to make them simultaneously quiet would involve duct tape. I’m pretty sure that’s a no-no. I try to schedule phone calls for naptime, and I keep some really fantastic art project ready in case the oldest wakes up. It goes without saying that you should turn off the TV, the radio, the ringer on the cellphone if it’s nearby, etc.
- Use a real phone. If I had a dollar for every candidate who’s hung up on me by using a cellphone that dropped the call, my Clue Wagon would be a Clue Porsche. It’s also harder for some people to hear on a cellphone, and this is one occasion where you want to be heard as clearly as possible. If you MUST use a cellphone, make sure there’s no wind blowing (that’s really noisy on the other end), and don’t ever conduct a phone interview while driving. It makes it look like you don’t care enough about the job to even pull over (not to mention the whole safety thing, on which I could rant all day).
- Disable the call waiting. If the interviewer is calling you, and the call waiting beeps, don’t even THINK of answering it. You’re in a job interview, and you don’t interrupt a job interview to take a more important call.
- Have a copy of your resume in front of you. It’s awkward when the interviewer refers to something on your resume, and you can’t remember exactly what it said. If you applied from a job posting, have a copy of that in front of you as well.
- Change your clothes. I actually think this is a little goofy, but I know otherwise smart people who swear that their job interviews are more successful when they dress up for them. If it works for you, great. Another technique some people use is to do the interview in front of a mirror, to ensure they’re smiling and professional and so forth. My mirror is in the bathroom, so I’d be a little concerned about the echo-y sound, but whatever floats your boat is fine. The goal is to project a polished, professional, confident image, and you should use whatever tools allow you to do that.
- Don’t smoke. When you smoke on the phone, your breathing sounds funny. It’s weird. It also make you seem very nervous. Wait until it’s over.
- Pace yourself. For some reason, shy candidates seem to clam up even more in phone interviews, and chatty candidates seem to run on even longer. I think the lack of visual cues really throws people off as to whether to talk more or less. If you’re giving an answer that’s only a few words (unless that’s clearly what the question requires), beef it up. If you’re talking for 11 minutes straight, you need to be way more succinct (seriously, I had this guy whose shortest answer was ELEVEN MINUTES). For most open-ended interview-type questions (the type that start with, “Tell me about a time…”) 2-4 minutes is a good target.
- Prepare some questions of your own. The depth of your questions should be proportional to the length of the interview. For a 20 minute screen, just a couple of questions should do it, unless they’ve been really cryptic about the job or something. If you’ve spent an hour on the phone, they should spend some time answering more questions for you. Keep in mind that the screener is usually an HR person, not the hiring manager, so you’ll want to save your deepest and best questions for the person who is actually doing the hiring. Your last question should always be about what’s going to happen next: What’s the next step in this process? When should I expect to hear back? When should I follow up if I haven’t heard anything? You’ll be glad you asked these things during the long wait after the call ends.
- Relax. It’s just a phone screen. This is hard to remember when you really, really need a job. Phone screens are just that, though: screens. Truly, they’re just making sure you’re not a freak, a jerk, or completely unaware of what the job entails. Don’t get overly excited, and don’t put too much stock into it. Consider it a good practice run for your next real interview.
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