10 Ways to Prepare For a Phone Interview

10 Ways to Prepare For a Phone Interview

by Kerry Scott on 23 November 2009


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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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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Agent Friday November 23, 2009 at 8:48 am

In addition to not smoking – no eating, drinking, or chewing gum. It’s okay to have a glass of water nearby in case your throat gets dry, but only sip from it if absolutely necessary.
.-= Agent Friday´s last blog ..Santa Claus Is Coming To Town =-.

class factotum November 23, 2009 at 10:00 am

Did you go to the potty? I know you said you don’t need to go, but I think you should go, honey.
.-= class factotum´s last blog ..Marriage 201, Lecture 35: Save Big Money at Menard’s =-.

Dan November 23, 2009 at 12:22 pm

I haven’t had a land line in a couple of years. Are you sure that advice is up-to-date?

(Although, if you’re on the job market, and you only have a cell phone, and you don’t have the unlimited minutes plan, it may be worth getting a land line for a couple of months. Interviewers almost always call you, so you should be able to get the bare minimum plan.)

Kerry Sandberg Scott November 23, 2009 at 1:17 pm

You don’t need to have one yourself, but you at least need access to one. Some people won’t interview you via cell phone (either because their hearing isn’t great or because they’re tired of having to deal with dropped calls, cutting in and out, people who try to talk and drive at the same time, etc.)

Some people are fine with it, but you need an alternative in order to talk to the others.

abdpbt November 23, 2009 at 1:47 pm

My landline sounds crappier than my cell phone sometimes. But I agree, you’ve got to have a landline — the problem with cells is really that they allow you to take the call anywhere and therefore end up being noisy because you don’t feel tied down. Also, there are some cell phones that just capture noise differently — my husband’s blackberry did that, it would capture all the outside noises at extreme volumes and then I could not hear anything he was saying.

Not that I’m hiring anyone.

But still, I hardly think this advice is out of date!
.-= abdpbt´s last blog ..34 Rejected Acronyms For Oprah Winfrey’s New Cable TV Network =-.

Kingsley Tagbo, IT Career Coach November 23, 2009 at 4:37 pm

It also helps to smile even though the interviewer can’t see you. Handle the interview as though the interviewer was sitting across the table from you.

Lynda November 24, 2009 at 4:46 am

And sitting up straight helps you and your voice.

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