In today’s global and mobile economy, many job seekers regularly apply for positions that are hundreds or thousands of miles away from their current job and home—perhaps even in a different country. Long gone are the days where everybody stays at the same job for 50 years, or even stays in the same city or state for their entire career.
As a result, phone interviews are an incredibly common method that hiring managers and recruiters use to screen applicants and pare down the applicant pool. After all, it’s a lot easier for a hiring manager to pick up the phone in Boston to call someone in Chicago than it is to schedule and make the time for an in-person interview when a phone call can easily tell them all they need to know before crossing that person off the applicant list. One Forbes article estimated that up to half of screening interviews take place over the phone, not in person. This makes sense. Phone interviews do not require as much time and can be conducted outside the company’s normal work hours, which can be helpful for certain job applicants.
Many positions may even require multiple phone interviews before they call you for an in-person interview. Perhaps the hiring manager had a good first impression of you, but they want the person who will be your direct supervisor to talk to you before they commit to flying you in for an in-person interview.
Initial phone interviews used to be a quick way to answer any immediate questions that a potential employer may have had about unclear or missing items on a resume. Now, though, they are more of a formal actual first (and second … or third) interview.
While phone interviews are still generally shorter than in-person interviews, they now are likely to address some of the same types of questions as a more traditional in-person interview. If you’re applying for a management position or c-suite and executive-level positions, you’re even more likely to encounter an in-depth phone interview as part of the hiring process.Instead of being expected to answer quick questions that fill in the blanks of your resume or expand on certain required skills, you can expect to answer more in-depth questions about your experience and why you’re interested in this job. That’s why it’s so important to prepare for a phone interview just as you would for an in-person interview.
A phone interview may not be in-person, but it is still a formal, professional conversation that has a direct impact on your career. And you need to treat it as such.
As with a face-to-face interview, there are two possible outcomes from a phone interview. Either you will advance to another interview (either by phone, via Skype, or face-to-face), or you will be eliminated from consideration for the job.
Handling a Phone Interview: The Absence of Body Language and Nonverbal Cues
Whether we like to admit it or not, so many first impressions are made based on how a job seeker looks. Are they dressed appropriately for the interview and the office setting? Are they smiling or frowning? Are they relaxed and confident and sitting up straight, or are they overly anxious and shrinking into themselves? Do they have a put-together appearance, or do they seem like a disorganized slob? And, unfortunately, judgments about age—even unconsciously—occur during in-person interviews.
During a phone interview, these kinds of judgments and assumptions can’t be based on your appearance, which can actually be an advantage of a phone interview—it focuses on content, not appearance. What matters is what you say and how you say it. Phone interviews can be an advantage for job seekers concerned about age discrimination or being judged by how they look.
However, this means you need to have answers very well-prepared and have your tone of voice and attitude prepared to appropriately convey any relevant information during a phone interview, as you won’t have the benefit of body language to help you show enthusiasm, or to be able to tell if an interviewer wants you to stop talking or keep going. Approximately 70 percent of what we communicate is shared nonverbally through body language. However, in a phone interview, all you have to rely on are verbal cues and context.
One of the most problematic things about a phone interview is that you cannot use the interviewer’s non-verbal cues to judge whether you should continue speaking or not. To compensate for this, it is best to keep your answers brief: allow the interviewer to ask follow-up questions if he or she wants more information.
What to Expect From a Phone Interview
Phone interviews are huge time savers for hiring managers. Some phone interviews are very brief—designed to make an initial introduction, clarify issues on the résumé, or discuss the position. Phone interviews are sometimes called “screening interviews.” That is because they are often used to “weed out” candidates before beginning a round of in-person interviews.
While you may certainly be asked—and you should be prepared for—more in-depth questions, the most common types of information generated from a phone interview are:
• Credential checks — The most common questions asked in phone interviews are those that corroborate facts or information on an application or résumé—or that fill in the blanks for missing information.
• Experience check — If the hiring manager has determined that you meet the requirements of the position, the phone interview may be used to verify your experience (specific questions about position responsibilities and accomplishments).
• Predictive information — the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Behavioral types of questions ask how you handled a challenge in the past, giving the interviewer insight into how you would perform on this job.
Because a phone interview is perceived as less “personal,” you may also be asked “difficult” questions in the phone interview, such as: “Why did you leave your last job?” or “Why are you looking for a new job?” Remember, often one of the primary purposes of a phone interview is its use as a screening tool.
How a Phone Interview Can Benefit the Job Seeker
There are several reasons why a phone interview may work out better for you than an initial in-person interview. First, you don’t have to travel. Traveling can add more anxiety to the already stressful process of going to the interview.
Second, you don’t have to worry about a first impression based on your physical appearance. This is often helpful, especially if you may be worried about age discrimination.
You may also find it easier to ask questions on the phone than at face-to-face interviews. For example, at the beginning of the call, you can ask the interviewer for the correct spelling and pronunciation of their name. At the end of the call, you can ask about the next step in the interview process.
Another advantage to a phone interview is that you can take notes. You can also use the information you have prepared ahead of time more extensively than in a face-to-face interview. However, do not read directly from your notes! Instead, create a cheat sheet with your key accomplishments, have your résumé handy, and prepare a list of questions you want to ask the interviewer. The cheat sheet should contain specific metrics and accomplishments from your career, in detail—the numbers, percentages, and dollar amounts. It would be inappropriate to have these kinds of notes with you at an in-person interview, but it’s perfectly fine to have a cheat sheet front and center during a phone interview.
Phone Interview Preparation
As with an in-person interview, preparation is key. Prepare just as well for a phone interview as you would for an in-person interview. Otherwise, you might not get the opportunity to get a face-to-face interview.
When scheduling a phone interview with a hiring manager, find out:
• The time of the call (and clarify any time zone differences)
• Who is calling whom (and on what phone number)
• How long to expect the call to last
• Any specific preparation required for the call
• Which person(s) will the call be with (name, job title)
On a piece of paper, write down the job title you are applying for, the company name, and key points you want to remember to make.
Create a “talking points” outline. These are key points you want to cover during the interview. This can include:
• Position and industry-specific accomplishments
• Unique assets you possess as an employee
• Information about the company that you learned from your research that ties into your skills, abilities, and qualifications
Anticipate the conversation—think about the questions you might be asked and the key points to include in your answers. Prepare a list of questions to practice for the phone interview.
You should also prepare questions ahead of time that you will ask in the interview.
One of the best ways to prepare for a phone interview is to practice.
It is important to convey your enthusiasm in a phone interview — which can be done through your voice pitch, tone, and volume.
Thinking through where you will conduct an interview is critical. Pick a location that will be free from distracting background noises—kids, pets, phones ringing. Turn off the TV, computer, and/or iPad. Hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door.
Plan your outfit for the interview. It’s always important to dress for an interview — even if it is a phone interview. This can help put you in the right “frame of mind” for your interview.
It can also help to find a photo of your interviewer and look at that while you are on the call. This is a constant reminder that even though you are on the phone, you are talking to a real person who has a real impact on your future career.
Do a “dry run.” Call a friend or family member and have them test the phone connection (volume) and whether there is anything distracting that may affect the call.
The more you prepare for the interview, the better. Review the company’s website. Google your interviewer. Make sure you are thoroughly familiar with the job description or job posting.
Prepare an opening and closing statement in advance. The opening statement might be the answer to “Tell me about yourself.” This should include a 30- to 60-second statement of why you are qualified for the job, based on what you know about the position. The closing statement should include your desire to work for the company, reiterating your interest in the job. But do not read these word-for-word—just have them at the ready for reference.
Tips for Handling an Unscheduled Phone Interview
Not all phone interviews are scheduled in advance. If you get a call from a hiring manager or recruiter and it is not a good time to talk (i.e., you are at work, you are driving, or you are someplace noisy, do not answer the call). Instead, call back as soon as you are able to and feel ready to handle the call. Remember, you only get one chance to make that first impression. It is better to have the call go to voicemail and call the interviewer back than to perform poorly in an interview you are not prepared for.
If the prospective employer calls unannounced and you decide to do the interview right then, ask if you can excuse yourself to a quiet place and call them back in a few minutes. This will also give you time to prepare for the call. Even a five-minute break can allow you to prepare for the interview.
Most hiring managers do not expect you to be available at a moment’s notice. So if you need to schedule the call for the next day, that is generally fine.
Phone Interview Do’s and Don’ts
Here are some basic tips for phone interviews that you may find helpful as you prepare. Some of them may seem obvious, but never take for granted the small things you might forget the day of the phone interview. Maybe you get so caught up in reviewing your resume you forget to use the bathroom before the call!
Make sure there are no distractions or things (people, pets, TV/radio) that will create background noise.
Use a landline if at all possible. If using a cell phone, make sure the phone is charged (or plugged in) and has a strong cell signal in the area you are taking the call. If you are using a cordless phone, make sure the battery is charged.
Hang a “do not disturb” sign on the door. Let anyone who will be nearby know that you will be on a call and should not be interrupted.
Take several deep breaths before the call. And do not forget to breathe during the call. This can help lower your voice pitch.
Go to the bathroom before you get on the call.
Be on time for a phone interview. Ensure you are ready when the scheduled time arrives.
Ask the interviewer at the beginning of the call how long they have scheduled for the interview. This will help you pace yourself.
Acknowledge if you have a strong accent, lisp, or anything that may make it difficult for the interviewer to understand you. The interviewer will appreciate your doing so. Simply tell the interviewer, “Let me know if you have any trouble understanding me, and I will be happy to repeat the information.”
Smile. It can help to look in a mirror while you interview—this will help ensure you are expressing emotion. It can be helpful for you to put a sticky note somewhere to remind yourself to smile. The smile will come through in your voice.
Let your enthusiasm come through in your voice. However, be mindful of your tone and volume. Limit “uhhs,” “umms,” and “you knows” in your responses.
Slow down. When you are nervous, you are likely to talk faster, which makes you more difficult to understand. So talk a bit slower than you normally would.
Listen carefully to the question you are being asked before answering. Wait until the interviewer has finished asking the question before you answer. And make sure you understand the question before you begin answering. Use facts in your answers. Be specific with your achievements, statistics, and numbers.
Keep your answers brief and to the point. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in a phone interview is not knowing when to stop talking. Without seeing the interviewer, it can be hard to know that he or she is losing interest in what you are saying. So answer briefly, but use verbal cues. For example, “Do you want to know more?”
Even during a phone interview, be mindful of your posture. One trick that can help give you energy is to stand up or walk around during the phone interview. Sit while the interviewer is talking, so you can take notes. But stand when you are responding. It allows you to breathe from your diaphragm, which helps you to project your voice. It will also keep you from relaxing too much and being too informal.
Take a job interview phone call at work or at Starbucks or in your backyard. Make sure you are someplace quiet to take the call.
Interrupt your interviewer. Make sure he or she has finished asking the question before you answer. Wait a second or two before answering. This can be tough without body language cues, but it is better to have a long pause than to be talking over the person who is making hiring decisions.
Never put your interviewer on hold to answer another call. Ignore call waiting (if you have it)—or disable it, if possible. Similarly, shut off notifications that might distract you. Do you have a loud text sound that might go off and come through during the phone interview? Shut off text notifications for the duration of the call.
Be too “casual” or “informal” in your conversation. This is still a job interview!
Never chew gum or eat anything during a phone interview.
Use “uptalk.” This is a nervous habit where you end a declarative statement with an intonation that makes it sound like a question. (Tape recording your interview can be a good way to identify whether this is something you do.)
Avoid using your phone’s speakerphone feature on a phone interview. Not only can a speakerphone create an echo, but it also picks up more background noise (such as shuffling papers).
If you take notes, do not take them on your computer. The sound of typing is distracting. Have a pen and paper to take notes.
Restrain yourself. If you are an animated speaker in person—for example, you use your hands while speaking—it is fine to use your hands. The interviewer cannot see them anyway. Using your hands will help make the interview feel more like a natural conversation.
Use the “mute” button on your phone for the first time on a job interview call. The mute button can eliminate distracting noise (for example, if you must take a drink of water). You will want to have practiced using it before the call so you do not accidentally mute yourself while you want to be talking. If you’re a practiced hand at the mute button, however, it can be a useful tool.
Bring up salary, benefits, or reporting structure (whom you would report to) during a phone interview. Save that for an in-person interview. But do be prepared to answer the salary question if you are asked.
Placing an empty chair near yours when you are interviewing. “Talk” to the empty chair as if there were a real person sitting there.
Eating a cough drop (especially one with menthol) before the call. A medicated cough drop can help your voice. (But make sure you finish the cough drop before you get on the call!)
A phone interview is a good sign—it means you’re being considered as a candidate for a position. To increase your chances at getting an in-person interview, take your preparation for the phone interview very seriously.
For more interview advice, resume writing tips, and general career advice, head to the Great Resumes Fast blog where we have hundreds of articles on topics related to job searches.
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About the author
Jessica Hernandez, President, CEO & Founder of Great Resumes Fast
Hi, I’m Jessica. I started this company back in 2008 after more than a decade directing hiring practices at Fortune 500 companies.
What started as a side hustle (before that was even a word!) helping friends of friends with their resumes has now grown into a company that serves hundreds of happy clients a year. But the personal touch? I’ve kept that.
You might have seen me featured as a resume expert in publications like Forbes, Fast Company, and Fortune. And in 2020, I was honored to be named as a LinkedIn Top Voice of the year!
I’m so glad you’re here, and I can’t wait to help you find your next perfect-fit position!
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