an informational interview is not what you think it is

This will be news to some job seekers: “Informational interview” is not code for “sneaky way to get a job interview.”

Informational interviews are supposed to be used when you’re new to a field and seeking insight and information from someone who’s already established in that field. They’re useful when you’re looking for information that is more nuanced than what you’d find online, such as which information out there is good and which is bad, the inside scoop on some of the big players, advice on a career paths within the field, and so forth.

You typically get an informational interview by approaching someone connected to you in some way, even if it’s a few degrees of separation (your uncle’s former coworker’s boyfriend or so forth), but you can also sometimes get them from strangers (via LinkedIn or your alumni network, for instance), if you approach them the right way.

However, all too often, job-seekers ask for an informational interview when what they really want is a back door entrance into a job interview. They’re not genuinely interested in learning about the field; instead, they’re hoping to make contacts that they can quickly turn into a job opportunity.

Additionally, job-seekers – especially recent graduates – will sometimes ask for an informational interview without any real plan for how they’ll use the opportunity. This often happens when someone reads that informational interviews will be helpful in a job search, but doesn’t quite understand how they work. Of course, taking up someone else’s time without a real need or plan for it is inconsiderate and unlikely to make a good impression.

If you’ve set up an informational interview, here’s how to ensure you make a good impression:

1. Come prepared with questions. If you’re asking for an informational interview, you need to have a clear idea of what types of information you’re seeking from that person. (And you should know that before you make the request; don’t wait until the day of your meeting to figure it out!) Don’t expect the person you’re meeting with to lead or steer the conversation.

2. If you ask for an informational interview and your target tells you that her schedule is crammed but she’d be willing to answer your questions by email (since that’s faster and more convenient for some people), you need to be ready to email thoughtful, substantive questions. Otherwise, you’ll look like you were fishing for an interview and are uninterested now that it’s clear this won’t be one.

3. If you do get an informational interview, do not under any circumstances use it to pitch that person on hiring you. Misrepresenting your reasons for meeting with someone is not a good way to get a job.

4. If you ask the person to have coffee with you, you’re expected to offer to pay. Remember, you’ve invited the person and they’re doing you a favor.

5. Send a thank-you note afterwards. This person gave you something of value: her time and insights. You want to make it clear that you don’t take that for granted.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. Amanda*

    This is perfect timing, thank you. I’m looking at an organization that is currently hiring for my dream job. I’m at least 5-7 years of experience away from that job, however. I’ve been struggling with the question of how exactly to ask them for an informational interview with the idea of discussing what I’m missing that they would want in the candidate. Should I write a cover letter basically stating that?

    I have no networking connections to call on in this particular instance, unfortunately. I’ve done other informational interviews before, but always with someone I’ve been able to network to.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Be very clear about your goal when you write to them– “I really want to work in this capacity, but I know I won’t be ready for at least 5-7 years and I’d love to pick your brain on what I should be doing with that time in order to be as prepared as possible.” Also, include your resume — not to get them to hire you now, but so they can see your background.

      Keep in mind that you’re asking them to spend time talking to you for YOUR benefit, not theirs (unlike an interview), so you want to demonstrate to them that you’re someone worth investing the time in.

      1. Amanda*

        Thank you for your advice! I’ll be putting together a cover letter asking for the informational interview over the holidays. I work in museums, and I’ve found that no two jobs are exactly the same – which is why I’m really keenly interested in talking to as many organizations as possible to see how to build my skills for my particular career track. It’s often difficult to make the leap to the next level not knowing what particular piece you’re missing, and where to find the opportunities to gain those skills.

  2. ChristineH*

    I’ve struggled with informational interviews too, particularly since I’ve been out of work for some time.

    What kinds of questions could be asked that usually aren’t available online? My specific concern is that I have some hidden disabilities that I need to take into consideration in my career choices, but I’m not comfortable revealing those for fear of coming across as far less capable of substantive work than I really am. Thus, I’ve been struggling to frame my questions without actually revealing the underlying reasons for asking.

      1. ChristineH*

        The one I’m most worried about is a learning disability. Not the typical ones like dyslexia or poor math skills; rather, I process information a little slower than normal. It’s a little hard to explain without getting too technical, but I have difficulty with multi-tasking and fast-paced settings. I tend to need time to process something as opposed to having to think on my feet or having a lot of interruption. I also have some difficulty in noisy environments.

        I also have a slight vision impairment – the concern with that is not being able to drive (I otherwise have a lot of usable vision). I have access to transportation for getting to and from a job; it’s more the concern that the type of roles I’m interested in likely involve field work (meetings, conferences, etc).

        Right now, my career aims are either grant writing or research, preferably where my background in social work and disabilities is valued. I am grateful to have an excellent academic record and have been complimented on my writing skills.

        BTWI recognize a lot of this is probably more an issue of self-confidence and that I’m focusing too much on the weaknesses.

        1. fposte*

          Christine, I don’t those need to be questions about accommodation at this stage if you’re not comfortable getting into that–they’re actually perfectly plausible questions for anybody interested in the company. What kinds of work styles tend to to succeed here? Is it expected that employees will do a lot of driving?

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I agree with fposte’s suggestions. You’ll also probably pick up a bit about the environment simply by being there — is it relatively quiet? Does it feel frenzied? Etc.

          On the driving thing, that might also be something to bring up after you have an offer, when discussing accommodations that you might need.

          1. ChristineH*

            Thanks Alison and fposte.

            I know I don’t have to get into these issues for an actual JOB interview. I was asking in the context of informational interviews. But I can see how one might ask these questions when exploring career options, such as “What is the pace like in your job/agency? Would your colleagues in similar roles with other agencies say the same thing?”

            This was very helpful!

  3. Erik*

    I did an informational interview many years ago, when I was considering a career in marketing and market research. It was a great experience.

    At the time, I was going on vacation to Maine. I was a member of a professional organization at the time and contacted a couple of people who worked in that area since I was there.

    I sent a professional looking letter, and made clear that I was only interested in learning about the field, what to expect, what preparation would be needed, etc.

    The first person I contacted was very open to helping me, and I ended up getting meeting two other people as well. I made sure to follow up with a thank you letter.

    People are really amicable to helping out with informational interviews, provided you do your homework. The important part is to make it VERY clear that you’re not looking for a job. I had to clarify that with one person, and once he understood that I was only after information, he warmed up very quickly.

  4. Liz*

    Is there a tactful way to reassure your interviewer that the point of meeting is NOT to fish for a job? I don’t know how to say this short of announcing, “I do not expect you to hire me. I know your budget was just cut 40%. I’d just like to make a connection and then maybe if you eventually hear of someone who might need to meet someone like me, introduce us.”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, what you’re describing as your goal for the meeting isn’t really an informational interview. It’s a networking meeting. So this goes back to the point of not misrepresenting it as an informational interview. If you really do want an informational interview, you can’t go into hoping that they’ll end up connecting you to someone who might hire you; you’ve got to genuinely be in it for just the information.

      1. Liz*

        Hmm… I wondered if something about my expectations were off. I’m from D.C. where networking for its own sake even with people who aren’t in a position to help immediately is totally normal, and now I’m in a town where it very much is NOT. I’ve been asking people to meet just for coffee and then I try to get some background and maybe a new contact on my new town. All I really want is the info, but I am also trying to make sure they remember a little about me. I’m from a small town and I guess I have a habit of recreating that “Hey we all know each other now…” vibe wherever I go.

        In the meantime, I honestly am very generous about setting up other people with things they might need, or volunteering for small favors I can do easily and quickly. I might just be a mismatch with this town. I would feel terrible if people feel as if I’m wasting their time.

        1. Liz*

          PS – Just to be clear, I have never represented a request for a meeting as “an informational interview.” I do otherwise prepare for the brief coffee meetings pretty much as described, though – showing up with a list of things I’d like to learn and then trying to work it into the conversation if possible – so I thought we were talking about more of the same thing. Maybe this is just describing a formal “I’d like an informational interview” request made to a stranger? I’m only meeting people with an introduction, too.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            In my experience, it tends to be mainly recent grads who use the formal term “informational interview.” I think most other people are doing what you describe — being a little more informal about it.

  5. Kelly O*

    Not exactly on topic, but when I saw this, I thought “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” So there is your Inigo Montoya fix for the week.

    That said, I think that we see “information” and think “well, I want information about how to get a job at this company” and manage to justify it to ourselves that way. There is so much tweaking of words in the job search process, I think some people tweak informational interview into what they want it to mean.

  6. Patricia*

    This is really great advice and right on time for me. I recently requested an informational interview from someone I met at a career-related panel (she was the moderator) and when I asked her whether she would be open to an informational interview she said she didn’t do hiring… she explained in her organization the initial screening interviews for a potential new employee were called informational interviews. I explained what I meant (not looking to be hired, but for insight and information from someone in her field) and she seemed open to it – but when following up via email or phone call I got no response. This was about a month ago, and I was considering making another attempt to reach out to her to request an informational interview (or coffee), and also to reach out to other professionals in the field I’d like to work in. This article is very helpful as far as determining a different way to approach her and others in the field. I’m thinking I should stress that I’m not doing this as a means of job hunting but researching a field that I’m interested in and passionate about.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You might also put in your follow-up email a couple examples of the types of questions you’re hoping to ask her, to help her understand what you’re seeking.

  7. Mary Appleton*

    This is the first time I’ve actually heard of an ‘informational interview.’ We don’t tend to use that phrase in the UK – certainly not in the sectors I have been involved in during my career. It seems there’s a lot of ambiguity around what the informational interview actually is.

    When you think of the word ‘interview’ you’d be tempted to assume that it’s you, the prospective employee, who is being interviewed. It sounds to me like an informational interview is you interviewing someone within the organisation to glean information, rather than the other way around.

    In these times of austerity, we all know that it’s really tough for job seekers to find work particularly in the graduate market. I think informational interviews sound like a great idea to give you an insight into the sector and organisation. However, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to state that you’re hoping for a job – after all if you don’t ask you don’t get. It’s about positioning yourself in the right way. If this is not the purpose of the informational interview, maybe there needs to be a more appropriate name for it?

    1. Patricia*

      I think calling it an interview is appropriate, since what I (for example) will be asking the person a series of questions about her work and for insights in her field that I might not get by researching elsewhere. It’s not a bad idea though to come up with another term for it, especially if organizations in the US use the term to refer to a screening interview for potential new hires (the woman I’d like to speak to about her field is from a very well known national organization – not sure if calling their screening interviews “informational” is a quirk or a trend). Maybe I could try asking for an “informational meeting?”

  8. Anonymous*

    I live in the US and have never heard of an informational interview. Now that I know about it I think I might try it. I would like to get my MBA but not sure which area, I have thought about bookkeeping as I am good with money but not sure what I would need in order to start out. Is it okay to randomly choose a company and either e-mail them or send a letter with questions or to ask to be set up with an informational interview.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, first decide what career you want, and then figure out if you need another degree to do it. But don’t get an MBA without needing one, because that’s a lot of time and money for something that you don’t need in order to do what you want to do (and can actually make it harder to get the jobs you do want).

  9. Nicole*

    I was unaware that other fields did this. In the creative field, these are called ‘Portfolio Reviews.’ Creative Directors are usually very receptive to helping new graduates and students to go over their portfolio. It’s a great way to meet people in the field, but again, as Alison points out with this post, it’s not a way to sneak into a position that doesn’t exist.

Comments are closed.