how to stand out in a phone interview

More and more employers are using phone interviews as screening mechanisms to narrow down their applicant pool before deciding who to interview in person. These calls can range from short and perfunctory to long and in-depth, but either way, it’s crucial to be prepared for them.

Here are 10 tips to help you ace phone interviews.

1. Ask ahead of time how much time to allot for the call. This can tell you what type of interview to expect. If you’re told it’ll take 10-15 minutes, it’s just going to be a simple screening to check your basic match-up with the job. But if you’re told to set aside 45 minutes or an hour, expect a much more thorough call where you might be asked in-depth about past accomplishments and you might be facing behavioral interview questions.

2. Make sure you have somewhere quiet to talk where you won’t be interrupted. This sounds obvious, but some candidates on phone interviews get interrupted by kids, barking dogs, coworkers at their current jobs, or other calls coming in. Not only does this come across as unprofessional and as if you’re not taking the opportunity seriously, but it also will harm your ability to focus.

3. Keep notes in front of you. A major benefit of phone interviews is that you can have all the notes in front of you that you want. Take advantage of this, and prepare notes about the points you want to make. Obviously, you don’t want to sound like you’re reading a script, but you can use your notes to prompt you to remember pieces of information that you want to cover or language for answering difficult questions.

4. Be prepared. Before the interview, go to the employer’s website and read enough to get a good feel for their work and their general approach. Don’t leave the site until you can answer these questions: What does this organization do? What are they all about? What would they say makes them different from their competition?

5. Know the job description. There’s nothing worse than a phone interview where the candidate doesn’t seem to grasp what the job is all about and why it would be a good fit. So before the call, go through the job description and think about how your experience and skills fit with each line. Don’t be alarmed if you’re not a perfect fit; people get hired all the time without being a line-for-line match. The idea is simply to have thought through how you area match, so that those thoughts are easily retrievable and can be turned into answers in the phone screen.

6. Think about the questions that you’re likely to be asked, and write out your answers to each of them. At a minimum, cover these basics: Why are you thinking about leaving your current job? What interests you about this opening? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What experience do you have doing ___? (Fill in each of the major responsibilities of the job.) You especially want to prepare for questions that you find tricky, like, for instance, talking about a firing or talking about weaknesses. Write out your answers to these questions not because you’ll read them word-for-word, but because doing so will help prep you for the call.

7. Be ready to talk salary. You can try to avoid talking about salary at this stage, but a lot of interviewers are going to insist on it. In fact, part of the point of the phone interview may be to make sure that you’re in the same ballpark, salary-wise.

8. Come up with questions of your own to ask. Good questions at this stage are clarifying questions about the role itself and open-ended inquiries about the office culture. Don’t ask about things like benefits, hours, or, job security. These are important elements but there will be plenty of time to talk about them if you move forward; the phone screen is about establishing that you’re a good match for the job.

9. Pay attention to your tone of voice. On a phone interview, the interviewer can’t see your body language or gestures, so your tone of voice matters more than ever. Make sure to sound upbeat, interested, and engaged, not sluggish, distracted, or unenthused. And let your personality come through; after all, a major reason for the phone interview is to get a sense of what you’re all about.

10. At the end of the call, always ask about next steps and the employer’s timeline for getting back to you. That way, you’ll know when you can expect to hear something (or ifyou can expect to hear something), and you won’t be sitting around in anxiety wondering why you haven’t heard back yet.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 14 comments… read them below }

  1. Laura*

    It also helps me to dress as if I were going to a face-to-face interview. Sounds silly, but when I dress the part, I act the part, even on the phone.

  2. RecentInterviewee*

    Alison, thanks for the great phone interview tips!

    Recently, I’ve endured two very awkward phone interviews that left me feeling cold because of how hurried and distant my interviewers seemed. Is that a common occurrence now that the job competition is so high? Should I make any attempt to small talk with my interviewers if they just seem to be reading from a script?

    Also, should I look at my interviewers’ LinkedIn profiles and Twitter accounts prior to the interview for further ideas on what their work is like, particularly for communication and marketing fields? Or might that be excessive for a phone interview?

    Again, thanks for the helpful phone interview tips. I really appreciated your unique perspective on the basics for a successful auditory interview.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, you’re talking to someone who hates small talk, but in general you want to take your cues from them. If they’re very focused on just getting through their questions, they’re not open to small talk right now; they’re just collecting the basics at this stage. You can still be warm in your tone and manner; just don’t go into extraneous stuff and stay focused on the questions at hand. I wouldn’t read too much into it, unless it’s the actual hiring manager (as opposed to an initial screener).

      I think it’s useful to look at profiles ahead of any interview just so you have a better sense of who you’re talking to, but you might not bring any of the stuff you learn up in a phone interview, since they’re often relatively quick and to-to-the-point and not about relationship-building at that stage.

      1. RecentInterviewee*

        Alison, thanks so much for the fast and thorough response.

        On the phone, I do tend to follow the lead of the interviewers; however, sometimes I find it off-putting to get a disinterested and monotone interviewer. Experience has taught me that the disaffected tone has little bearing on whether I actually get invited to a face-to-face interview.

  3. Rana*

    I rather like phone interviews, as it means that I can have my notes (and take more) without it being disruptive.

    One thing that I’ve found can humanize the experience, if it’s possible, is to look up photographs of your interviewers (if you know who they are) on the company website and have them to look at during the interview. It also helps you recognize them if you later get to have an in-person interview.

  4. Eva*

    “Before the interview, go to the employer’s website and read enough to get a good feel for their work and their general approach. Don’t leave the site until you can answer these questions: What does this organization do? What is it all about? What makes the organization different from its competition?”

    The last question is one I’ve wondered about in the past. Many organizations have such generic content on their website when supposedly describing what makes them unique that I’ve found it very difficult to learn anything about their actual place in the industry from it. Do you have any advice for how to parse company website self-descriptions in order to understand what actually sets them apart from the competition besides from, you know, being an industry leader who strives for excellence in all areas and creating value for their customer?

    On that note, here’s a fun link:

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      A better way to phrase that would be: What would the company say makes them different? What’s their self-image? Based on the website, who do they want you to think they are?

      You can’t always figure that out either, but it’s sometimes easier.

      1. Eva*

        Even that I’ve not been able to figure out in the past. But I guess the important thing is to know what *is* on the website, right? :)

  5. Anonymous*

    Great articles! For the phone interview topic, I like to stand up while I’m interviewing. It helps keep my energy level up. Also, smiling at times (when saying thank you at the end, for example) is good. You can often “hear” a smile on the phone.

  6. Judy*

    A lot of times my first phone interview is with the HR Assistant so I find it hard thinking of questions to ask them since they dont really know anything about the admin job, the department or the Manager I am interviewing for. Any suggestions on what kind of questions to ask?

    1. Anonymous*

      You don’t know that they don’t know these things. Chances are, whoever is doing the phone screening has been briefed enough on the position that they could answer plenty of your questions. So, treat it like any other interview and ask what you would normally ask.

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