don’t make these 10 mistakes in your next phone interview

If you have a phone interview coming up and are wondering how to excel in it so that you get offered an in-person interview, here are 10 common mistakes to avoid.

1. Thinking it’s not a real interview. Some job seekers treat phone interviews as if they’re a casual get-to-know-you chat. They rarely are. Phone interviews are what employers use to preliminarily narrow down their pool of candidates and decide who will move forward in the process. If you want to get the chance to talk to this employer again, you need to excel in the phone interview. Speaking of which …

2. Not preparing. Just like with an in-person interview, you should study the job description, research the company, and practice your answers to likely questions. Yes, some interviews are short screens, but some ask in-depth questions about your experience, even getting into trickier behavioral interview questions. Don’t wing it.

3. Not finding somewhere quiet to take the call. It might sound like obvious advice, but plenty of candidates take calls in public spaces with noise from a crowd, or at home with barking dogs or interruptions from kids. Find a quiet, private space where you won’t be interrupted — especially by coworkers, if your currently employed!

4. Not using a reliable phone connection. The conventional wisdom used to be that you should never use a cell phone for a phone interview. But these days, when many people don’t even have access to a landline, this isn’t always practical. What’s key is using a phone that will give you good reception and sound clarity and that won’t drop the call.

5. Not paying special attention to your tone of voice. In a face-to-face interview, eye contact, facial expressions, and body language might all convey signals about your interest and enthusiasm. But in a phone interview, since the interviewer can’t see you, tone of voice becomes especially important. Make sure that you sound engaged, upbeat, and friendly.

6. Not being ready for typical screening questions, such as your questions about your availability or your salary expectations. Phone interviews are often used to ferret out basic incompatibilities quickly, such as learning that you can’t start for three months when the employer needs someone who’s available immediately, or revealing that your salary expectations are much higher than the employer’s intended pay range for the position.

7. Not having your application materials handy. The interviewer will have your resume in front of her, and you should too. Don’t risk blanking if she asks how long you were at job X or what your title was at Job Y.

8. Allowing yourself to get distracted. Quit your email program, turn off instant-messaging, and log out of any other programs on your computer that might distract you. If an email comes in while you’re talking and you start even partially processing it, you will take your full attention off the conversation and will sound distracted. This is not the time to multi-task.

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

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Elizabeth West*

    Despite the fact that I accidentally deleted the job description for something I applied to, I was able to bluff on what I knew about the workplace (it’s a behavioral health facility). So tomorrow I have an in-person interview. Doing a bit of research before I applied helped a lot.

  2. The IT Manager*

    OMG, do people actually do #8, try to multitask, during a phone interview!?! That’s astonishing.

    BTW – despite the title, the article only lists 8 mistakes.

    1. SW Engineer*

      I get hiring managers doing that all the time, which is annoying.

      I’m sitting in my car in a quiet location away from work, focused on the interview, while they’re trying to juggle a bunch of tasks.

      That doesn’t leave a good first impression, either.

  3. Catherine*

    Ah, cell phones. I like to tell the interviewer that I am on a cell phone and to please call me back immediately if the call drops, or I will call them back, or something. Just assign that task to one person – it’s bad enough to have the call drop, but then to keep calling each other back and the calls conflicting, spending 10 minutes playing mini phone tag – that just makes it worse.

    1. Anonymous*

      Okay, I’ve seen this advice before so I have to ask now: does this really happen to people? Does your call really get dropped even if you stay in one spot that has decent reception? I’ve never in my life had this happen to me (only if I’m talking and walking, which I wouldn’t do in an interview).

      1. Jamie*

        Mine only drops when I’m moving – like in the car. And my office is spotty, so if I walk to a certain corner it will drop, not if I stay still though.

        It used to happen a lot more years ago, I don’t know if service has gotten better or I just have better phones now.

      2. Catherine*

        Yes, it has happened to me. My provider is pretty good most of the time, but sometimes it’s jut inevitable, no matter how trustworthy your safe spot is. Also, I have had interviewers call without scheduling with me first, so I had to go somewhere private, and the call dropped on my way to the private area.

      3. S.L. Albert*

        Fortunately I’ve never had it happen on an interview, but yes, I’ve had calls drop without moving on two different carriers with a variety of different phones. Admittedly, one of the areas was a tad on the rural side, but it would routinely go from all bars to zero bars. The other area is a fairly large city, so there’s no excuses there. In both places I would just stop hearing the other person.

        Ah, technology – can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

        1. Kelly O*

          Same here. I was standing in the kitchen talking to my mom and the call just dropped.

          We don’t have a land line at home, just our cell phones. My husband now has a physical phone connected to the VOIP, but it normally forwards to his cell. Someone asked me once could I call from a land line and acted shocked when I said I didn’t have access to that at home. (I know a lot of people have gone totally cell… guess I forget not everyone has.)

      4. LL*

        In my case, dropped calls while staying in one place was a combination of the following factors: living near the interstate + rush hour + carrier over capacity. I switched to a different carrier and it stopped happening. Yes, I actually got out of my contract without penalty (!!!) because the dropped calls occurred so frequently.

      5. Anonymous*

        I have terrible reception in my house. I’ve had a call drop while accepting a job offer. They ended up just emailing me because when I called back I sounded like a robot.

    2. EM*

      I’ve had a call dropped whilst standing in one spot in my kitchen in my own home. The bars went from 4 bars to 0 and back to 4. Luckily I was talking to my mother, so it was no big deal to just call back. :0)

  4. Jamie*

    I had a scheduled phone interview that the candidate had agreed to the date and time – yet when called she was on a commuter train and was speaking very softly, because (and I quote) “I don’t want to bother the people around me by speaking loudly – that’s rude.”

    Yes, it is. So is agreeing to a phone interview when you know you’ll be on a train and then whispering to me so I’m catching every third word at best.

    No trains.

  5. Elizabeth West*


    I just was in the middle of Walmart and another employer called me to schedule an interview! LOL I had to run up to the bakery and ask someone for a pen, since I didn’t have my purse with me. Thank goodness they weren’t doing a phone screen at that moment–I would definitely have had to call them back. It was too noisy in there.

    1. Jamie*

      No one should surprise you with a phone screen.

      IMO, if I want someone to be able to speak with me uninterrupted and discuss the particulars of a job it’s only fair to schedule it so they have time to arrange this and prepare.

      Out of the blue calls should be for scheduling only, although I prefer email for that.

          1. Kelly O*

            Just to reassure you, I always have pen and paper for that exact reason.

            When I moved to Dallas back in 2004, I was out buying a desk and chair for my new apartment. I was standing on a loading dock trying to figure out how to get all that in the back of my Kia hatchback when the phone rang. I answered and did not have anything with which to write down her information, and she said “well you’re supposed to be an administrative assistant, don’t you stay prepared for anything?” and wouldn’t send me an email.

            I figure that time, lesson learned, but I never forgot it, and I always, always have pens and paper in my bag. Still. Eight years later.

            FYI – I also learned its hard to get furniture, even boxed flat furniture, in a hatchback. I also learned its always good to meet someone with a truck early on when you move. You might even wind up marrying the guy one day.

        1. Suzanne*

          I’ve had several completely random phone screens. I applied for the job, and the next thing I know, someone is calling me, usually asking if it is “a good time to talk”. Talk about what? Not once has one of them asked me if this is a good time to conduct a brief interview. If this is an interview, or a phone screen, for heaven’s sake, tell me!

          In all of these calls (and it has been 3 or 4) it didn’t take long to realize what was happening. I didn’t think it would be a good idea, however, to say “I see that this is really an interview. Can we arrange a time to talk when I have some time to think what I’m actually saying??”

  6. AnotherAlison*

    If you are doing your interview somewhere unconventional (i.e. Starbucks, your car, your work office, the train (lol Jamie)), for Pete’s sake please do a test run. I am often on conference calls with people calling from these places. One morning the guy calling in from Starbucks sounded like he was at a school playground during recess. The car might seem nice and quiet, but if you have the A/C blasting, it can be hard to hear you. Your private work office might seem okay, until you realize the paper thin walls make you self-conscious about speaking at normal levels.


      I’ll add this — if you take it from your car and you leave it off, crack a window! I did a phone screen in a parking lot once and, even though it was a chilly day, after 45 minutes, my car got really stuffy!

  7. BW*

    #3 can be really difficult when you are still employed, especially at my last job where there was no place quiet to go. What I ended up doing was leaving my desk 10-15 minutes before the call to walk down to my car, drive it out of the garage, and find a place to park where I could reasonably sit for 30 minutes uninterrupted. I did this so often, I started referring to it as my “mobile office” among co-workers who knew I was looking.

    I admit to calling into conference calls from the subway when I’ve been horribly delayed getting to the office. I tell people right away that I am on the train and will be on mute until I make it to the office. I can’t imagine trying to do a phone interview in that situation.

    1. Kelly O*

      BW, this is my preferred method too. I leave early, take an oddly timed lunch, that sort of thing, when I have a phone time scheduled. (I can also leave all my “accoutrements” in the car so I don’t have to endure the looks of those who seem to notice any time you carry something different in.)

  8. TW*

    My employer makes number 3 very difficult for internal candidates. For the last 4 positions I have interviewed with HR has called me at my desk for the phone screen and in person scheduling. This is always troubling to me because:
    1. I never listed my work number anywhere in my application materials
    2. I work at a front desk so calling me is far from a private call

    This would not be a problem expect one time the HR person seemed bothered that I wanted to call back from a private office.

  9. SW Engineer*

    I think this list should also apply to employers as well. I had a phone screen this morning where the manager seemed to be very distracted with stuff going on in the background and not at all interested in speaking with me.

    He just had me enter some code for some programming questions on an interactive web site and then I had to tell him I was done. Talk about checked out – I’m never going through that process again. I could hear him multi-tasking in the background.

    He also had no questions about my current job, position, what I do, etc. He simply said that my resume tells him everything he needs to know. Yeah, right…

    Over the years, I’ve heard Outlook popup messages, papers shuffling, keyboard typing, cell phones ringing in the background, and other noises during interviews. That alone tells me to stay away.

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