here are the secrets to acing a phone interview

If you’re looking for a job these days, you’re probably going to find that a lot of employers want to interview you on the phone before asking you to come in for a more in-depth, in-person interview. Phone interviews are increasingly a key part of the hiring process, and doing well at this stage can determine if you make it to an in-person interview or not.

Here are some common questions about phone interviews, and the answer you need to know to make it to the next stage of hiring.

What’s the point of a phone interview anyway? Phone interviews are a huge time saver for employers – and for you as a candidate too. It often just takes a quick phone call to figure out that a candidate isn’t well-matched with the job – and it’s much more efficient to figure that out on a short call than to invest an hour in an in-person interview. Generally phone interviewers are looking to make sure that your skills and experience match up with the job as well as they’re hoping from reading your resume. But they’re also looking for any logistical deal-breakers (for example, that you can’t start for six months and they need someone now) or interpersonal deal-breakers (for example, a lack of communications skills or professionalism).

What kinds of things are you likely to be asked in a phone interview? It varies! Some employers keep phone interviews very short and just make sure that you understand the job description, check to make sure you’re aligned on salary expectations, and clear up any questions they had about your resume.  Other employers use phone interviews just as they use in-person interviews, and will spend significant time digging into your experience and skills. They may ask you fairly in-depth questions, such as “tell me about a time when…” questions (“tell me about a time when you had to solve a complex problem,” “tell me about a time when you had to work with a difficult client,” and so forth).

What’s the best way to prepare for a phone interview? You should prepare for a phone interview similarly to how you would prepare for an in-person interview:

  • Spend some time exploring the employer’s website so that you get a good feel for them and their work.
  • Review the job description and think about how your experience and skills fits in with what they’re looking for.
  • Prepare answer to common questions you’re likely to be asked, like “Why are you thinking about leaving your current job?” and “what interests you about this opening?”
  • Decide how you’ll answer any questions about your salary history or your salary expectations, so you’re not caught off guard if the topic comes up.
  • Come up with several questions of your own, because you’ll probably be asked what questions you have. You should have questions about the role itself, but you might also ask about the company or the office culture.
  • Make sure you have somewhere reasonably private to take the call so that you’re not interrupted by a crying child, your dog, or your boss.

What if you don’t get any advance warning that a phone interview is coming? Smart employers schedule phone interviews in advance so that you’re prepared and expecting the call. But some will call you and want to interview you on the spot. If it’s a bad time (for example, you’re about to run into a meeting or you’re in the middle of the grocery store), it’s okay to explain the situation and ask to schedule for a time when you’re able to talk.

Is it okay to do a phone interview from your current job? It depends on your office set-up. If you have a private office, you can often close your door and take the call there. (Consider putting up a “do not disturb” sign.) Some people who don’t have private space will use empty conference rooms or even stairwells, but you risk being interrupted or overheard. Other alternatives are to take the call from your parked car or in a nearby coffee shop.

How can you ensure you across well over the phone? Phone interviews can be tricky because you and your interviewer can’t make eye contact or see each other’s body language. As a result, tone of voice really matters! Make sure that you sound warm, upbeat, and engaged, and that you don’t sound low-energy or distracted. Also, make a point of paying attention to your interviewer’s cues. For example, if she says at the start of the call that it should take 20 minutes, that means you shouldn’t spend 10 minutes answering the first question she asks you. Similarly, if she sounds rushed or is cutting you off, take that as a cue to give briefer answers.

{ 50 comments… read them below }

  1. AndersonDarling*

    I once bombed a phone interview because I was overconfident and I didn’t think I needed to prepare. I was a perfect match for the position so I didn’t bother running through question I expected to be asked. You want to be spontaneous and not sound scripted when answering questions, but I had to stop and think about the most basic questions. I should have been prepared with why I was looking to leave and why I wanted to work at New Company.

  2. Amber Rose*

    Phone interviews are my worst nightmare. I hate the phone. I have developed a pretty good phone persona out of necessity, but the moment I’m thrown off or not sure, the phone exaggerates all my flustered reactions. The only thing I can imagine that would be worse is Skype.

    Do you think we might be approaching a time where interviews are held through text message?

      1. Amber Rose*

        Is that a “no, I don’t think it’ll happen” or a “please no, anything but that!” ;)

        Because I honestly think text interviews would be terrible, particularly for people who don’t text very fast or are prone to typos. But, I could also honestly see it happening. And immediately becoming a bullet point on the red flag list.

    1. beanie beans*

      That’s so interesting! I like phone interviews over in-person interviews. All the eyeballs staring at me makes me forget how to complete sentences. Over the phone I like that I can be in a pretty comfortable place and be able to cheat with some notes written out before hand. :)

      1. Amber Rose*

        I like being able to gauge body language. If I need a minute to think about my answer, that minute can be done fairly easily in person, while on the phone I just internally panic that they’re going to think the call dropped if I don’t say something right now, and and every second silent feels like an hour.

        1. Elle*

          Most people have to consciously attempt to limit “um” and “uh” when they need to think in that sort of situation, whereas I’ve always been comfortable with total silence. I have to make an effort to make “thinking noises” in that situation, too, lest the interviewer think I’ve fainted or dropped the phone.

      2. But you don't have an accent*

        Me too! My problem is I sweat when I get nervous. I’m not a smelly sweater, but I can still feel the stickiness start to set in. Knowing that they definitely cannot see me sweating makes me much more relaxed and affable.

      3. oranges & lemons*

        I usually don’t mind them, but I once had the worst of all possible phone interview situations–because of construction, I couldn’t find the entrance to the building with the office I was supposed to phone from (it was for my university’s co-op program), and fell over and got really scraped up in the process, so I was already flustered. Then I got onto the call and it was with a panel of 10, with a bad connection, so I could barely hear any of them and they kept talking over each other. And then the jackhammering started right outside the window.

    2. LSP*

      Interviewer: ‘Sup?
      Applicant: ‘Sup w u?
      Interviewer: I’m gr8! Can you tell me about your :koala emoji:- fications for this job?
      Applicant: :) :) :) :) :) :) Yaaaasss! Totes!

    3. Claire (Scotland)*

      Me too. I’m so glad I work in a field that doesn’t do phone interviews (in my country, at least, who knows about the US?!) as there’s no way anyone would ever hire me after a phone interview. I’d be doomed!

    4. Victoria, Please*

      *Text message* interviews? This sounds like MY worst nightmare. I hate texting even with my sister or best friend. After a few exchanges, I’m like “Can I call?”

    5. DecorativeCacti*

      I did an interview over video chat and it was fine, no better or worse than in person. I hated it because it was with a recruiter so I couldn’t ask any of my questions about the position or the company. But that’s a whole other topic!

  3. Murphy*

    The last phone interview I had was a “courtesy” interview where they’d clearly already decided they didn’t want to hire me. Much as I hate talking to strangers on the phone, I’m glad I got to have that experience from the comfort of my own home.

    1. Mouse*

      I had one of those a few months ago. It was an admin-y role (that I honestly didn’t really want). The interview wasn’t going very well at all. The interviewer didn’t seem responsive to anything I was saying, and she kept making snide little comments that weren’t over the line, but could be interpreted badly if I so chose. I kept soldiering on, but finally, the interviewer asked me how I would set up a department budget-tracking spreadsheet in Excel. As I was going through the formulas I would use, and fancy color-coding, and really pulling out all of the Excel-knowledge stops I could think of for something so simple, she interrupted me with “well, wouldn’t you have a column for listing what the money was actually spent on?” in what was seriously the snottiest voice I’d ever heard! At that point, I’d had enough, and said “Oh, silly me- I must have skipped over describing that part. Would you like me to make an example spreadsheet and email it to you, rather than trying to hold everything in my head as I describe one over the phone?” in my sweetest voice. She was not amused. The interview ended shortly after that. Not my finest interviewing moment, but boy was I glad I wasn’t there in person!

    2. oranges & lemons*

      Yeah, I was pretty annoyed recently when I had an in-person interview that the interviewer knew I had to travel and take a day off work for, and only when I got there did I find out that it was really just an informal initial screen kind of thing. Argh.

  4. Renee*

    I’ve always been well prepared for phone interviews, however, I do think that I’ve been passed over in the past due to the fact that I have a child like voice. I’ve actually thought about getting a vocal coach to help me create a deeper voice, but it’s actually quite costly.

    1. Marillenbaum*

      I’ve definitely tried it some before. I have a high-pitched voice, and I wanted to project a greater sense of a gravitas and authority. It was more of an issue of tapping into my chest voice with a lower resonance. Things I learned in college theatre!

    2. k.k*

      Have you tired searching online for video tutorials from vocal coaches? I just did a cursory youtube search and there are a bunch of videos with exercises to deepen your voice. I know it’s nothing like working with someone in person, but you may be able to get a few good tips for free.

    3. Chaordic One*

      I hate my voice on my answering machine and think that I have an unfortunate nasal quality in it. I don’t know what to do about it.

  5. LSP*

    I like phone interviews because I can have all my materials in front of me for reference, and I can take notes (or doodle) while we chat. I tend to have a copy of my resume and cover letter, as well as a list things I want to be able to reference in front of me. It’s great, because it acts as almost a dry-run for an in-person interview, in terms of allowing me the opportunity to review my qualifications for the job ahead of time.

  6. stitchinthyme*

    “Make sure you have somewhere reasonably private to take the call so that you’re not interrupted by a crying child, your dog or your boss.”

    I once went outside my office building for a phone interview (I lived in South Florida and the car would have been way too hot)…the only problem was that my office was right next to a small airport, so there were constantly takeoffs and landings nearby. My interviewer laughed about it to me afterward. (I did get the job!)

    1. k.k*

      I once had a phone interview scheduled that I planned to take in my car. I carefully planned out where I would park, a nice quiet spot where I wouldn’t be spotted by coworkers. What I did not plan on was the torrential downpour. It was raining so hard I swear it sounded like my car was taking machine gun fire. Luckily, my interviewer was super flaky and bailed on the call last minute, but I had some moments of pure panic waiting for her to call.

      1. Elle*

        Once I parked under an oak tree while on the phone with a recruiter, and the sound of a huge acorn hitting my roof made me jump and make a bizarre squeaking noise. So embarrassing!

  7. seriousmoonlight*

    My technique for phone interviews is google photos of the people on the call and put the photos in a word doc and look at that as I do the interview. Sounds totally weird, but it really helps me to envision who I’m speaking to.

    1. So Very Anonymous*

      I do this, too. Being able to picture who I’m talking to helps me put a smile into my voice. (And I prefer phone interviews over Skype because I can have notes with me and can also take notes unobtrusively).

  8. Foreign Octopus*

    I used to conduct phone interviews, and handled a lot of business over the phone, and my absolute worst experience was when I was asking someone a question about his experience and he made a sound in his throat, like a deep grunting sound, and then a splash.

    I quickly realised that he was on the toilet whilst conducting the interview and I had never felt so sick in my life. I ended the call and immediately eliminated him from the running. He was a very promising candidate as well but anyone who thought doing that whilst speaking to someone else was a good idea clearly had judgement issues.

    1. stitchinthyme*

      My inner 12-year-old is giggling at your use of the word “eliminated” here. :-)

      But yeah, wow. I think “don’t talk on the phone while using the bathroom” should be a universal thing, not just reserved for phone interviews.

      1. Foreign Octopus*

        Entirely unintentional pun there!

        You’d think it would be common sense but apparently even that’s too much of a stretch for some people.

    2. HMM*

      Eeek! That sounds awful. A friend of mine once took a phone interview in a single restroom because she didn’t have anywhere else private. She was pacing back and forth, and it triggered the automatic toilet flush. She didn’t get a call back and she’s pretty sure that’s what cost her the job!

    3. AnonForThis*

      I once had a phone interview where the interviewer forgot to call me, so we rescheduled. She was so worried about forgetting to call me again that she called me as soon as she got the reminder aka 10 minutes early while I was in the middle of my pre-interview bathroom run. While I was able to hide any signs of being in the bathroom, it was not a good interview and I clearly did not get the job.

    4. Detective Right-All-The-Time*

      Noooo! I’ve never experienced a phone interview quite that bad. The most recent I had was someone who thought I wouldn’t be able to tell that he was running errands while talking to me. I heard every time he got in and out of the car, every push of the ATM buttons, every scan of the groceries. I did not consider him further either.

  9. dear liza dear liza*

    I wish I could send this article to people after I ask candidates to phone interview. I really want them to succeed, and yet all the faux pas listed happen again and again. I will add one other piece of advice: If you are on a cell phone (which most people are these days), find a location with steady service. Having to call people back because their phones drop out really puts a damper on the interview.

  10. Amelia*

    In journalism school, we were taught that when we were interviewing someone on the phone, it helped to stand up instead of sit, and to try to smile as you spoke. Something about sounding more energetic because of the standing, and the subtle way your voice changes when you smile. It has always served me well when I have an important phone call!

    1. Optimistic Prime*

      I actually pace around when I have a phone interview, but that’s because I’m a naturally fidgety person and it helps with the excess energy.

  11. whistle*

    I interview on the phone constantly. I think the most common issue I run into is that I am not able to give the interviewee body language cues that they have answered my questions satisfactorily and it’s time to move on. This leads to interviews sometimes taking much longer than necessary, and sometimes I have to interrupt the candidate.

    I suggest that an interviewee on the phone who is not sure how much information to give first provide a brief response that hits the main points. Then ask the interviewer “Would you like me to expand more on XYorZ?”

    I will also add: be sure to check time zones! When I schedule the interview, I always mention that I am on Eastern time and add EST to every time I mention. (I don’t always know where my interviewees are located, so I do not try to translate my times into their time zone in case I make any wrong assumptions about what time zone they are in.) I quite often call up the interviewee to find that they weren’t expecting my call for another hour or two.

    Finally, if you do not like to talk on the phone or have anxiety about it, etc. I strongly recommend having a friend call you and conduct a mock interview.

  12. YRH*

    I would also add hotel lobbies/meeting room areas as great quiet places to do phone interviews when you can’t do one in your office or car.

  13. Project Manager*

    Umm…what if you are deaf and rely on lip reading? It’s not that I CAN’T use the phone, but it is really hard for me, especially if the other person has me on speaker. There is no way I could possibly interview to advantage on the phone.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Just like any other medical thing where you need to ask for an accommodation in an interview. You’d explain that you’re deaf and ask if they’re able to use a relay service or talk in person.

  14. Ruh Roh, Raggy!*

    A gotcha with software phone interviews is that you may be talking to a recruiter/HR, or you may be talking to a technical person. And the technical person may ask general questions, or they may ask you specific technical questions, or they may actually expect that you’re able to write code in a collaborative document. If at all possible, find out if it’s the latter before the call … Several years ago, a company set up a phone interview with me without telling me it would be a collaborative document coding exercise. It threw me so off guard that I flubbed, bad. In retrospect, I should have told them I hadn’t been informed and wasn’t in a good position to do that type of interview, and asked to reschedule.

    1. Student*

      I always struggle with a polite way to ask who people are (really, more what they are – manager, co-worker, HR, etc.) on a phone interview, either before or during. If I have no inkling before-hand, I usually ask for a round of introductions with name and short job title at the beginning of the call – but I always feel weird doing that.

      I hate interviews of any type where the interviewer doesn’t feel the need to explain who the heck they are. I do research ahead of time when I can, but there’s a lot of internal company info, like relative positions and titles, that I don’t have – I usually don’t even get names ahead of time. I always try to give interview candidates some sense of what my role is and what I do so they aren’t totally lost.

  15. Paquita*

    This is so timely for me! I have a phone interview tomorrow! I had a phone screen last Friday even though my resume really need work. I sent the updated version per the persons request. They scheduled the interview even before that. I am so excited! (And I now have a MUCH BETTER resume thanks to a friends help) This job would be more money and time off, and a shorter commute.

  16. Laura in NJ*

    I’ve only had 1 phone interview in my life. Can’t remember what it was for and I (obviously) didn’t get to the so-called “second round” of interviews. Never heard from them again.

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