When is a job interview not a job interview?
When it is an informational (or exploratory) interview.
Informational interviews are a high-value way to network, obtain information and leave a good impression in a workplace that might interest you.
These one-on-one conversations can bridge the gap between where you are in your career… and where you want to be.
Even without a current job opening, company management often welcomes these conversations with high-caliber talent as a proactive way to procure talent for the next open position.
Advantages of Informational Interviews
An exploratory interview and a job interview are both ways to explore opportunities and build relationships. During a job interview, however, the hiring manager, or recruiter, structures the meeting as an assessment. At these meetings, your curiosity, questions and behavior drive the conversation.
Some key advantages of the informal nature of an exploratory interview include:
An Information Resource | An exploratory interview gives you a chance to learn and understand the critical issues of an entire industry or a specific position. Publically available information about a company or enterprise is important, but lacks the immediacy of an inside view. Because there is no hiring pressure, you can thoughtfully tailor your questions to achieve a candid industry perspective not otherwise available to you.
Career and Social Networking | Creating opportunity is an essential element of a job search plan. Positions are not always publicized or, by the time they are, a candidate is already under consideration. An informational interview enables you to meet and greet influential stakeholders in a company or field of interest. Because you are not positioning yourself as a job candidate, you and your contact can naturally explore the questions and answers that arise during the meeting. This informal repartee—and the relationship that results—can be a powerful networking tool. Not only may you be able to add a contact to your professional network, but you could receive a call when a new or existing position opens up.
Gaining Direction | Informational interviews are an effective tool for job seekers of all experience levels, from interns to executives. When transition looms, or a job is ending, stabilizing steps are vital. During a period of employment instability, you can regain your bearings through an exploratory interview. The meeting can reaffirm your current direction, help you analyze your skill set, or lead to serendipitous discovery and opportunity.
Tips for Setting up an Informational Interview
Once you identify a company and industry you want to explore, the next step is to cultivate contacts.
While you may personally know an individual you wish to interview, there is a good chance you do not yet have that connection. There are at least two paths to an exploratory interview: a referral from an associate or a cold call.
When thinking about referrals, consider who you know in groups such as:
- Professional associations and service organizations
- Social, personal and professional networks like LinkedIn
- Friends and other contacts
The awkwardness of asking a friend or colleague for an interview referral is somewhat relieved by the purpose of your request. You are not asking for a job—you are expressing curiosity about something outside your realm of expertise.
A cold call can lead to a surprisingly useful experience. When cold calling for an exploratory conversation, keep these tips in mind:
- Research the companies and individuals you wish to speak with before you call.
- The CEO of any company is often heavily scheduled; consider targeting a different contact.
- Remember that informational interviews that result from a cold call are often genuinely exploratory; your interviewee is not doing a favor for a friend, and you are not asking for a job.
A letter is often the best way to reach out to a potential contact. You can use these sample letters as inspiration to customize them to fit what you need:
How to Write a Cold Call Interview Request
Dear Mr./Ms. X,
I am researching the telecommunications industry to explore career options and found your your December article about security applications and wireless sensor networks in the Journal of Telecommunications compelling. I am writing to ask whether I could schedule an informational interview with you to learn more.
My background is in cybersecurity in private industry in corporate risk management. I agree with your point about a critical shortfall in qualified information security professionals to combat the widening array of cyber attacks on domestic telecommunications networks.
I will be in the Austin area next month on the 18th and 19th. Could we schedule a meeting then? I look forward to hearing your perspective on the direction of the industry. My telephone number is (xxx) xxx-xxxx, and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
How to Write a Referral-based Interview Request
Hello Ms./Mr. X,
A mutual acquaintance, <full name of contact>, gave me your name as a possible contact for an informational interview.
My areas of focus are strategic business marketing and consumer communications. In doing some research, I read your post on mobile marketing for healthcare providers on LinkedIn. I thought your app ideas were interesting and would welcome the opportunity to chat further.
I wonder if you might have time to meet with me next week? Perhaps we can meet for coffee or talk over lunch? My phone is (xxx) xxx.xxxx and I will follow up on Monday.
Thanks and best regards,
Four Steps to a Successful Informational Interview
Prepare for your informational interview as you would a job interview, but remember your responsibility to drive the experience with curiosity and courtesy.
Make your informational interview a success by following these guidelines:
1. Let Your Research be Your Guide | Learn about who you are interviewing and try to find a relevant professional or personal background connection.
2. Ask Smart Questions | Establish rapport at the outset and ask your most important questions first. Customize your questions to your interviewee and the industry. Suggest solutions to collaboratively identified issues. Do not ask for a job.
3. Keep it Short | Informational interviews occur over lunch or during the only 30 minutes someone has to spare during their busy work day. Arrive on time, stay focused, and leave a good impression.
4. Follow Up | Send a thank-you note. Consider sending an interesting article or news item about a topic you discussed during the meeting as a means of later follow through. Ask if you can add your interviewee as a LinkedIn contact.
Making a personal connection through an informational interview just may lead to the professional position you want. Go in ready to impress!
For this post, YouTern thanks our friends at Chameleon Resumes!
About the Author: Lisa Rangel, founder and managing director of Chameleon Resumes, a Forbes Top 100 Career Website, has helped hundreds land the exact job they wanted. A former recruiter, she is a 7-time certified resume writer, job search consultant, and one of the few resume writers performing resume and job search-related work for LinkedIn. Lisa has been featured on Forbes, LinkedIn, Investors Business Daily, and many more publications. Follow Lisa on Twitter!