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How to Nail a Phone Interview

Get through the first round like a boss

retro phone call

Beth Castle is the managing editor at InHerSight. Based in Durham, she writes about women in the workforce as well as Southern travel, tourism, arts and culture, and food.

You got a phone interview—congratulations! You’re one step closer to landing your dream job. (Or something pretty darn close.)

Without the added pressure of “dressing for success,” it might feel like this stage of the interview process is just a formality. But you heard it from us first: It’s not.

The phone interview is how companies divide the candidate pool into the haves and the have-nots. It’s an opportunity for HR representatives to weed out unlikely applicants and for hiring managers to get a feel for whether your skills and personality fit the company.

Here’s how to stand out from the pack before, during, and after your phone interview.

Before the Interview

1. Clarify the logistics

Did your prospective employer ghost you, or did you forget that, somewhere in that long email thread, you said you’d call them and not the other way around? There’s an easy way to keep confusion over logistics from souring your interview prospects: Send an email the day before clarifying who is doing what.

Hi NAME,

I just wanted to make sure everything is all set for our interview tomorrow. My calendar says to expect your call at TIME (TIME ZONE). You can reach me at 919.555.8675.

I’m excited to learn more about your company and how we could best work together. Please let me know if you need anything ahead of our call.

Thanks so much,

Jenny Jobsearcher

Remember, your future hiring manager is a human too and probably has a lot going on. It’s not pushy or rude to politely make sure everyone is on the same page.

2. Take the interview seriously 

Just because you’re doing a phone interview and not an in-person interview doesn’t mean you can answer the call from the comfort of your California King. Treat the interview like you would any other: Eat breakfast, work out, and calm your nerves. Then get dressed and find a quiet place (with good cell signal) to do the interview where you won’t be interrupted.

3. Prepare your interview materials

Obviously, you don’t need a binder or portfolio of your work during a phone interview, but you should have a few things on hand to help you answer (and ask!) interview questions:

  • A list of key points about the company—Take some time to research the company you’re applying to, and write down some important details about what they do and what they believe in. This will help you pinpoint what you don’t know about the company. Do they work with a product you’ve never heard of and want more clarity on? Are you uncertain how their company values translate to employee benefits? Background research can help you ask thoughtful questions that inform your own decision and also show you’re already taking the job seriously.

  • An annotated job description—It’s always a good idea to save a job description when you’re applying, but if you forgot to for whatever reason, ask the HR representative or hiring manager to send it before your phone interview. (You can use the interview confirmation email outlined above to ask for it.) Then print it out and highlight parts you want to talk about. Undoubtedly, you’ll have some questions about the listed responsibilities, and it should be your goal to end the phone interview understanding what your role would be.

  • A list of questions to ask—Although you shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions when they naturally come up in conversation, you also want to prepared to fill the dead space that follows the dreaded, do you have any questions? Prepare a few questions before the phone interview begins. To keep from running out of questions before the end of the call, create two categories: one for questions that are more likely to come up in conversation, and another for questions that aren’t as likely to come up. Those “unlikely” questions, while important, are your backups. 

  • Your resume—Sure, you remember that you worked at that horrible prom dress boutique right out of college, but during an interview, you might blank on specifics that actually matter, like the specific metrics that earned you a major bonus for completing a huge revenue project. Play it safe and keep your resume handy. 

  • Your cover letter—If you’re actively applying to jobs, you’ve probably written 50 or so versions of cover letters by now. Resurrect the cover letter you wrote for this job so you know exactly what you said that got them interested. 

4. Practice interviewing with a friend

You might feel silly at first, but it’s just as important to practice phone interviews as it is to practice ones that are face-to-face. Have a friend call and ask you questions. Practice both answering and listening. Here are a few sample questions to try:

  • Why do you want to work here?

  • What are you looking for in your next job?

  • If hired, how soon could you start?

  • What type of company culture are you looking for?

  • Why are you looking to leave your current company?

  • What are your salary requirements?

During the phone interview

  1. Don’t chew gum—Or anything else, as your interviewer will be able to hear it on the phone. You can, however, sip water throughout the call to keep your voice from cracking.

  2. Answer with your name—Instead of saying “hello” or “hey” when you pick up, answer the call with Hi, this is Jenny! (but your name, obviously) or something along those lines. This keeps the interview somewhat formal without being cold, which we’ll get to next.

  3. Be friendly—You don’t want to be too chummy with your caller, but you also don’t want to be too formal. Start the conversation with a bit of small talk (How is your day going? The weather is beautiful.) and let the interviewer lead the conversation into questions. It’s also helpful to smile as you respond to questions, as that will help you sound more positive. 

  4. Focus and listen—You’ve practiced phone interviewing already, but during the real thing, you’ll have a lot of new information thrown at you. To focus on what the interviewer is saying, jot down notes or follow-up questions. Don’t interrupt. Remember, it’s not your job to drive; it’s your job to get the job. 

  5. Take your time—When responding to questions, it’s always okay to take a moment to think through your answer—in fact, it’s encouraged. If a question is multifaceted, answer it thoroughly, then ask the interviewer to repeat what you missed if you feel you haven’t addressed all parts of the question.

  6. Be honest—This is a good rule of thumb for all interviews, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it here. Nothing is gained from stretching the truth or saying only what the interviewer wants to hear. The more transparent you are, the more likely you are to get a job that makes you happy. If the interviewer asks whether you’re willing to work 60-plus hours per week and you say yes? That’s what they’re expecting.

  7. Ask about next steps—You can’t be too presumptive, but you do want to know what the interview process will be like moving forward. Should you expect to hear back in a week? When do they expect to bring people in for in-person interviews?

After the phone interview

Whew, you made it. Now you’ll want to leave a good and lasting impression. Wait a day or so and send a short thank-you email after the phone interview referencing your call and saying you’re interested in learning more about the company. In that email, be sure to include a link to your personal website or portfolio if you have one (a LinkedIn profile will also do)—this is a great opportunity to remind a prospective employer why you’re a great fit for the job.

Read moreHow to Accept a Job Offer (When to Negotiate & What to Say)

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