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A Foolproof Formula for Informational Interviews that Just Freaking Works

Tyler Baker

TL;DR

When it comes to career, just about anyone will make time to talk with a college student. These informational interviews have the power to increase a student's social capital by an order of magnitude! And that social capital is the bridge that supports their journey from leaving everything they've ever known into the unknown world of a professional career. So, here is a battle tested game plan for conducting those informational interviews that is guaranteed to work if the student follows the plan. Prepare > ask thoughtful questions > pause > follow up.

Last week I accepted a request for an informational interview. 


As someone who’s spent muuuch of my professional career getting people to meet with me and turning strangers into friends in 20 minute conversations, I try and make myself available for these interviews as often as possible. If someone asks— if at all possible— I’ll speak with them.

But I gotta be honest… this one made me want to pull my hair out. 


Many informational interviews IRL

I was speaking with a recent college grad who needed a job. And yet you probably never would have guessed that from our conversation. He was apologetic, hesitant, and unsure of himself. He knew next-to-nothing about me, my role, or my company. In general, he seemed perfectly content wasting 30 minutes spit-balling with me.


About 20 minutes in, I finally stopped him. ✋


It wasn’t because my time was too valuable for him. It wasn’t because I had decided he was a lost cause. 


It was because I genuinely cared about this guy’s potential.


I cared that this so-called “informational interview” seemed completely pointless to him.


I cared that he thought his technique was working.


I cared that he thought his technique was what “he was supposed to do.”


And I cared that the approximately 1.9 million college students that graduate each year might be deploying the same fruitless techniques and expecting better results. 🤯


So I spent the rest of the call sharing what I’ve learned about how to have better informational interviews. Interviews that seriously expand your career knowledge, help you make career decisions, and open up new opportunities.


Here’s what I told him...


1) Success starts before the informational interview call— get your head right


DO NOT try and wing an informational interview. If you’re doing it right, you’ve managed to secure valuable time in a successful person’s schedule. These are the calls that give birth to incredible relationships… and those relationships breed opportunity. Take informational interviews seriously.


a) You don’t have the answers about what you want to do yet— you gotta become a career scientist. Embrace this fact.


If you’re anything like I was as a college student, you don’t know what you want to do with your life. At least not fully. This is ok! The answer to your uncertainty isn’t to guess or to “search within yourself”... it’s to experiment.


A scientist looks at a situation and sees an unproven idea. In order to turn that idea into a fact, scientists use their knowledge of the past to formulate an educated guess about the future. Then they carefully run an experiment to see how accurate their initial guess was. They experiment, they carefully observe, and they learn. Then, based on what they learn, they refine their initial guess and experiment again.


Science FTW 🏆


Informational interviews live in that “EXPERIMENT” space.

The entire point is to get as much information as you can about a given career path. Then, armed with that info, you can refine your plan.


b) You’re not wasting their time. You’re not wasting their time. You’re not wasting their time……………………………….unless you waste their time.


If I agreed to take your call, I’ve decided that talking to you is not a waste of my time. Can’t emphasize this point enough. 


👉The person you’re talking to legitimately wants to talk to you. Alumni want to help current students— they want to connect in community, they want to share their experiences, and they want to give back. Plus, helping you may advance their own professional goals.


If you’re a current college student, you are a hot commodity. 😎Leverage your opportunities while you’re hot. The people you’re trying to schedule with are thinking, “Great! This person is proactive!” Whereas, wait until after you graduate, and you’ll be sending a less-positive vibe: “I’m desperate to find a job fast.”


Enter the call affirming that it is a mutually-beneficial opportunity. You might not fully understand why, but your host wants to speak with you.


The call only becomes a waste of time if you let it. That’s why you have to prepare. More on that below...


c) Informational interviews are about gathering trend data— plan to do a bunch of them.


No two people have identical career trajectories. It’s naive to base your career plans on what worked for one person. Instead, we’re going to use informational interviews to gather data (remember, you’re a scientist 👩‍🔬) from at least 10-12 people and then draw some conclusions about what we want to do next.


2) Seek out the right person to talk to. And then research like mad.

a) Think about where you want to be in a year or two— target individuals in your network who are there now.


👉The sole purpose of the informational interview is to learn about their professional journey and how they got that role. If nothing else happens, your interview will be a success.


These tactics can help you locate the right people:
  • ASK YOUR CAREER CENTER ALLIES. They have extensive networks and can connect you with relevant alumni who are doing what you want to do.
  • Leverage career communities. Based on your interests and shared experiences, leverage alumni career communities like Fabriq to locate prospective hosts.
  • Talk to faculty, friends, and family about your career interests. 
  • Learn about companies in the fields you’re interested in. This is a great public database of companies in each state to get you started.


Based on your experience level, degree, and interests, find a role that you have a reasonable shot at getting. 


🤔 {Start parenthetical aside}

Ok, I realize that we could write an entire book on that 1 sentence, but career/interest assessment isn’t the point of this post. For a super-deep dive on this, you can’t beat Tim Urban’s post here. 80,000 Hours also has an incredible career planning tool. Informational interviews are part of the career discovery process— as you speak to people who are doing what you want to do, your desires will become more clear. Remember, you’re a 👩🔬.

{End parenthetical aside} 😊


b) Confirm that person is a match by researching them and their company like crazy. 

Note-taking time

If you want to squeeze every bit of knowledge out of your informational interview, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. You can spend the limited, valuable time you have in a call one of two ways:

  1. Gleaning tedious, top-level, could-have-just-read-your-LinkedIn-profile information from your host. Expect your host’s interest to wane as the seconds drip away. ⌚
  1. Getting an insider, all-access pass to your host’s professional life. By the end of the call, be able to either confirm or rule out your host’s career trajectory as an option for you.


The difference between the two is preparation. If you know and reference the basic details, you can dig down deeper faster. But without research, the conversation will naturally float to the most comfortable place: professional small talk. 😴😴

 

Here’s what that research looks like:

  • Know their professional resume as well as they do (almost). Being able to reference specific positions and transitions helps establish credibility quickly.
  • Know the companies they’ve worked at. Focus on the products/services and culture sections of the corporate websites. Also take a look at the company page on Glassdoor.
  • Look for mutual connections anywhere along the way.
  • Pay attention to advanced education and professional certifications. These can help you understand what continuing education in the host’s field looks like.
  • Study their pivots and job changes. If they’ve changed roles or industries, be ready to ask why.


👉Informational interviews ARE NOT job interviews. It’s not about presenting your qualifications and experience. If anything, it’s more like a job interview for your host. You want to learn every aspect of their qualifications for their current role.


3) Make the most of the call— lead with gratitude and ask the right questions. 

a) Start with a big Thank You for their time and candor. 


Your host’s time is super valuable, and thanking them for their time sets the expectation for both you and them that the call will be valuable. DO NOT be apologetic— your host doesn’t need you to be sorry; they need you to be prepared.

b) Explain your purpose in arranging the call.


Set clear expectations for the call. Explain your goals for the call: to learn as much as you can about your host’s role and how they got into it. Explain that you’re scheduling a bunch of these interviews with people so that you can understand what works and what doesn’t. Your host will appreciate your intentionality and clear communication.

c) You’ve done your homework. Now it’s time to run your plan and ask the right questions.


Here are a few of my must-ask questions:

  • How did you determine that this was something you wanted to do?
  • How did you get your foot in the door at your current company?
  • Based on your experience in this role, what type of person excels in this role and what type of person should steer clear?
  • Looking back, what do you wish you had known when you started out in your career?


I also love this list of questions from Career Contessa. Specifically:

  • What are some big projects you’re working on now or that you’ve finished up in the last few months?
  • What do you enjoy most about the work you do? / What are you most excited about right now?
  • What are some of the biggest challenges you face day-to-day?
  • Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
  • Are there any questions I'm not asking that I should be? (That’s a great one— welcome your host into your experimentation process)


👉Be sure to ask a follow-up question for every question they answer. The more that you show interest by actively listening, the more they’ll be willing to let you in. Ultimately, if you’re prepared for your conversation, the questions (and answers) will flow naturally.


d) Ok, time to pause. This is where way too many informational interviews fall short.

Here's where you take your informational interview to the next level.

Thank your host and affirm how helpful the call has been. 


Now literally pause...


Give them a couple of seconds to respond. The people that want to help you WILL fill this space. You’ve come prepared, you’ve asked great questions, and you’ve demonstrated awareness of their career path. The people that want to help you will be impressed and will want to ask questions about you now.

But here’s the thing: not everybody will want to do this. If you’re interviewing 10 people, in my experience, 5 will be willing to help. And they’ll start assessing what they can do to best help you.


They’ll ask you questions like the following: 🤔

  • What do you want to do?

💬 I really want to get my foot in the door in a _____ role at a company that ______ (e.g., has a track record of developing its employees, allows me to be client-facing, has a respectable brand in the industry, etc.)

  • Where do you see yourself?

💬 I think I would really excel in a few different types of roles: A, B, C, for example.

  • What’s your timeline?

💬 I want to begin interviewing next month. I’m willing to move anywhere on the east coast and can start immediately.

  • Why do you think you would enjoy a role like this?

💬 (Connect your knowledge of the role to your interests, past experiences, and aptitude)

Answer confidently… this is where the informational interview slightly morphs into a job interview where you’re the focus. 


Now’s your opportunity to present your main request. By taking an interest in you, they’re asking you how they can help you. 


Ask your host if they can introduce you to a colleague, hiring manager, or other connection that could help you move forward on your career path.

4) You’ve completed your experiment. Time to plug in your new data and adjust your process.


Your thoughtful and intentional process for finding and conducting informational interviews paid off. You gathered a ton of useful info on a role that is in reach, and you’ve built a bridge with a valuable connection in that field. Way to go.


Make sure you capture what you learned from that call. With your new data in hand, you’re ready to adjust your experiment and move on to the next call. Remember, you’re a scientist. 🔬🧪


 


5) After the call, make sure you follow up with your host.


👉This is an essential and often overlooked last step of incredible informational interviews. Wait a few days and then reach out. If possible, handwritten notes or tokens or thanks can be especially meaningful. 


If you worked the plan outlined here, you did your homework and made the informational interview as painless as possible for your host. Reaching out a few days afterward closes the loop, reminding them of the positive experience and how special a prospective employee you were. 🦄


Remember, your host is a very busy person. Reaching out will help trigger their memory about actions they can take to help you.



You got this. 😎

Informational interviews don’t have to suck… for you or for the person you’re interviewing.


In fact, they’re one of the most valuable tools you have to uncover new career interests, learn about potential employers, and meet people who can help you reach career fulfillment. 


The more relationships you build, the more access you have to opportunities that will change your life.  And, like most things, you’ll get better with practice.


So make it happen— one call at a time.



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