Ever think about turning the tables in a job interview?
That’s more or less what happens in an informational interview. You’re the one asking questions to a person you admire or respect in the industry you want to work in to gather info and build connections there.
No, it’s not a job interview exactly, but informational interviews are good part of a personal development plan because they can open doors you don’t expect, and they definitely widen your network. The upshot is that when you’re thinking about a new career path or looking at a new job, it’s a good idea to go out on informational interviews.
In this article, we’re going to cover:
- Why you want to consider informational interviews
- How to get ready for an informational interview
- What should you ask when you’re in an informational interview to get the info you need (and some things to avoid…)
- How to follow up to maximize your chance of building your network
- As a bonus, we’re also including 24 examples of you can use yourself
An informational interview is an often overlooked step in reaching your career goals. If you’ve never considered doing one, or want to learn about other steps you may be overlooking, check out our career counseling service.
We’ve helped thousands of people along the way succeed in their job search, prep for interviews, negotiate the details of their contracts, and otherwise hit their career targets. Get in touch with us If you want to do a deep dive on informational interviews, or if you're curious about other ways to better navigate your career path.
Why set up informational interviews
Informational interviews are a great way for you to find out more about the type of industry, company, or role you’re thinking of moving toward. You might think you know about a role or industry, but getting the inside scoop from someone working in that role is going to open your eyes to a lot you didn’t already know.
It’s not just about getting yourself information though, informational interviews can give you exposure in a market you’re new to. They’re a way to get yourself known that may put you onto a short list, even if a job isn’t advertised - what’s called the ‘hidden job market’
Another great part of informational interviews is that getting out there meeting people and getting to know the industry is going to be a great confidence booster. So when you DO go in for an interview, you’ll feel way more capable, and that’s going to come across to the recruiter.
How to prepare for an informational interview
Start by doing your homework
Informational interviews are definitely safe places for asking questions; the person you’re interviewing knows in advance that you’re new to the industry and are looking for information. But if you want to make a good impression (and you DO!), you can’t go in cold.
Here’s a few things to consider:
- Learn who the big companies are in the industry and in your area
- Get to know who’s in charge or in the roles you’re looking at
- See whether there’s any industry lingo you might want to know
- Are there any specific tools or apps that the industry relies on?
- Be able to talk about any recent or important trends in the industry
Getting this done in advance helps you make a great first impression, and that may be the best thing you can do for your career. It will show that you’ve done your background research, which will tell the other person you’re motivated and credible.
Plus, it ensures you aren’t wasting your interviewee’s time with questions you could have just Googled. Naturally, wasting their time would give them a pretty poor impression of you, which you want to avoid for sure.
Work out an intro
An informational interview isn’t a time for you to talk about yourself. The reason the person you're meeting agreed to talk to you is to help you learn, not to learn about you.
They don’t want to listen to a 15-minute speel about you and your job search. This is not the time for an elevator pitch, and the other person could feel ambushed if you turn it into that.
Before going in, prepare a brief, succinct explanation about yourself: “Here’s my background, here’s what I’m thinking, and I’d like your feedback.” Go over it a few times in advance and time yourself, you want it to be 3 minutes max.
Picking your informational interview questions
Once you’ve got a good idea of the role or industry you’re looking into, you’ll be in a good spot to make informed choices about the questions you’re going to ask. Prepare a list of questions you’re going to ask the other person, so you can refer to it throughout the interview and not get lost along the way.
But also realize that they’re going to be giving you new information you might not have anticipated. You can go off script if they say something unexpected that you want to follow up on.
By writing the questions down in advance, though, you’ll always be able to pick up where you left off. And you won't have awkward gaps where you’re trying to think of something to ask or say.
As for the types of questions to ask, approach the interview as if you were an investigative journalist more than like a lawyer. You don’t want to come across as pushy or difficult, and you want to mostly be listening.
A good way to put this together is to use a framework of five questions along the lines of Daniel Porot’s “Pie Method”:
- How do you get into this line of work?
- What do you enjoy about it?
- What’s not so great about it?
- What’s changing in the sector?
- What kinds of people do well in this industry?
You want to tailor these questions to the person or job you’re asking about of course, but the goal is to ask questions that will show you where the role or field matches your skills and experience, and to give you an understanding of how you can succeed in it.
Another great idea is to use this as a way to really test what you think you know about the industry. If you ask about some sensitive topics, you’ll be able to decide if the job is going to be right for you rather than just confirming the positive aspects you think exist.
So you can include questions that are designed to expose the worst parts of the work, like:
- What are the worst parts of your job?
- What didn’t you know before you got into this industry that you wish someone had told you?
On the other hand, there are some topics you should avoid touching on directly. Don’t go into the interview and ask the other person “So how much money do you make?”
Money is always a bit taboo, but of course it’s important, so instead, try something like “I’ve been looking around online, and I’ve found that the typical salary range is $XX-$XX, is that about how you see things”. Phrasing the question this way means you’re just asking them to confirm public information rather than give up their personal info.
There’s no question, as with other parts of the job search process, following up with an email thanking the person for their time and insights is an absolute must. You should even consider sending a handwritten note right after you meet to thank them also.
This is important in part to show that you respect and appreciate them. But, it’s also a great way to make sure you’re remembered.
Again, this isn't a job interview, but there’s a chance you’ll be a good fit for something they haven’t posted for yet and that comes up in the future, or that they’ll refer you for a job they know about somewhere else. Maximize these chances by showing what a great person you are!
That said, make sure your follow-up is about thanking them and that alone. Don’t use it as a way to ask about jobs or for a favor.
First, it’s bad manners, but second, you probably just met this person. It’s another way they may feel ambushed about what your intentions were for the interview.
Follow Up… Again
Since the real goal of an informational interview is to build your network and connections that will support you down the road, don’t think of them as done right after you leave the meeting. Keep the person in the back of your mind, and when you see an opportunity, get back in touch with them.
Maybe it's a week or a month later, and you look for or come across an article in a relevant magazine or website. Take a minute to write a quick email and forward the link to them. Likewise, you can either mention that something is coming up or better yet invite them to an upcoming conference or networking event.
All that is to say: be helpful. If you can make it so they don’t see you as just taking from them, but rather that you’re actually a help to them, you're positioning yourself as an ally and key person they want to help in return.
Bonus: Questions to ask in an informational interview
You’ll want to adapt some of these questions to your specific interview, but here’s a list of 24 solid, intelligent questions you can ask that will make you look great and help you get the info you’re looking for.
- What are your main responsibilities as a…?
- What is a typical day (or week) like for you?
- What do you like most about your work?
- What do you like least about your work?
- What kinds of problems do you deal with?
- What kinds of decisions do you make?
- How does your position fit within the organization/career field/industry?
- How does your job affect your general lifestyle?
- What current issues and trends in the field should I know about/be aware of?
- What are some common career paths in this field?
- What kinds of accomplishments tend to be valued and rewarded in this field?
- What related fields would you recommend I also look into?
- How did you become interested in this field?
- How did you begin your career?
- How do most people get into this field? What are common entry-level jobs?
- What steps would you recommend I take to prepare to enter this field?
- How relevant is your undergraduate major to your work?
- What kind of education, training, or background does your job require?
- What skills, abilities, and personal attributes are essential to success in your job/this field?
- Can you recommend trade journals, magazines or professional associations which would be helpful for my professional development?
- If you could do it all over again, would you choose the same path for yourself? If not, what would you change?
- I’ve read that the entry-level salary range for this field is usually in the range of ? Does this fit with what you’ve seen? (Don’t ask about the person’s actual salary.)
- What advice would you give someone who is considering this type of job (or field)?
- Can you suggest anyone else I could contact for additional information?
Key takeaways: informational interview questions and answers
- Do your homework. You should do enough background research before going in that you sound like a credible candidate who’s committed to moving into a new sector.
- Put together a succinct introduction so you can maximize the time you spend listening to the other person's answers
- Prepare your questions in advance. Practice doing informational interviews with friends and family so you get used to asking great questions and listening.
- Follow up by email and consider a handwritten thank-you note. It’s good manners and makes you memorable.
- Don't use the follow-up as a way to ask for favors, show them you really appreciate the help.
- Send them some helpful info or relevant invite to really build the connection
We’ve helped 1000+ other candidates find their future with custom-tailored training, advice, and strategies. If you want to do a deep dive into informational interviews, or you're curious about other ways to better navigate your career path, check out our career counseling service.