How to Approach an Informational Interview

Don't treat it like a job interview.

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This will be news to some job seekers: "Informational interview” is not code for “sneaky way to get a job interview.”

Informational interviews are supposed to be used when you’re new to a field and seeking insight and information from someone who’s already established in that field. They’re useful when you’re looking for information that is more nuanced than what you’d find online, such as which information out there is good and which is bad, the inside scoop on some of the big players, advice on a career paths within the field, and so forth.

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You typically get an informational interview by approaching someone connected to you in some way, even if it’s a few degrees of separation (your uncle’s former coworker’s boyfriend or so forth), but you can also sometimes get them from strangers (via LinkedIn or your alumni network, for instance), if you approach them the right way.

However, all too often, job seekers ask for an informational interview when what they really want is a back door entrance into a job interview. They’re not genuinely interested in learning about the field; instead, they’re hoping to make contacts that they can quickly turn into a job opportunity.

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Additionally, job-seekers—especially recent graduates—will sometimes ask for an informational interview without any real plan for how they’ll use the opportunity. This often happens when someone reads that informational interviews will be helpful in a job search, but doesn’t quite understand how they work. Of course, taking up someone else’s time without a real need or plan for it is inconsiderate and unlikely to make a good impression.

If you’ve set up an informational interview, here’s how to ensure you make a good impression:

1. Come prepared with questions. If you’re asking for an informational interview, you need to have a clear idea of what types of information you’re seeking from that person.  (And you should know that before you make the request; don’t wait until the day of your meeting to figure it out!) Don’t expect the person you’re meeting with to lead or steer the conversation.

2. If you ask for an informational interview and your target tells you that her schedule is crammed but she’d be willing to answer your questions by email (since that’s faster and more convenient for some people), you need to be ready to email thoughtful, substantive questions. Otherwise, you’ll look like you were fishing for an interview and are uninterested now that it’s clear this won’t be one.

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3. If you do get an informational interview, do not under any circumstances use it to pitch that person on hiring you. Misrepresenting your reasons for meeting with someone is not a good way to get a job.

4. If you ask the person to have coffee with you, you’re expected to offer to pay. Remember, you’ve invited the person, and they’re doing you a favor.

5. Send a thank-you note afterwards. This person gave you something of value: his or her time and insights. You want to make it clear that you don’t take that for granted.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.