What Is an Informational Interview Anyway?

The whys, hows, and whats on this underutilized, career-networking tactic.

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There are first interviews, second interviews, phone interviews, lunch interviews, and group interviews; all of which have purposes and best practices. And then there's the bedrock interview of job searching: the informational one. Too bad so few people actually know its purpose or protocol.

"Informational interviews are very underutilized," says Hallie Crawford, a certified career coach and the founder of the career coaching service Create Your Own Career Path. "People don't know about them and they don't use them. College graduates are better about using them because their career centers encourage it. But I would say that only 50 percent of the time do my clients know what I'm talking about when I suggest them."

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So how do you seek one out? Whom should you interview and what questions should you ask? What should you wear and how should you follow up? This rundown helps clear up the most-asked questions regarding informational interviews:

Why to Do Them

So first off, what is an information interview?

An informational interview is a one-on-one conversation with someone who has a job you might like, who works within an industry you might want to enter, or who is employed by a specific company that you're interested in learning about. These interviews are excellent options for plotting a career path or focusing your aspirations. "It's a way to learn more about what a day is like in the field," Crawford says. "You can get that inside perspective before you jump in. And for job seekers it's a good way to network into an organization."

"It's also helpful for a third purpose," Crawford continues. "It's a good way to practice your interview skills without conducting a formal job interview."

Because they're preliminary in nature, informational interviews are also useful for someone who knows what type of job they want but is still at the beginning of his or her search. "The key words are advice and information," says Andrea Kay, a career consultant and author of the book Life's a Bitch and Then You Change Careers. "And I think there's a third piece to conducting this meeting. You want to make a great impression that helps position you as someone that an employer would love to have at their company or who they could inevitably refer to other people."

"People like to hire people that they know, that they like, and that they trust," adds Kay. "Let's say you're talking to Joe. Joe is hooked into his community, into his business, and his industry. So he may know of jobs. He may not know of any openings when you first meet him, but a couple of weeks away, a month later, a year later, he may know of one."

Regardless of Joe's connections, the one thing this interview isn't supposed to be used for is seeking a specific position. "You're not there to influence them to hire you, but to get advice, and to explore your questions." Kay advises.

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How to Do Them

For some people, the hurdle of an informational interview isn't understanding its purpose, but going about arranging one. After all, if you're at this early stage, you probably have limited means of approaching industry-specific contacts. Those in the know say the first and easiest solution to this problem is to speak with people within your inner circle. Friends, family members, and LinkedIn connections might know of appropriate sources. See if you can contact a suggested person through email, telephone, mail or otherwise to try to arrange a meeting.

If none of those tactics seem feasible, Crawford suggests a bolder approach. "If you're really stuck, you could contact people cold. I've had one client who was looking to be a medical illustrator, and so she went through the alphabet of an association membership roster," she recalls.

Veer away from contacting human resources employees, since their standard answer will be to send a resume, Crawford says, and keep in mind that a company executive might have limited time for face-to-face meetings. You're best option would be to "find someone within the role you're hoping to fill, or one-step above that, who is close to a hiring manager," Crawford suggests.