What Is an Informational Interview?

What Is an Informational Interview? was originally published on Forage.

A picture of two people in an informational interview

When it comes to choosing a career, there are plenty of ways to learn more about it before you take the next step. You can take classes, read about it, or even try a virtual work experience. One other excellent way to learn more about a job, industry, or organization is through an informational interview.

During an informational interview, you’ll have the chance to ask your burning questions about a career. But reaching out to someone with the job you want one day can seem a bit forward. And even if that doesn’t bother you, what are you supposed to talk about to ensure you walk away with more information than you started with?

This guide breaks it all down. It covers what an informational interview is, how to ask for one, and how to make the most of the opportunity.

What Is an Informational Interview?

An informational interview puts you in the driver’s seat. It’s when you interview someone to learn more about their job, career path, and the company they work for (or have worked for in the past).

However, informational interviews are generally more casual than job interviews. “It is a conversation between [you] and someone with more experience who is in a position to share expertise about their role, their organization, or anything that relates to what their work environment looks like,” says Tanja Hinterstoisser, assistant vice president, career design and employer outreach at Champlain College. 

Why You Should Conduct Informational Interviews

Hinterstoisser notes that there’s confusion about what an informational interview really is. While you’re there to learn more about the career, people wonder if it’s also a job interview, a networking opportunity, or more like professional mentoring.

Informational interviews can be all of those things. But ultimately, they are “fantastic opportunities to get to know the structure and culture of an organization and learn about the industry,” she says. This information can help you plan your career, and you can use what you learn to improve your cover letters and resume.

Hinterstoisser points out that it’s common for students to feel nervous or anxious about pursuing an informational interview. After all, in this instance, you are the interviewer — it’s up to you to set the pace and tone of the conversation and come up with the right questions. That can be intimidating to someone just starting their career.

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“There is shyness around that particular kind of outreach. It’s a conversation, and there’s anxiety around that.” You may not feel confident enough in your abilities to lead an interview, but Hinterstoisser advises people to believe in themselves and to trust the process.

“Step into it,” she says. “Enjoy the dialogue. Be curious. You [are speaking with] the person that has all of the information and they are more than happy to share that.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Even though you’re asking the questions, an informational interview is the perfect setting for you to practice your interview skills.

Whether you conduct the informational interview in person or virtually, you’ll use many of the same techniques you’d use in a job interview. For example, keep track of your body language. Are you bouncing your knee or chewing on a pen? The informational interview is a fantastic opportunity to identify and eliminate those behaviors.

>>MORE: 12 Tips for Your Next Zoom Interview

Go Beneath the Surface

Given that pursuing and conducting informational interviews is time-consuming, it may seem like using a shortcut makes sense. After all, you could google your question and read blogs about the subject or even ask ChatGPT for interview advice.

However, asking the internet what it’s like to work as, say, a consultant is entirely different than asking an actual consultant what the job is like! You’re far more likely to get realistic and up-to-date information about what it’s like to be a consultant right now when you speak to someone in the field.

It’s also a good way to learn about the realities of working in a specific industry. For example, if you’re interested in finance, searching for information about working in that industry will yield a large number of answers that may or may not be useful or relevant to your situation. But talking to someone who works in fincance is more likely to yield actionable information that can help you decide if it’s the right industry for you. 

“You can dive a little bit deeper into the content than what you can find online and ask questions that pertain to your particular situation,” says Hinterstoisser. For example, you can ask what kinds of internships you should apply for, given your education, background, and other specifics unique to you.

>>MORE: How to Get an Internship Without Work Experience

Who to Ask for an Informational Interview

As for who you should approach for an informational interview, the short answer is anyone who works in a field or holds a job title you want to learn more about. “Interview someone whose job you would really love to have,” advises Hinterstoisser.

But … (and you knew that was coming!)

You have to be realistic about who you can connect with. For example, you might want to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company one day. However, it’s improbable that the CEO of a Fortune 500 company will have the time to meet with you for an informational interview.

It’s also doubtful you’ll be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company a few years after graduating. So, connect with someone in the middle of their career.

For example, if you know you want to pursue a career in marketing, you might talk to someone in the marketing department of a Fortune 500 company. They can explain what it’s like to work for their company and what it takes to move from an entry-level role to a more senior one. That will give you an idea of how you should plan the first five to 10 years of your career.

>>MORE: Explore Forage’s free marketing virtual experience programs

How to Ask for an Informational Interview

Asking someone to meet with you for an informational interview is similar to networking but with a twist! You’re asking someone to connect, but not because you’re looking for a job lead, even if that’s your end goal. You’re connecting with the person to learn from them.

So, how do you ask someone for an informational interview?

Start by identifying people you might want to interview. Asking your school for lists of alums or employers is a great place to start. As Hinterstoisser notes, most people on these lists are interested in connecting with students. From there, you can research them online to identify people who have the information you’re looking for.

Then see if you know someone who can make a warm introduction to that person. This could be a professor, family member, or the person who gave you the original list.

If a list isn’t an option for you, LinkedIn is another fantastic resource. You can search for people by job title or company and connect with them via the platform.

>>MORE: A Beginner’s Guide to LinkedIn

Once you’ve identified a person (or a few people) you’re interested in talking to, it’s time to ask for an informational interview. Hinterstoisser offers this formula for success:

How you found them + ask for 20 to 30 minutes + explain what you are expecting + why you initiated contact

Those are the basic elements, and you don’t have to go in that order. So, whether you ask in person or via email, it could look something like this:

Hi [Name of Person],

My name is [Your Name]. I’m a student at [school], and I found you [through the alums directory/on LinkedIn]. I see on your LinkedIn profile that you’re [in X field/an X job title/work for X company]. I’m majoring in [major] and am considering a career in [X].

I’m hoping I could have 20 to 30 minutes of your time for an informational interview. I’d like to learn more about the job (like what I can expect to do every day and if I need certifications) and what working in the field is like.

Thank you so much,

[Your Name]

How to Prepare for (and Make the Most of) an Informational Interview

Once you’ve set up your informational interview, you’ll need to prepare to get the most out of it. Here’s what to do.

Treat It Like a Job Interview

Just as you wouldn’t go into a job interview and wing it, you should prepare for your informational interview. Create a list of questions that will help you explore whatever areas you’re interested in learning about. That could include things like the company’s culture, what kinds of certifications you might need to advance your career, or what the overall industry is like.

But don’t only stick to your list. As Hinterstoisser says, this is a conversation, so feel free to explore topics and ideas the interviewee brings up. You may find you have additional questions you never thought about. 

Ask the Hard Questions (and Skip the Easy Ones)

An informational interview is a great time to ask the “hard” questions you can’t necessarily ask during an interview. For example, you might be able to ask how hard the interview process at a specific company is or how difficult it is to break into a specific industry if you don’t have a degree. Because this isn’t a job interview, you have a little more latitude around what you can ask (as long as you remain professional).

Likewise, skip the “easy” questions. If you can find the answer online, don’t bother. The one exception would be if, in your research, you found conflicting information and want the interviewee to clarify what is correct.

Remember What You’re There For

An informational interview is, as the name implies, an information-gathering session. You are there to learn about the job, career path, or company to help you figure out what your next steps are.

However, you are not there to ask for a job. That may be your next step, but it’s unprofessional to ask about job leads during an informational interview. It can be OK to ask when the window for applying for internships opens, but don’t ask the person to act as a reference for you should you apply.

Summarize the Meeting

Ending your informational interview with a summary can be very impactful for you and the interviewee, says Hinterstoisser. “This helps them know you can summarize, listen, and put information together.”

Once you’ve given your summary, thank them for their time and sharing their insights. Then ask if you can keep in touch. This is a great way for you to ask any follow-up questions and keep an eye on their social media for job openings in the future.

How Do You Feel?

After the informational interview ends, Hinterstoisser advises to ask yourself if you’re still excited about the career and job. If you are, fantastic. But if you’re not, that’s OK, too. Career exploration also includes eliminating the options that are not a good choice for you.

Get ready for your next interview, no matter what kind it is. Check out all of Forage’s interview tips.

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The post What Is an Informational Interview? appeared first on Forage.