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Informational Interviews: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students and Young Professionals

Written by Nico Warner

The importance of building a strong network cannot be understated. Networking allows you to grow as a professional and can allow access to new opportunities in the future. In fact, it’s estimated that 85% of all jobs are filled through networking. Not sure where to start on your networking journey? Try conducting an informational interview. It’s a great way to grow your network. This type of interview entails meeting with an employed professional to learn about their job, company, industry, and/or career. Informational interviews allow you to learn more about a profession you’re interested in without having to spend time experiencing the actual job. Unlike a job interview, an informational interview is not about hiring for a specific role. The goal of these meetings is to exchange knowledge between two individuals. Those conducting informational interviews are often referenced as “knowledge seekers” and those being interviewed are called “knowledge providers.”

I sat down with Selena Gillespie, Student Staff Member of the Center for Career Exploration & Success at Miami University, to learn more about informational interviews.

Finding the Right Person

The first step to an informational interview is choosing an interviewee. This person should have a job, be a part of a company, be pursuing a career, and/or working in an industry that you’re interested in. Effective ways to find such a person include:

  • Searching through your universities alumni databases.
  • Asking friends and family if they know anyone in your area of interest.
  • Utilizing your LinkedIn network.
  • Using the internet to search for industry leaders.

Reaching Out

Once you find the right person, the next step is to reach out and ask for an interview. Sending an email is a good way to ask. But a LinkedIn message can be just as, if not more, effective. Whichever way you reach out, your message should include these three parts:

  • Who you are. Include a short, concise introduction about yourself.
  • How you’re connected to them. Even if you’ve never met, it’s important to include how you’re associated with this person. You can do this by simply mentioning that you have some mutual connections on LinkedIn.
  • Stating you would like to meet and what you hope to gain from the interview. You can propose a few times that work for you. But you want to be accommodating of the interviewees busy schedule. It’s best to be flexible with meeting style. However, if you do prefer meeting virtually or in-person, make sure to include this preference in the email.

Selena recommends not attaching a resume to this email because the goal of the interview is for you to learn about the interviewee and not the other way around. Attaching a resume may make it seem like you are seeking more than just career knowledge and advice from the interviewee. It’s always okay to include your resume in the follow up email after you have conducted your informational interview.

Here’s an example of what an email to a prospective interviewee might look like:

Subject: Nico Warner – Informational Interview Request

Dear Mr. Smith,

My name is Nico Warner. I am a rising senior at The Ohio State University studying history and political science. I am on a pre-law track and am thinking about attending law school. I connected with you on LinkedIn a while back and noticed that you graduated from Ohio State and are now attending Yale Law School, a dream school of mine.

I’m sure you’re very busy but I’d greatly appreciate the opportunity to learn about the path you took on your way to law school. Are you available for an informational interview anytime between 1:00 PM – 5:00 PM on July 30th or August 2nd? If you can’t meet during these times, I’d love to schedule a time that works better for you. I’m flexible with when we meet and how we meet, virtually or in-person.

I appreciate your time.

Sincerely,

Nico Warner

Preparing for the Interview

According to Selena, the biggest mistake people make with informational interviews is not preparing for them enough. Preparation is necessary to ensure that you and your interviewee get the most out of the meeting. Adequate preparation allows you to lead the interview and ask great, relevant questions. Prior to the interview, you should have a general understanding of the interviewees job role and the company they work for. Check out the companies ‘about us’ section on their website. This is a great way to learn about the history of the company and what it does. To learn about their job role, find a job description for what your interviewee does. If you can’t find one, their LinkedIn profile may have information on the type of work they do.

It’s a good idea to have some relevant questions ready to go prior to an informational interview. The questions you come up will help answer the following three questions:

  1. What is your interviewees job role?
  2. What is the path they’ve taken to get to where they are today?
  3. What advice do they have for yourself?

Prior to the meeting you may want to create an outline of how you’d like the interview to go. This outline will help organize your questions and set yourself up to be able to lead the interview.

Here’s a possible outline with hypothetical questions
included:

  1. Introduction. Start with a short (1-3 minute) intro about yourself. Be sure to include:
    • Your interests.
    • Where you see yourself in the future.
    • Why you chose to interview this person.
  2. Job Role. Ask the interviewee questions about their job role. Possible questions include:
    • What does a typical workday look like?
    • What kind of tasks do you complete?
    • What is your favorite part about your job?
    • What is the toughest part about your job?
    • Is your job role different at other companies or is it the same across companies?
    • In a perfect world what would your job look like?
  3. Path Taken. Ask questions regarding the path the interviewee took to get to where they are today. Some examples include:
    • What are the stages one must go through to get to where you are today?
    • What is the average time a person spends at each of these stages? How much time did you spend at each stage?
    • What is the average pay at an entry level position?
    • If you could go back and start over, is there anything you would have done differently?
  4. Advice. Ask the interviewee what advice they have for you. You can ask:
    • What is some advice you would give me personally to approach (insert certain company/industry)?
    • What skills does the perfect applicant to (insert title of desired job) have?
    • What would you be focusing on if you were in my shoes?
    • Is there anyone you’d recommend I talk to after this interview?

Every informational interview is unique. This outline should be tailored to the informational interview you’re preparing for.

Conducting the Interview

Now that you’re adequately prepared, you’re ready for the actual interview. Selena recommends dressing business casual. She says that “if you’re confident in what you’re wearing, you’ll be confident in what you’re saying”. It doesn’t hurt to be early, but it can hurt to be late. Your interviewee is taking some time out of their day to help you and showing up late leaves a bad first impression. Bring a notebook and a pen if you’d like to take notes. But before you begin, ask your interviewee if they mind you taking notes.

Informational interviews are less formal than job interviews. The conversation is less structured and more casual. But it’s not as candid as an every-day conversation because you come into an informational interview with an agenda. As the knowledge seeker your goal is to learn as much as possible from your interviewee who is the knowledge provider.

As the knowledge seeker, it is paramount that you lead the interview. While thorough preparation will enhance your ability to do this, Selena stresses that you still must be proactive in guiding the conversation. Successfully leading the interview maximizes what you learn and ensures that you do not waste you or your interviewees time. One aspect of successfully leading the interview is making sure that the meeting doesn’t go too long. It’s your responsibility to end the interview. A general rule to follow is to keep the interview to 30 minutes or less.

What to do After the Interview

After the interview, you should send a thank you/follow up email to your interviewee as soon as possible. The four parts of this email are:

  1. Thank You. You appreciate your interviewee taking some time to help you and this is a good place to express
    this appreciation.
  2. What You Learned. Include a small (2 sentences or less) antidote of what you learned in the interview.
  3. Attach a Resume. If you’re looking
    for feedback, this is a good place to attach your resume. Simply asking for some constructive feedback is a great way to include your resume.
  4. Keep in Touch. At the end of the email,
    you should express interest in staying connected. Here you can ask your
    interviewee to keep you in mind for any future job openings. And if you haven’t already, make sure to connect with them on LinkedIn.

Here’s an example of what a thank you/follow up email might look like:

Subject: Thank You – Nico Warner

Dear Mr. Smith,

Thank you so much for meeting with me earlier today. I appreciated learning about the path you took on your way to law school. Your experience going through the law school application process was especially insightful and is a great education for me as I begin to embark on this journey. I’d greatly appreciate any constructive feedback you have on my attached resume. I sent you a LinkedIn connection request and I hope we can stay in touch in the future.

Thank you again for your time today.

Sincerely,

Nico Warner

Now that you know how to successfully conduct an informational interview, it’s time for you to reach out to professionals and set up these meetings. Watch as your professional network blossoms and employment opportunities become seemingly abundant.

Special thanks to Selena Gillespie for her thoughtful contributions to this blog. It couldn’t have been possible without her generously sharing her expertise on this subject.

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