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6 top phone interview questions and how to answer them

Nov 14, 2017 Kate Lopaze

6 top phone interview questions and how to answer them

You’ve put your resume in for a job opening, and now you’ve got your first bite—a phone interview. The phone interview doesn’t happen in every application/interview process, but you might encounter it for two reasons:
  1. You’re currently far away from the hiring company.
  2. The company wants to do a preliminary interview to see if they want to bring you in for a more traditional sit-down interview.
Either way, the phone interview is likely a precursor to some kind of physical meeting, before significant time and resources are invested. The main goal of a phone interview is usually to see if you meet certain requirements and would likely be a good fit for the job—or at least for the next round. If a company has a lot of great-on-paper applicants for a single position, phone interviews are a way to narrow the candidate pool to the most appropriate people.

How is a phone interview different?

There’s the obvious format difference, for starters. Instead of physically sitting face-to-face with someone, shaking hands, and being able to read body language cues, you’re sitting by yourself and have no in-person contact or visibility with the person interviewing you. That can be a benefit (it’s the one interview you can attend in your pajamas! Unless it’s a Skype interview), but also a drawback. You’re in a bit of a void, counting on your conversational skills above all else to get you through to the next round. Also, while an in-person interview is usually with the hiring manager for your position, that may not be true for a phone interview. You may be talking to a Human Resources representative or even a recruiter. It’s important to know up front the person with whom you’ll be speaking, so you can adapt your answers accordingly. If it’s a recruiter or HR person, you can be a little more general. If it’s the hiring manager, you should be more detailed about your qualifications in the specific field, with nitty gritty details.

How to prepare for your phone interview

Although you don’t need to prep your interview outfit or work on your handshake, you can still work on your speaking and listening skills. Make sure your voice is calm, confident, and conversational. If it helps you to call someone else first (like a friend or a family member) right before the interview to get into conversational mode, do it. Anything that puts you at ease and gets you ready to talk about yourself confidently is good. If it helps to dress up in your normal interview clothes to get into that mode, go for it. Be sure that when you’re speaking, your voice is also warm and conversational. Part of the purpose of the phone interview is (let’s be blunt here) to verify that you’re, well, interviewable. You want to come across as friendly and competent; if your voice is stressed or your tone is cold, the interviewer may think there are some red flags lurking beneath your words. As for your listening skills, you won’t have the advantage of doing the head nod + thoughtful “I’m listening” face, so it’s important to make sure the interviewer knows you’re listening. Make sure you’re allowing the person to finish speaking before you answer, and don’t feel like you need to fill in brief silences with nervous chatter. Before your phone interview, do your homework on the company, the job, and the interviewer him- or herself, if possible. Put those Google stalking skills to good use so that you understand who’s on the other end of the phone. The beauty of the phone interview is that you can have notes right in front of you, without the interviewer knowing you’ve got a crib sheet of details about the company, or the talking points about your resume that you want to emphasize. And lastly, just before the interview, make sure you’re settled in a quiet spot where you can conduct your phone interview in peace, with no interruptions. This rules out busy public places, or home if things are chaotic with kids, pets, ambient noise, etc.

The interview questions

Now that you’re prepped for the interview, what can you expect from the interview itself? We’ve put together some of the most common phone interview questions, and how to approach them. “Tell me about yourself.” This one is always tricky, no matter what the interview format is. And given that the phone interview is likely an introductory interview, you can probably expect this one to pop up. An open-ended question is difficult because it’s all on you. Don’t go too broad here—the interviewer isn’t interested in your third grade spelling bee victory or your favorite television show. Limit your answer to a few highlight points about your professional career, especially those relevant to the job for which you’re interviewing. An elevator pitch comes in very handy here, because it covers relevant high-level info that works nicely for a “tell me about yourself.” Example: “I recently graduated with my bachelor’s in accounting, and I’m ready to translate my internship with Prestigious Financial Firm and my strong accounting skills into the next steps of my career.” “What interested you about this job/company?” This is where your pre-interview research comes in handy here, because “your job listing on TheJobNetwork matched my keyword search” is not a great answer. Instead, talk about one of your goals that this job would help you achieve or mention something you really like about the company. And remember: whether this is your dream job or one of dozens for which you sent out your resume, make it clear that this job is an opportunity you didn’t want to miss. The more specific and authentic your answer sounds, the better. Example: “I’m ready for the next level in my career, so I was excited to find this opening in X Corp’s sales department. It’s an incredible opportunity, and I know my skills and experience would be a good fit.” “Tell me about your current/most recent job.” Like the “tell me about yourself” question, don’t get sucked into the open-endedness of this question. The interviewer isn’t necessarily interested in every one of your daily tasks, thoughts, and opinions about the work. Instead, focus on the parts of your job that relate most directly to the job you want, and highlight the accomplishments. Example: “I work directly with clients to coordinate orders and shipments. For example, I recently onboarded a brand new client, and we were able to get them up and running with no interruption in sales.” “Why are you leaving your job?” Part of the phone interview process is weeding out people who set off initial red flags, or aren’t a good fit for this particular job or company. They want to know you’re not a flight risk or unable to work as a member of a team. So this question is pretty popular in interviews of all kinds—especially a preliminary phone interview. The answer shouldn’t focus too much on what dissatisfies you about your current job (like “my boss is a micromanager” or “my job is boring and I want to try something else”). Instead, emphasize your goals and this new job itself. And if you got fired or left under not-great circumstances, don’t panic. Also don’t lie, especially if the reason you were fired will come up in a background check or in a conversation with your references. Frame it as a learning experience. And definitely talk about your major takeaway from the experience, and how you’ve used that to overcome your challenges and become a better professional. Example: “I’ve learned a great deal in my current position, but I feel like there wasn’t enough room to grow and develop as much as I’d like. It helped me realign my goals and figure out that I want a job that is more focused on customer service.” “Do you have any questions for me?” In a phone interview, this is your chance to do a little extra research, especially if you’re talking with someone other than the hiring manager (who would likely handle the next round interview). You’re not likely to get candid insights like, “I think this company does a lousy job at work-life balance,” but you can at least get some on-the-record opinions and information from someone closely related to the company. Think of it as a bit of professional snooping that can help you prepare for the next phase if you’re offered an in-person interview. Examples:
  • “What qualities are you looking for in applicants for this position?”
  • “What are the opportunities for advancement in this position?”
  • “How does this company provide employee feedback?”
  • “Why is the person who last held this job leaving?”
  • “What is the most challenging aspect of this particular job?”
A phone interview may not be the main interview in your hiring process, but it’s such an important first step that it should be treated every bit as seriously as any other kind of interview. Making sure you’re prepared and understanding what your gameplan is will help you be more relaxed and ready to answer any question that comes your way.

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