Updated: Jan 21
“Lisa, I can tell that you didn’t prepare beforehand.”
I froze when the person I had kindly asked for an informational interview responded to a question I posed. I thought I had done well for myself by securing this connection with a former vice president of a large research university (by striking up a conversation with her after playing with her adorable dog, but that’s a story for a different time). I politely emailed her and expressed how her career experiences align with my professional interests, I showed up early, I bought her coffee, I had a set of questions prepared with a pen and notebook in hand, and I had dressed tidily for our informational interview. What else could I have done?
Turns out, my understanding of an informational interview was limited. Over several informational interviews both as the interviewer and the interviewee, I have come to realize that an informational interview is more than a way for me to gather information on someone and their industry—it’s a key way for me to set a positive first impression that could benefit me in unimaginable ways in the future.
Questions tell a lot about a person. And while your professor may tell you there are no bad questions, there are certainly weaker and stronger questions to ask. I made the mistake of asking weak questions that reveal under-preparation and perhaps made someone assume I wasn’t serious about the professional field.
You’re interested in learning more about an industry or someone’s career journey, and you’ve managed to get into contact with a wonderful Oxy alum who is so generous to spend their time sharing their experiences and advice with you – but now what? How can you make sure you are both learning as much as you can from someone, while making sure you are setting a positive impression?
1. Don’t expect to be spoon-fed information. Do your research beforehand and ask thoughtful questions
Beyond simply Googling this person or browsing their LinkedIn profile, go above and beyond by doing some research about their current or past employer(s). What kind of role does the person play within their company and does this seem comparable to similar roles in other companies in the industry? What does the company or organizational structure look like and what might that say about the company culture? What are some recent changes or events that have happened internally in this company and how might have such events impacted their work? Doing your research not only about this person’s career history, but also their employers will broaden your understanding beyond one single person’s story and help you to understand whether this industry may be the right fit for you. Furthermore, thoughtful questions based off of demonstrated research will show intentionality and preparation, which will yield interesting answers and may impress the person you’re interviewing.
Instead of: “How is being a [position] at [x company]?”
Try: “I see that you are responsible for [x task] in your current role. Can you tell me a project you’ve done that you’ve been proud of, and what skills you think helped contribute to your success?”
Instead of “what are the pro’s and con’s of being in [x graduate program/y company/z industry]?”
Try: “I’ve heard/I would imagine/My research shows that some benefits of being in [x graduate program/y company/z industry] would be [benefits xyz]. However, can you tell me a downside that people perhaps don’t talk about enough?”
Instead of “Do you have any advice for me?”
Instead of “how did you get into [x graduate program/y company/z industry]?”
Try: “I’ve done [x internship/job/extracurricular activity] and done [y networking]. What else can I do that could help me enter or advance in the field?”
2. Don’t just make it a Q&A. Make it into a conversation (and talk about yourself too!)
Answering questions for 30 minutes to 1 hour can be exhausting, particularly when one feels that the other person is not responding or playing off of the dynamic. Make sure not to bombard your interviewee with only questions, but make space for comments, jokes, and even pauses. If you relate to something that your interviewee shared, make sure to mention it! If something your interviewee shared reminded you of something you learned from class at Oxy, share that! Informational interviews are a way for the interviewee to get to know you, so try to find ways to talk about yourself and show your personality, without of course going overboard and dominating the conversation.
Here are some ways to respond to an answer (and give your interviewee time to sip their water or coffee)
Instead of: “That’s so cool!”
Try: “Wow, I didn’t know that [what the interviewee just shared]. This really reminds me of…”
Instead of: “That’s interesting!”
Try: “That’s interesting. I feel like I can relate to that experience when I was [role in a club/job/internship] and faced [an incident that the interviewee could also respond to].”
3. Don’t just say thank you. Follow up (more than once).
Saying “thank you” to your interviewee is expected; what isn’t always expected is a follow up. Make sure to send an email thanking them for their time and pointing out a few things that stood out to you in your conversation. If you come across something that reminded you of your conversation with that person, no matter how long ago your interview was, shoot them an email and let them know that you’re thinking of them. If you are connected on LinkedIn, react to their posts and comment on them. Creating and (perhaps more importantly) building on those connections will ensure that this person remembers you.
Additionally, one of my favorite ways to wrap up an informational interview is to open myself up for more networking opportunities. Try asking: “Are there other professionals in your field who you feel comfortable connecting me with to talk to about [xyz experience or perspective]?” They may say no, or they may not feel comfortable making an introduction, which is fine! Ask anyway. Doing so allows you to tap into that person’s network and exposes you to more connections.
Post-college or professional life includes so many unspoken rules. Hope these tips help you have successful informational interviews in the future!
By Lisa Chang
Lisa Chang '16 (she/her) currently serves as the Assistant Director for International Studies at the Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. Previously, she was the Fellowships Advisor at Vanderbilt University Career Center. She has a M.S.Ed in Higher Education from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and a B.A in Religious Studies from Occidental College.