Ask the Interview Coach: What to Say in a Phone Interview to Score an In-Person

Companies are increasingly choosing to use a phone interview at the early stages of screening candidates, before inviting them on-site for in-person interviews. This is a way to efficiently screen through large candidate pools, as the average job has over 250 applicants. Moreover, the phone screen is typically conducted by recruiters, many of whom may be remote so the phone-screen is a good medium to tap into remote talent and reduce the recruiting overhead for the hiring manager.

What the Interviewer Is Looking for

The recruiter has three main goals for a phone interview:

1. Confirm Interest

Hiring managers have a limited amount of time, and a recruiter’s first filter is to make sure they are passing along candidates that are truly interested in the role. We are in the era where recruiters reach out to candidates more often than the other way around, and often prospective candidates will take a phone screen just to get interview practice and see what the market is willing to pay. As such, recruiters use the phone interview to ensure you have a genuine interest in the company and the role.

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2. Match Core Skills

A recruiter will not typically conduct a deep-dive on each of your core skills, but rather, they want to make sure you have general experience in the core requirements of the job. For example, if you are interviewing to be a digital marketing manager they are less likely to get into the specifics of how you measure the success of a marketing campaign, but they will want to ensure you have indeed run marketing campaigns of similar size and scope as theirs. This is more of a checklist approach rather than grading your skills in each category.

3. Assess Culture Fit

Behavioral interviewing is how most companies comprehensively assess “culture fit” in later rounds. However, the phone interview is also meant to do a preliminary check on how well suited you are to the company’s culture. Key areas of interest for the recruiter is whether you have worked in similar environments (e.g., pace of work, level of collaboration), your overall demeanor (e.g., level of humility), and your mindset (e.g., growth orientation).

How to Ace This Stage of the Interview Process
1. Demonstrate Synthesis

During a phone interview, it is easy for the interviewer to get distracted (e.g., check email). This makes it even more important to be succinct and compelling to ensure you capture their attention. This can be applied to the first question the recruiter will ask — “Tell me about yourself.” Many candidates ramble and spend too much time on unimportant details, and miss out on highlighting the core aspects of their candidacy. A practical way to solve this and demonstrate synthesis is to focus on the themes of your career progression. For example, you might describe your career in three stages — your first role, your ascension into leadership roles and your current job, instead of reciting everything on your resume.

You can also describe your career by functional themes, especially when your career has breadth and a non-linear path. For example, you might frame your career as being a mix of bringing new products to market, developing and coaching teams, and partnering with cross-functional stakeholders.

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2. Be Precise About Why You Want the Job

As mentioned earlier, often the recruiter has reached out to you, and it is important to show you are not passively taking a call, but rather have clear interest in the role. This is why it is important to do your research on the company to understand them more deeply, and then weave that into why it fits with the career path you are charting. Specifically, you should have clarity on their mission, their ecosystem (e.g., customer segments, key competitors) and their products/services. Ideally, in your research, you will find something that truly connects with your experience and/or professional interests and speaking to that will show a deep interest in the opportunity.

3. Simulate a Real Interview Environment

A common mistake candidates make is not recreating the environment that brings out their best, professional self. Often candidates will take a call from home, while reclining on their couch, and this casual attitude shows up in their communication style, dimming their professional energy.

Given this, it is important to find an environment that can simulate a professional aura (e.g., a home office, in front of a desk), and dress accordingly as your communication style will be more polished as your brain picks up on the subtle cues. The right posture will also ensure your voice projects well, as opposed to reclining on your couch and sounding muffled.

4. Ask Thoughtful Questions

The questions you ask towards the end of the phone interview serve as an indicator of what is important to you in the opportunity so avoid administrative questions such as vacation policy. Instead, focus on high-value questions that show you are thinking about things that really matter such as “What does success in the role look like?” These questions will also better prepare you to engage on a deeper level in the following rounds, especially when speaking with the hiring manager.

45 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview
5. Avoid Reciting From Paper

Some candidates use phone screens as an opportunity to script their answers and read them word for word. This takes away from having an authentic conversation, and most interviewers can sense when you are reciting from a script. Instead, you can have a few bullet points written out that you want to make sure you cover in the conversation and also have your resume handy so you can speak to specifics when asked.

Jeevan is the Founder and CEO of Rocket Interview ( www.rocketinterview.com ) where his team helps job seekers ace the most competitive interviews. He was an Associate Partner at McKinsey and Company and a VP of a Tech Startup where he regularly interviewed job candidates. Since then, he has helped clients land jobs in roles ranging from product management to marketing. His clients have landed jobs at Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, Coca-Cola and other competitive companies. Email: jeevan@rocketinterview.com

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