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Expert Advice: 8 Tips for Acing a Phone Interview

May 1, 2014
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You’ve written a thoughtful resume and a standout cover letter that caught the eye of a potential employer, and you’ve made it past the first round in the hiring process. Although this is cause for some celebration, make sure to contain your excitement. The next challenge—the phone interview—will likely determine whether you’ll be a finalist for the position. This is your chance to let your words speak volumes about your personality and to prove you are the best person for the job.

But mastering the art of the phone interview takes practice. Even the most experienced job seekers can fail to answer the often-complex questions. Don’t risk missing out on the job of your dreams by being unprepared. Follow these tips from career experts to nail the phone interview and get invited for an in-person meeting.


[Want more career advice? Check out our Job Search Guide for Gen Y.]




1. Study the company and the position. 

Just as you (hopefully) did when writing your resume and cover letter, make sure to review the company’s website and social media platforms before your phone interview. “You should be able to speak confidently about the company priorities, the industry the company is a part of, and how you can assist the organization in meeting and exceeding its goals,” says Kim Whiteside, career services manager at Bellevue University.

Refresh your memory of the company by studying the job listing as well as the resume and cover letter you wrote. Meghan Godorov, assistant director of career development at Mount Holyoke College, advises jobs seekers to “always keep a copy of each document with the job description on [his or her] computer. This way, it will be easy to revisit your materials, and you won’t have to desperately search for what you submitted.”


2. Rehearse your answers to common questions.

“Don’t wing it!” says Rich Grant, internship coordinator at Colby College. “Students should take phone interviews as seriously as in-person interviews.” Studying the company and the job position is only the first step; you must also be comfortable answering common interview questions about your experience and background. “When looking through your resume, consider your experiences and develop stories you can tell that will support what you are claiming to bring to the table,” says Godorov. “You should be prepared to answer questions such as ‘Tell me about yourself’ and ‘Why do you want to work for this company?’” and be able to explain your strengths and weaknesses. Godorov says “the best way to practice answering these questions is to first spend some time writing your answers down on paper and then setting up a time to practice with your college’s career counseling staff.”

If you are interviewing over the phone with more than one person, Godorov suggests finding clever ways to practice the conversation. “Find stuffed animals or figurines to which to assign each person’s name. This way, you can speak to the object or animal when talking on the phone and perhaps that will help you with your delivery and tone. It can also help you keep track of each individual on the call.” She says this method has worked for herself and her students in the past.




3. Use a landline phone and avoid distractions.

Any interruptions during your phone conversation can hurt your chances at getting called back. Grant advises job candidates to “conduct the phone interview in a quiet place and preferably inside on a landline phone.” Using a landline, rather than a cellphone, will ensure the interviewer hears every word you say, and vice versa.

Find a quiet place to have the conversation, away from any distractions that might make you seem unprofessional, says Karen Andrews, director of career services at Kennesaw State University. She says a quiet place also serves as a stress-free environment where the candidate can feel comfortable.

Whiteside adds, “If possible, find a conference room or an area far enough away from pets, television, music, and individuals in the background. Don’t have your telephone interview while driving or engaged in any other activity.”


4. Have your notes and resume on hand.

“One of the benefits of a phone interview is that the employer can’t see you,” says Jeff Sackaroff, career services director at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “The candidate can have their notes, resume, and job description in front of them to inconspicuously refer to during the interview.” But he advises students to not just read from notes and their resume. “These can be useful reference tools, should you need a quick prompt during the interview,” but it is much more professional to have your pitch memorized before you begin the interview.


5. Use the S.T.A.R. method to answer lengthier questions.

“In an interview, you will be asked to expand upon your experience as well as connect those experiences to the needs the company has and for the position that is available,” Godorov says. When faced with a question that requires a longer explanation, she suggests following the S.T.A.R. method: Situation, Task, Action and Result. First, present and analyze a specific situation you faced. Then explain the task you had to accomplish and what steps you took to address the problem. Finally, describe what were the results of your efforts. This last step, Godorov says, will show the hiring manager “what you learned from the experience and how you will bring those lessons in a constructive way to the work that you will be doing for them.”


6. Keep your responses under two minutes.

Because phone interviews offer no chance to decipher the interviewer’s non-verbal cues, you may feel the urge to fill gaps and ramble on. Avoid this by limiting your answers to two minutes. Sackaroff says not to “confuse the interviewer’s silence after your response as an invitation” to keep talking. “Answer the question and wait for the interviewer to respond with either a comment or follow-up question.”

Godorov says that answering questions using the S.T.A.R. method will help you stay on track and keep your responses concise. You want the interviewer “to understand the highlights of your experiences and how they relate back to the position” without overwhelming the person with details.

Additionally, the more you practice delivering your answers, says Sackaroff, the more you can avoid using filler words or phrases, such as “like,” “you know” and “um.”


7. Speak with enthusiasm and avoid poor phone etiquette.

The phone interview is your first chance to convey your personality to the hiring manager. “Projecting clearly and enthusiastically is important. Convey energy and passion,” says Whiteside. “Combining personality and professionalism will go a long way to building a connection with the recruiter,” she says, “even over the phone.” Additionally, stating your name as you answer the call will show initiative and confidence on your part.

Without those non-verbal cues from the interviewer, Sackaroff says, “it is even more important that the candidate uses appropriate tone, language, volume, diction, and speed during the call,” adding that “it is very easy for the interviewer to zone out or stop paying attention if the candidate’s responses are not engaging or hard to follow.”

Andrews advises students to “conduct all phone interviews with a mirror in front of them.” Doing so will make you aware of when you are smiling so that “positivity comes across in the voice.” She says another helpful way to improve your delivery is to stand throughout the interview. This will ensure that you speak in a clear and confident manner.

Grant offers another bit of wisdom: “Don’t eat or drink anything, such as chocolate and dairy products, that might hinder your voice.”


8. Take notes and review yourself afterward.

In an in-person interview, when you want to keep eye contact, it can be difficult to take notes on what the interviewer is saying. But, says Grant, “in a phone interview, you can write all you want.” Jot down the key points the interviewer makes. These notes of your conversation will help you hone in on the most important elements of the job, and you’ll be able to draw upon them should you earn an in-person interview.

Taking notes will also help you review your performance, says Whiteside. This way, you can study “what you did well and what you would change if you had to do it over again.” Learning from your mistakes and successes will help you to perform even better during your next phone interview.


[Learn when and how to follow-up after an interview]


Karen Andrews has been in the field of career development for over 30 years. She has worked in vocational schools, private liberal arts colleges, and has spent the last 25 years as the Director of Career Services at Kennesaw State University

Meghan Godorov currently serves as the Assistant Director for Career Development and Pre-Law Advisor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA. She also owns a career consulting business called MLG Career, which she started in order to educate and support Millennials and career-changers with the job search process

Rich Grant is the Interim Internship Coordinator at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. He also serves as President of the Maine College Career Consortium.

Jeff Sackaroff has been in career services for 14 years.  He currently serves as the Associate Director of University Career Services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Prior to that, he served as the Director of Undergraduate Career Services at North Carolina State University’s Poole College of Management.  

Kim L. Whiteside is the Manager of the Career Services Center in the Office of Student Affairs at Bellevue University and has been counseling students for over 25 years.  Kim is a seasoned expert in Executive Coaching, Experiential Learning, and Career Counseling.


Phone Interview image courtesy of Shutterstock.