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Your Complete Guide to Informational Interviews

After writing an article about what seniors can do to help jump start their job search, it seemed that there should be an article completely dedicated to informational interviewing—because knowing how, why and when to do these interviews might be the one thing standing between you and your dream job. Whether you’re a second-semester senior in the midst of your job search, or a sophomore looking for a great summer internship, informational interviews with industry-insiders are an invaluable resource.

What is an informational interview?
First things first: informational interviews are not meant to ask for jobs, internships, etc. An informational interview is a time to sit down with a professional or an industry expert, and get their insight, advice and wisdom on their career path. Whether you’re speaking to a CEO or an intern, treat them as a source of information and insight—not your ticket into the company! So while you can’t beg for a job, you can find out more about certain industries, career paths or even specific companies—all of these things will be great resources when you do begin your job search.

Why should you do them?
“In addition to gathering information, you are building a professional network, consisting of contacts with whom you have developed relationships…the larger your network, the greater your opportunities,” explains Northeastern University’s career services. By knowing the ins and outs of particular industries, you’ll be able to effectively market yourself during job interviews.

How to find people to interview with
The best place to start is by reaching out to people you’ve worked with or have met at networking events. Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask family members, friends and classmates to see if they know anyone working in your industry with whom you could talk. NU Career Services adds, “Most people like to give advice and feel good helping others…which is what an informational interview gives them a chance to do.”

Still feeling a little overwhelmed at the prospect of finding people to reach out to? Spend a little bit of time looking into each of the channels below—you’re sure to find some great prospects. Look for contacts who work in industries that you’re interested in, or at companies that you admire.

  • Your school’s alumni directory
  • Professors and faculty
  • Former colleagues
  • Friends’ parents
  • Your parents’ friends
  • Professional and/or local organizations
  • Industry-specific networking events, workshops and seminars
  • Online networking (like LinkedIn!)
  • Online and offline trade publications and newsletters

Making contact and setting up an interview
Unless your contact is someone with whom you’ve worked before, the best way to reach out is via a short email. “If the prospective informational interviewer has no network connection to the person they are interviewing, I would recommend e-mail as a more appropriate means of contacting. It gives the interviewee the ability to think about the request without being put on the spot,” says Darryl Stevens, assistant director of the career center at the University of California-Riverside. If you don’t have a direct email address for someone, LinkedIn can be a great resource for making contact

When it comes time to write and send your interview request, there are a ton of great resources online for sample emails. Below are two examples from Northeastern University’s career services. Here is one tailored for undergraduates and one specifically for seniors.

Sample #1 – Undergrad/Choosing a Major

Dear Ms. Smith:
As a first-year student at Northeastern University, I am in the process of choosing my major. I have been researching careers related to a communications major, and came across your company’s name when doing my research. I was hoping I could meet with you to discuss your career in public relations. I am interested in hearing about how and why you entered the field, the pros and cons of working in PR, and your advice on how I might test the waters to determine if this field is a good fit for me. Would it be possible to schedule a half-hour meeting in the next few weeks to discuss your position and career path?

I will call you next week to follow up. Please feel free to contact me at 555-555-555 or sample@neu.edu.
Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to speaking with you.

Anita Clew

Sample #2 – Graduating Senior

Dear Ms. Doe:
Through an NU Alumni LinkedIn group, I discovered that you currently work in HR information management. As I finish up my degree in MIS and HR, I am contacting NU alums in relevant fields for advice. The work of an HRIS analyst greatly interests me. I realize this is not an entry-level position; however I would like to gain an understanding of what your position demands, the career path you followed, and the pros and cons of this kind of work. I would greatly appreciate it if we could set up a 20-minute meeting, at your convenience, to discuss these topics.
During the last week of July, I will give you a quick follow up call. In the meantime, however, I can be reached at 555-555-5555, e-mail sample@husky.neu.edu. Thank you very much for your time.
Sincerely yours,
Gimea Hand

Interview Day and what questions to ask

So you’ve researched, reached out to a professional and they’ve agreed to sit down with you—that’s great! Although there is one big difference between informational and traditional interviews (the direct prospect of a position), a lot of the preparation is the same. Check out HC’s 10 Ways to Have the Best Interview Possible for a refresher on some of the best ways to get ready.

With informational interviews, you’ll be the one asking the questions so it is important to go in prepared. “Prepare an opening statement that gives a brief profile of who you are and your interest in the field,” advises UCLA Career Center. Additionally, “develop a number of well thought out, open-ended questions to stimulate a meaningful discussion.”

Need some help organizing your thoughts? Check out the list below for topic ideas!

About an interviewee

  • Did you attend college? If so, what was your field of study?
  • What has your career path been thus far in the industry?
  • How would you describe your typical workday?
  • What do you find most satisfying about your job?
  • What are the most challenging aspects of your position?

About a company

  • What is the work environment like at your company?
  • How would you describe the corporate culture?
  • What do you feel are the most important skills and qualifications for succeeding at your company?
  • How would you describe your typical workday?
  • What is the typical career path/ladder in your department? In your company?
  • How does your company stay ahead of the competitors?

About an industry

  • What do you feel are the most important skills and qualifications for succeeding in the industry?
  • Are there any trends that are shaping the industry?
  • What is the typical career path/ladder in the industry?
  • Who are the industry leaders—companies? Individuals?
  • What do you think are the best strategies for students to get their foot in the door in the industry?
  • Are there any industry trade publications or organizations that I should look into for more information?

These are just general suggestions. Through your pre-interview preparation, try to come up with some detailed questions that show that you have done some research!

After the interview…
End your interview by thanking the person and finish by asking if they know of any other people with whom it would be useful for you to sit down with. Remember—informational interviews are all about networking, and having a contact who can introduce you to other contacts is a great asset.

When you get home, be sure to write a thank you note while your conversation is still fresh in your mind. Send your thank you via email that same day, and a hand-written note within the next week. “Express your appreciation for the assistance you received and mention one or two specifically helpful points,” advises Northeastern career services. Throughout your college career, if you take advantage of informational and informal interviews, you’ll be well prepared for any job opportunity that comes your way.

The importance of interviewing
Debra Shigley, author of The Go-Getter Girl’s Guide, urges you to “expand your social and professional circles, gathering acquaintances from different backgrounds, social circles, and professional spheres.” Having professional connections, whether in the exact industry that you’d like to enter post-grad or not, is invaluable to collegiettes. Make a list of contacts, reach out to them, prepare some amazing questions and then just be yourself—you never know whom you’ll meet!

Debra Shigley, author of The Go-Getter Girl’s Guide
Northeastern University Career Center
UCLA Career Center
Darryl Stevens, assistant director of the career center at the University of California Riverside

Rachel is a graduate of Northeastern University, living in the heart of Boston and working full-time in merchandising at the Reebok HQ right outside of the city. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn
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