What Are Informational Interviews And How Can They Help Your Career

College student conducting an informational interview with business woman in her office

An informational interview can help you conduct professional reconnaissance, brush up on your interviewing skills and make valuable connections that could help you advance your career. You may have heard the term tossed around or heard someone say they could speak ‘on information.’ But what does that mean, exactly?

Here, we’ll explain the benefits of informational interviews, share some circumstances when it might make sense to have one and offer sample informational interview questions you can use to make a glowing impression on whomever you meet with. 

What Is An Informational Interview?

Let’s start with what an informational interview is not: it’s not a job interview and you shouldn’t approach it as one. While you might be meeting with an employee of a company you want to work for–or even the person you want to work for–there should be no expectations about employment surrounding the interview.

Instead, an informational interview is meant to help you learn more about what a person’s job or field of work is like, the responsibilities they hold, what their day-to-day activities look like and what it’s like to work at their company. It’s an information-gathering session that should help you move closer toward a goal, whether that’s to break into a new field, make a decision about where you want to apply, or understand whether a job is suited to your skills. 

When someone agrees to meet with you for an informational interview, they’re doing you a big professional favor. So, it’s important that you prepare accordingly to make the most of the time with them.

When Should You Have An Informational Interview?

When you’re just starting out

Early on in your career, it can be challenging to know where to focus your efforts. There are so many jobs out there that you don’t even know exist, let alone knowing whether you’d be qualified or actually enjoy them. Informational interviews can help you gain direction and understand where different decisions might lead you in your career. 

When you’re thinking of switching career paths

This is the most common reason people hold informational interviews. They’re a valuable resource for asking questions that will help you decide whether a different path might be right for you. And, because they’re not actually interviewing you for a job, it’s a great opportunity for interviewees to be candid about what it’s like to work in their field and the realities of their company. 

Related: Tips For Switching Career Paths

When you’re looking for new opportunities

Maybe you’re ready to take the next step in your career but you’re not sure what that might look like, or perhaps you’ve reached a ceiling for growth in your current company and are wondering what else is out there. Informational interviews can help you get a better read on the state of your industry and make a positive impression on people who might be able to point you in the right direction of fresh opportunities. 

Benefits of Informational Interviews

Access insider knowledge

Informational interviews put you one on one with insiders at companies you might want to work for. They may share useful information that’s not readily available in the public domain that can help you in your job search. 

Get tailored advice

An informational interview gives you a chance to ask questions that are specific to your situation–and that you might not feel comfortable asking your current boss or colleagues–from someone with deep expertise in the field.

Build relationships

Although gaining favors shouldn’t be your primary reason for conducting informational interviews, they do allow you to form meaningful connections with seasoned professionals that could benefit you in the future, sometimes even many years down the road. 

Sample Informational Interview Questions

In an informational interview, using the time wisely is key, therefore you should come prepared with a list of your most important questions. Aim to cover topics you wouldn’t be able to learn from a quick Google search. 

Here are some good questions to ask in an informational interview:

About their job

  • What does a typical day look like in your line of work?
  • How does your position fit in with the overall company?
  • What kinds of people do you work with?
  • How did you get into the field?
  • What do you like about your job?
  • What do you dislike about it?
  • What skills or education are considered essential for your job, versus those that are merely nice to have?
  • What are some entry-level jobs that could lead to your position?

About their company

  • What’s the culture like at your company?
  • What are some of your team’s major goals?
  • What traits or accomplishments do your company leaders value?
  • What kinds of positions do entry-level employees get hired for at your company/on your team?
  • Can you tell me about the hiring process?

About the industry

  • What are some other career paths people take in the industry?
  • What websites, publications and other media should someone in your field read regularly?
  • What do you wish you’d known before getting into the field?
  • Is there anything you’d go back and do differently?
  • What advice do you have for someone in my shoes?
  • Is there anyone else that comes to mind that would be good for me to speak with?

Informational Interview Tips

Do your homework

It may not be a job interview, but it’s just as important that you do a little legwork ahead of time so you can show up prepared. You’ll obviously want to know the basics like who the person is and their job title. You might also browse their LinkedIn profile to learn about the prior jobs they’ve held and do a Google News search on their company to see if they’ve had any noteworthy happenings recently.  

Be respectful of their time

As we mentioned earlier, your interviewee is doing you a professional courtesy by agreeing to meet. Don’t spend the first 20 minutes talking about yourself. This is your chance to learn from them. Instead, have a quick spiel that covers who you are and what you’re hoping to learn from your meeting, like: 

I’m a marketing coordinator for a small firm, but I’m becoming much more interested in the data side of my job. I’m thinking of making the switch to a larger company where there would be more opportunities in data analysis. I’m hoping to ask some questions that will help me decide on my next move. 

Then, dive into the meat of the conversation. 

Take notes

Along with bringing questions you’ve prepared ahead of time, come armed with a pen and paper to take notes as you chat. This will help you keep the conversation on track and give you a record to look back on later. It’s a great idea to review your notes shortly after the interview to add anything else you want to remember but didn’t get a chance to jot down in the moment. 

Ask for feedback

One of the biggest advantages of an informational interview is that people are often less guarded than they’d be in a formal job interview. Because there’s not a job offer on the line, both parties can speak freely and express their opinions. Take advantage of this. Don’t be afraid to run ideas past them, ask for feedback and get their honest advice. 

Follow up to say thanks

Shortly after your informational interview, be sure to send a thank-you note expressing your gratitude and citing one or two specific things you enjoyed talking about. A handwritten card is nice, but we prefer email for sending thank you notes because it gives them an easy way to find your contact info and get back in touch if you’re a good fit for an opportunity that crosses their path. 

If you follow the informational interview tips above, these meetings can be an invaluable tool to help you take the next step in your career. Even if you’re not actively job searching, conducting informational interviews can help you stay top-of-mind with the movers and shakers in your field and ensure you don’t miss out on the next great opportunity. 

Related: How To Write a Perfect Thank You Email After An Interview

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the president of 4 Corner Resources, the nationally acclaimed staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. His mission back then was the same as it is today: to do business in a personal way, while building an organization with boundless opportunities for ingenuity and advancement. When not managing 4 Corner’s growth or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his sales and business expertise though public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Hire Calling podcast.