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Mearah, Student Career Advising,TGSBy Mearah Quinn-Brauner, NCA assistant director of student career advising, serving students in The Graduate School.

Conducting informational interviews is a great way to gather intelligence on a career field that sounds interesting to you while also building connections with people working in the field. While informational interviewing is in some ways very simple—you just have to talk to people!—there are many things you can do to help ensure you make a good impression. That positive impression can increase the likelihood that an interviewee will share her contacts with you; will feel comfortable recommending you for an open position; and will even think of you as a good candidate for an opportunity in her organization, should one arise. Here are some tips:

  • Make scheduling as easy as possible. This includes keeping your email brief (one to two sentences each: who you are, why you are writing, and what you want), using formatting to make your email easy to skim (now is the time to play with sentence-long paragraphs!), and ending with a clear request for a conversation, so your contact doesn’t have to guess about your reasons for writing. Once you hear back, suggest some dates and times. If your conversation will be over the phone, share your phone number, but also write that you are happy to call your contact, if she prefers. Most people are very busy and will appreciate your willingness and ability to take on the details of scheduling.
  • Do research before the informational interview. Read your contact’s LinkedIn profile and everything else you can find about her online. Scour her organization’s webpage. Then, develop some questions that you can’t answer by Googling. This whole process may take as little as an hour and will help you make the best use of your contact’s limited time.
  • Ask questions that you are really interested in getting answered and then LISTEN to the answers. Nothing is more impressive than a really good listener. Don’t spend a lot of time developing complex questions that you think will knock the socks off of your contact, if you couldn’t care less what the answers will be. Ask thoughtful questions that will help you gather the information you need. Also, once you’ve asked a question, try to simply pay attention to what your contact is saying and not zone out until they stop talking and it’s your turn to ask another question. Your contact will feel like he is wasting his time if he can tell you aren’t really listening.
  • Ask if you can take notes, and then take notes. If you are doing many informational interviews, the information will start to get jumbled in your head. So, make sure you have a system for keeping track of everything you learn. Also, you demonstrate your organizational skills and your interest by recording the information your contact shares.
  • Make it easy for the interviewee to help you. In other words, don’t ask for something that your contact will have a hard time delivering. Most obviously, this means not asking for a job or internship, since most people are not in a position to hand these out (even if they wanted to). This also means not asking your contacts what career you should pursue. They barely know you! Instead, ask specific questions about their jobs and career paths so that you can use the information you gather to make your own decisions about what career to pursue.
  • Don’t ask “Do you like your job?” This question is misguided for at least two reasons: First, you and your interviewee may have very different interests, skills, and career values, which means that whether they like their job may be interesting to know, but not really relevant to your career exploration or job search. If you are trying to understand what might make this particular job enjoyable, meaningful, and rewarding to you, ask specific questions to elicit relevant information. For example, if you know you enjoy working on projects with others, you might ask, “What kinds of opportunities do you have to collaborate with others in the office?” Or, “Could you tell me about some team projects you are working on?”Second, not everyone likes their job all of the time, but most people will feel it’s important to maintain a positive attitude about their job. Especially when talking to strangers. So, avoid inadvertently asking your interviewee to lie to you by rephrasing this question to get at what you really want to know. If you are looking for information about what makes the position challenging, ask “What are some of the challenges in this job?” Or, “What do you think are the biggest challenges for new employees in this organization?”

Once you’ve made that good first impression, give yourself the opportunity to build on it by following up! One of the most common questions I get about informational interviewing is how to keep in touch with contacts after an initial informational interview and thank you email. My advice is to make following up easier by ending your first conversation with the question, “do you mind if I contact you in the future with any additional questions?” Of course, you don’t need to ask this in order to email, but if it helps you feel more relaxed about writing again, do it.

Also, remember that most people will be happy to hear from you again, especially if you had a pleasant first conversation.

Try these strategies as you plan your next informational interview!