This is the secret to landing more jobs — and it happens before the application

This past year has shown us that nothing is permanent. With the job market and economy taking a dramatic turn for the worse in the wake of the global pandemic, many people, even those with solid, long-term careers and a high level of expertise, are finding themselves in a difficult professional situation. 

Whether you’re starting a job search for the very first time, trying to break into a new industry or just thinking about and taking a look at what’s out there, an informational interview is an important resource for you to explore.

What is an informational interview?

An informational interview is not the same as a job interview — as in, you’re not interviewing for a specific position. Rather, it’s an opportunity to have a conversation with someone in an industry or role that interests you.

Like it sounds, it’s a way to gather more information about the profession and specific business, as well as the types of people who tend to succeed in it. This way, you can learn more about the field to find out whether it sounds like it could be a good fit for you.

Because these opportunities usually aren’t advertised, you have to seek them out, contacting people you know of or admire in an industry that might appeal to you. Often, you’ll need to do a little networking to secure an informational interview (more on that below). Alternatively, if you send a cold letter or application to a business and they don’t have any openings, they might offer this as an alternative.

Here are the 7 steps to acing an informational interview:

1. Research the correct person to ask

How do you find people to target for your informational interview? Consider what you want to get out of it to help you answer this question. Explore different industries that involve your interests (especially if you’re at the beginning of your career), as well as specific companies at which you think you might like to work. This is where making a list of your dream employers and jobs can really come in handy.

One place to start your college and high school alumni network, if they have databases available. People tend to have a sense of loyalty to their alma maters, so fellow alumni will often be more inclined to help you.

LinkedIn is, of course, another place to work. Keep in mind that people who are very high up on the rung at a large company may be less likely to have time and/or respond to you, although there’s no harm in asking. Still, you’re probably more likely to solicit a response from people who aren’t CEOs of a Fortune 500 company. Plus, these people are more likely to remember when they were in your position (since they’re probably not as far removed from that stage) and empathize with you.

2. Craft a compelling message

Give the recipient a reason to respond to you. Make it clear that you’re not asking for a job but simply want to learn more about their career, industry and company, along with the prospective interviewer and their background. Flattery will get you somewhere in this case — people love to know that you admire them and aspire to a career like yours, so it’s helpful to say something to that effect without overdoing it. 

Be specific, here. Saying something vague like “I’d love to pick your brain” can be a little difficult for people to respond to because it suggests that they’ll need to do the work to guide the conversation. Since they’re doing you the favor, you should make it obvious from your message that you’ll be prepared and don’t expect too much from them.

3. Do your homework

While this is not a job interview, don’t go in completely blind. The interviewer will expect you to be prepared and have at least a baseline of knowledge about the industry, the person and their place of business. Spend some time perusing the interviewer’s LinkedIn profile and other public information, such as their website, portfolio and any publications they have to their name. 

You should also familiarize yourself with the person’s business, no matter what their role within it. Look at the company websites and social media accounts. Take some time to search their job openings, too (remembering you shouldn’t ask for a job — but you can still ask for advice on landing an interview for these or similar jobs if anything appeals to you). 

4. Practice

While an informational interview isn’t evaluative, you still want to present yourself well and come across as a competent, professional and driven individual. You never know what opportunities this could lead to, so it’s always a good idea to make a good impression. Even if this experience doesn’t directly lead to more opportunities, you never know when you might encounter your interviewer again — or the people with whom they might be able to connect you.

That’s why you should spend some time practicing, preferably with someone you trust who can give you feedback, just as you would in the case of a job interview. While you shouldn’t over-rehearse, you should still practice enough so you feel comfortable asking questions and conversing with the interviewer.

5. Deliver an elevator pitch

In an actual job interview, you’ll probably hear a prompt along the lines of “Tell me about yourself” or “Walk me through your resume.” In an informational interview, the focus is less on you and more on the interviewer — their background and career. While you should provide some context and explain why you want to know more about the profession, you should keep it brief. 

Develop a brief elevator pitch, presenting key points about you and your job search in a short, digestible package. Make sure to address what you’re looking to get out of this conversation.

6. Ask the right questions

This discussion should largely be driven by your questions since you’re trying to learn more about this person and their area of expertise. Some of these questions should be industry- and interviewer-specific, while others can be more general. Below are some examples, which you should adjust according to your personal goals for the informational interview and your career in general:

1. How did you get your start in [industry]?

2. Why did you decide to go into [field]?

3. What were some of your early roles?

4. What’s the typical career trajectory for someone in your role?

5. What are your big-picture priorities and responsibilities?

6. What do your day-to-day responsibilities look like?

7. How does your role fit in/work with other departments and the larger organization

8. What are the most important skills people need in your career?

9. How did you attain those skills?

10. What do you love most about your job?

11. What would you change about your job?

12. What are some challenges you encounter in your role?

13. What’s the typical educational background for someone in this role or industry?

14. How do people typically advance their careers in this industry?

15. What do you look for in candidates when you’re in a position to hire someone?

16. If you could do your early career over, what would you change?

17. Why did you choose to work at your current organization?

18. How do you balance your personal life and work life?

19. Do you have any colleagues who would be willing to speak with me?

20. What advice would you give to someone like me?

Try to develop some questions that directly reflect the conversation, such as follow-up questions about the interviewer’s experiences and background.

7. Send a thank-you note

The process isn’t over when you say goodbye to your interviewer. This person has given you their time and advice, and they deserve a thank you. Just as you would write a thank-you note for a job interview, you should do the same for an informational interview. This shows the interviewer courtesy and professionalism. Plus, if they’re ever in a position to hire, you’ll have made a good impression on them.

Here are some of the benefits of informational interviews:

1. You’ll learn more about the industry and positions within it

Informational interviews are an ideal way to learn more about an industry that appeals to you. It’s the perfect time to ask what things are really like.

Since you’re not interviewing for a specific job, both you and the interviewer can be more candid and forthcoming about the good and the bad. You have the opportunity to ask questions about the challenges as well as the perks of the industry.

You can also learn more about the different roles available. Some industries are associated with specific jobs, such as publishing and editors, despite the fact that there are many more roles you might not have considered or even know exist.

2. You’ll get practice interviewing

This is a low-stakes opportunity to get experience interviewing. Because it’s not evaluative, an information interview gives you the chance to test out your interviewing skills without having to be anxious about whether or not you’re going to land the job. This will be valuable practice for when you go on actual job interviews, and you’ll be able to build your confidence up in a more informal setting.

3. You could expand your network

Informational interviews are an excellent networking opportunity. Not only will you (hopefully) secure a solid connection with your interviewer, but if all goes well, they might be able to connect you with other professionals in the industry.

This can be invaluable for several reasons. First, it will increase the likelihood of finding a job since networking plays a huge role in the hiring process. And second, if you have a good rapport with the interviewer, you might discover that they’re someone you can turn to for advice. In the best-case scenario, this person could even become a mentor to you, providing guidance not only on this particular job search but also throughout your career.

4. You’ll put yourself on employers’ radars

On a similar note, an informational interview is a means of getting your name out there. It’s hard to break into some industries — even more so given the competition these days — so making a contact like your interviewer will help put you on their radar.

If you’re lucky, they’ll also tell other people in the industry about you, giving you even more exposure. If you make a good impression on your interviewer, they and their colleagues will keep you in mind and seek you out when and if they have openings.

5. You could land a job

We’ve certainly hammered home the point that this is not a job interview and you shouldn’t expect to land a position after an informational interview. But that doesn’t mean it never happens.

If you’re very, very lucky and your timing is exceptional, the interviewer might just be looking to hire someone with your skills and experience or know someone else who is.

This is another reason why it’s helpful to peruse job openings at your interviewer’s company, so if the topic comes up, you’ll be well prepared and knowledgeable about what’s out there.

This article first appeared on FairyGodBoss.