Informational Interviews: Your Student’s Tool for Career Exploration

Your student is entering college and is undecided about a field of study or the career they want to enter. Your student is a sophomore, junior, or senior, is moving ahead in their major, but is unsure about the career they would like to pursue. Perhaps your student is a senior, approaching graduation, and would like to learn more specifics about a particular career — or begin to make some connections that may ultimately lead to a job.

These are very different scenarios, but they all have one solution in common: the informational interview.

What is an informational interview?

An informational interview is an opportunity for your student to learn about the real-life experience of someone who works in a job or field that interests them, or to learn about a field of study that they are considering. Your student might think of an informational interview as another research tool in their career exploration.

An informational interview is an informal conversation with a focus on gathering information and provides your student the opportunity to learn more about a particular job or company. It is not a job interview.

Why bother with informational interviews?

If your student is still undecided about a college major or career path, informational interviews can help them learn more about how an area of interest might turn into a career. This will guide them toward potential college majors.

If your student already has a clear idea about what they want to do, informational interviews will help them learn more of the specifics about the day-to-day work that someone in the field may do.  Interviews may also help your student discover related paths or jobs they didn’t know existed.

Informational interviews can help your student discover a career, confirm the career they want, or even completely change their mind — before they take their first job.

In addition to the important information gathering aspect of these interviews, they can also help your student network and get to know some people in their chosen field. Your student may inspire others to help them and might even make a connection with someone who is willing to mentor them.

Informational interviews can also give your student the opportunity to practice good interviewing skills — to dress professionally, greet and talk with professionals, and spend some time in a professional environment. They’ll be less nervous when job interviews roll around.

It’s a good idea to conduct more than one informational interview — the more the better. Not everyone has the same experience in their career and not everyone is able to share clearly what their experiences have taught them. The more people that your student talks to, the more complete the picture they will get of a field, a career, or a particular job.

How can my student find people to interview?

Most people enjoy talking about their jobs and the work that they do, so setting up some interviews may not be as daunting as it first seems.

Your student may want to start with someone that they already know as practice — perhaps a family member, friend or neighbor.

Encourage your student to look for people who are not too far up the career ladder yet. It might be exciting to land an interview with the CEO of a company, but that person will be far removed from the experience your student will have starting out. If the CEO opportunity arises, go with it! But include some interviews with people who are two, five, or ten years out of school to give your student a better picture of where their career might start.

Your student might begin by asking people they know — family members, neighbors, parents of their friends, professors, alumni of the school — if they can suggest anyone in the field that they might contact. They can ask the Career Office at their school for suggestions. If they attend any Career Fairs, asking for business cards or contacts may also work.  Encourage your student to be creative in their thinking and to reach wide for suggestions.

How does my student set up an interview?

Reaching out to ask for an interview is possibly the most intimidating part of the process.

Remind your student that are asking only for someone to take a few minutes of their day to talk about what they do. It’s not an overwhelming ask, and the person may actually be flattered to be asked.

Your student can reach out by phone or email to request an interview.  If they were referred by someone, they should be sure to mention that person in the request.  They can be clear that they are not seeking a job or job referral, but only asking for 20 minutes or so of the person’s time to talk about the work that they do. The interview can take place by phone, Zoom or other online platform, or in person. If possible, in an person interview will allow your student to experience the workplace as well.

What makes a good informational interview?

It is important that your student remember a few important things as they enter their interview. These will make the interview go much more smoothly.

  • The interview may be brief. It is good to go with the flow but be sure to allow enough time to get to the questions that are important to you.
  • You are in control of this interview. You can direct the conversation, and it is up to you to get things started and to know how to end.
  • Don’t waste your interviewee’s time. If you asked for 20 minutes, keep your eye on the clock. Be respectful of their time and don’t overstay.  If they offer to continue longer, that’s fine, but offer to end at the end of your allotted time.
  • Do your homework before the interview. Find out as much as you can about the person, their career and the company. Don’t waste time asking questions in the interview that you could have answered through Google.
  • Make a good impression. It’s not a job interview, but you should still be dressed professionally, arrive on time, and bring your enthusiasm.
  • Begin with a brief introduction of yourself and what you hope to learn, but then get into the meat of the interview. Remember that you are here to learn as much as you can, not to impress anyone with what you know.
  • Practice your best listening skills. Ask follow-up questions to dig deeper and show that you heard what was said.
  • Take a few notes. This will help you remember what you hear but will also show the person that you value what they are telling you.
  • Don’t ask the person what their salary is.
  • Don’t ask for a favor or job referral.
  • Bring along a polished resume, but don’t take it out unless the interviewee asks.
  • Ask for their business card at the end of the interview.
  • Ask whether they can recommend anyone else with whom you can speak.
  • Be sure to thank them for their time and let them know how much you’ve learned.

Asking good questions . . .

Now that you’ve helped your student understand how to approach setting up interviews and how to conduct a good interview, a natural question may be, ”But what do I ask?”

Knowing what you want to know may be obvious to some students, but others may not be sure where to begin.

Here are a few suggestions to share with your student. They won’t want or be able to use all of these questions, and they will have other questions of their own, but some of these may get them started.

  • Can you tell me about a typical day on the job? What do you do all day?
  • Are most days the same or is there variety in what you do?
  • What do you like most about your job? What are the biggest rewards?
  • What do you like least about your job? What are the biggest challenges?
  • What kind of project are you working on right now? Do you tend to work on a single project for a long time or are there multiple shorter projects?
  • What is the career ladder like in this field? Where do you start and how far can you climb?
  • What is the average turnover like? How long do people tend to stay in a job or at the company?
  • What kinds of people tend to do well in this field?
  • What do you wish you’d known before you got started in your job?
  • Generally, what are the job prospects like in this field?
  • Are there related fields or career paths that I might not know about but could consider?
  • Are there professional organizations or associations that I might join as a student?
  • What is the best way to stay up to date with developments in this field?
  • Are there important skills or experiences that I should try to have if I’m considering this type of job?
  • Are there specific courses that you’d recommend that I try to take while I’m still in school?
  • Are jobs in this field more likely to be located in specific areas of the United States, or of the world?
  • Do you have any recommendations of what I can do right now, while I’m in school, to better prepare for the job market in this field?
  • What else do I need to know?
  • Is there anyone else that you can recommend that I talk to? May I mention your name if I contact them?

The interview’s over. Now what?

Whew! Your student got through the interview — or better yet, got through several interviews. In addition to the information that they’ve gathered, they’ve come a long way. They’ve had the experience of networking and finding people to interview, they’ve reached out to set up interviews, and they’ve had practice in a professional setting. Mission accomplished.

But your student may not be quite done. There are a few things that they can do to make these interviews even more valuable. Encourage your student to do the following:

  • Send a thank you note to the person immediately after the interview. An email is fine, but a handwritten note is even better and more memorable. It doesn’t need to be more than two or three sentences but should be personal and mention something that the student learned during the interview.
  • Keep a log or file of the interviews conducted, including contact information and any notes that your student took.
  • If possible, stay in touch. Perhaps your student discovers an interesting article that relates to a topic discussed. Send it along. Let them know when you graduate or receive a special honor or internship. Staying in touch will keep your name in mind should any opportunities arise.

Informational interviews can be a wonderful way for your student to step into their professional world even before they graduate, or to discover the world they’d like to enter. Encourage your student to use the tool to gat a head start on their professional life now.

For further reading:

When Should My College Student Choose a Major?

Exploring a Field of Study: Talking to a Faculty Member and Others

What Matters for Your Student’s Career?

College Parents’ Role in the Job or Internship Hunt

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