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Phone interviews

Even with the widespread use of Skype and video, some companies still use phone interviews, often for initial screening to narrow the number of applicants. Smaller companies or institutions may also use phone interviews to economically bridge long distances.

All of the tips and strategies for regular interviews apply, but in addition, there are special considerations.

Before the call

You are probably not surprised to find out that the first tips are about preparation.

1. The best thing (and the worst thing) about a phone interview is that they can’t see you.

Some people can perform well in their pyjamas. Others need to dress professionally to feel confident. Figure out which you are and dress accordingly. A phone interview is not a casual conversation.

2. Have ready:

  • Two pens – they run out of ink at the worst times
  • A notebook – easier to write on than loose sheets of paper
  • Your notes for the interview – key skills, accomplishments and examples to include in your answers – bullets only so you won’t be tempted to read them
  • CV, cover letter, information about the job
  • The questions you want to ask

3. Be prepared for surprise calls.

Surprise calls are less likely internationally, but they still happen and time zones can sometimes be confused. If you are surprised by someone calling to interview you, reschedule it so you have time to prepare. You can tell them you have a conflict, an appointment, etc.

If you know they are going to call but the call is early, ask for a few minutes to ‘move to a quieter place’ so you have time to organize your notes.

4. If possible, use a landline.

Unless you are interviewing over the computer, a landline generally has better sound quality than a mobile phone.

5. Research your interviewer.

Find out who will be interviewing you – name and position. Get the pronunciation of their name and practice it. Will more than one person be on the call? Try to get their names and job titles as well.


On the call

1. Stand up.

Phone interviews generally take 20-30 minutes. Since the interviewer cannot see you, the only impression they get now is from your voice. So stand up and smile! You may feel strange but it makes a difference. You sound more powerful, energetic and friendly. You have to work harder to make a good first impression.

2. Don’t smoke or eat or drink anything. Yes, they can tell.

3. Avoid fillers – ah, er, um.

These habits are particularly noticeable on the phone. It takes practice to reduce or eliminate them – it’s worth the time. Speak into a mirror, record yourself, or ask a friend to listen and give you feedback.

4. Don't be afraid to ask for clarification.

As a non-native speaker you will have to concentrate and listen very carefully. If the interviewer is a native speaker, you may have to ask them to repeat questions or slow down. Don’t be hesitant to do so. As the native speaker, they need to accommodate you. Particularly for phone interviews, they may not be experienced interviewers. They are concentrating on their questions and forget to speak clearly. Since your English is good, they will forget and start talking more quickly. Gently interrupt and remind them. It’s better to ask than to misunderstand the question. See Clarifying Information.

5. Check you've understood.

Repeat or paraphrase the question to make sure you’ve got it right.

6. Silence is a problem on the phone.

The interviewer can’t see that you’re thinking and you can’t see that they are taking notes. If you are thinking for a few seconds, say so. If the interviewer stops talking or doesn’t come in as soon as you finish an answer, they are probably taking notes. Ask ‘would you like me to expand on that further?’ if you’re unsure about whether they are expecting you to continue talking.

7. Sound engaged.

Keep your tone interested, energetic and enthusiastic. As with face-to-face interviews, keep your answers brief.

Speakers often ‘lose steam’ or energy and volume at the end of their thoughts or sentences. Keep your voice strong throughout.