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

An informational interview is an opportunity to gather information, improve your interviewing skills, and expand your professional network. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But what does that mean, exactly, and more importantly, how can it benefit you?

In this article, I’ll explain the benefits of informational interviews, share some situations when they may be beneficial, and provide questions you can use to make a lasting impression.

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 discover what someone’s job really entails—from their day-to-day responsibilities to what it’s like to work for their company. It’s an information-gathering session intended to help you move closer toward a goal, whether that goal is to break into a new field, decide where to apply, or understand whether a job is suited to your skills. 

As a father of four, ranging from teenage to young adult, I know first-hand how difficult it is for young people to know their professional calling. The question comes up constantly when talking to friends and colleagues, too. If you don’t know what you want to do professionally or feel unsure whether about whether a certain career is right for you, please know you aren’t alone! Far from it – I belive you’re in the majority.

It’s important to note that when someone agrees to meet with you for an informational interview, they’re doing you a big favor, professionally. As such, you should prepare accordingly to make the most of your time with them.

When should you have an informational interview?

When you’re just starting out

In the early stages of your career, it can be difficult to know where to focus your efforts. So many jobs exist that you’re not even aware of, let alone knowing if you’d be qualified for or enjoy doing them. An information interview 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 for an informational interview. It’s an opportunity to ask questions that will help you decide whether a different path might be right for you. And, because it’s not actually a job interview, you can be candid when asking about what life is really like in the profession.

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 are unsure 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 sense of 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

Gain insider knowledge

Informational interviews give you one-on-one access to insiders at companies you might want to work for. They will often share useful information that’s not readily available in the public domain. Knowing the inside scoop can go a long way toward helping your job search. 

Receive personalized advice

An informational interview offers a chance to ask questions specific to your situation–that you might not feel comfortable asking your current boss or colleagues. It’s a unique opportunity to gather the answers that matter most to you and your career, versus receiving textbook answers in a formal interview. Best of all, the information comes from someone with deep expertise in the field.

Build relationships

Although networking isn’t necessarily the 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. It’s a great opportunity to improve what you know and who you know simultaneously!

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 to 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 their prior jobs 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 invaluable tools for taking 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 Thank You Email After an In-Person Email

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Pete Newsome is the founder of zengig, which he created after more than two decades in staffing and recruiting. He’s also President of 4 Corner Resources, the Forbes America's Best Staffing and Recruiting Firm he founded in 2005, and is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance. In addition to his passion for staffing, Pete is now committed to zengig becoming the most comprehensive source of expert advice, tools, and resources for career growth and happiness. When he’s not in the office or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his career knowledge and expertise through public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Finding Career Zen & Hire Calling podcasts. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn