How to rock an informational interview

Plan ahead and be sure to connect afterward.

When it comes to the job search, the informational interview can be a great tool. It can give you a glimpse into a company’s culture, let you receive career advice from a professional and, in some cases, act as an informal job interview.

These meetings “can provide invaluable insights into an industry and the field of accounting in general, from someone with decades of experience,” said Joni Holderman, a career coach and résumé writer in Myrtle Beach, S.C. They can even build connections that can lead to a job offer down the road.

However, even though informational interviews are less formal than official job interviews, you still need to prepare for them if you want to get the most out of them. Here’s how to make them work for you:

Do your homework. You can find the right person on a company’s website or via LinkedIn. If that doesn’t work, call the company and ask a receptionist who might be the right contact, said Janis Orel, CPA and president of Orel & Associates CPAs Inc., based in Hopkinton, Mass. Given professionals are busy, email is the easiest way to ask for a meeting.

Once you’ve set something up, “learn as much about the person you’re interviewing as possible by reading any blog posts, articles, or books they've published, plus check them out on social media,” Holderman said. “Research their company and industry, but be prepared to be surprised [by what you hear]. Often the insider’s view is very different.”

Dress your part. Look professional during the interview: You don’t have to wear a suit, but don’t show up in tattered jeans. Orel suggested business casual without a tie. For men, a collared shirt and khaki slacks always work, she said. Women should avoid anything that would better be suited for a night out. Avoid sneakers or sandals.

Know what to say about yourself. Be prepared to discuss why you contacted this particular individual and how you envision your career turning out, Orel said. She suggested that, during the interview, you describe your practical skills and let your personality show. “I want to know who that person is, rather than how book-smart they are,” she said.

Know what not to say. Feel free to start the meeting with small talk, but avoid politics and other hot-button issues. This isn’t the time for debate. If you don’t like something the person you’re interviewing says, don’t argue because it can make you look unprofessional, Holderman said. Also, don’t ask the person to be your mentor. “It comes off as socially awkward,” she said, as mentors typically prefer to choose the people they coach.

Even if the organization is hiring, don’t ask for a job. “It comes across as needy and desperate,” Holderman explained. “Instead, get their buy-in by asking ‘If you hear of any openings for someone with my skills, will you keep me in mind?’ near the end of the interview.”

Get connected on social media. Connect with the person on LinkedIn and follow his or her organization. Send connection requests to anyone else at the organization who is in your extended network, Holderman advised, as this can help you rank higher in searches by the company's talent acquisition specialists or third-party recruiters.

Follow up. Be sure to send an appreciative thank you message to the person you interviewed within a day or two, Orel said.

“This calls for an over-the-top thank-you because they have shared that most precious of all commodities with you — their time, in the middle of the workday,” Holderman said. “Send a nice card with a handwritten note or a letter to their business address if you are comfortable doing so. If not, send a nice email. In either case, if you were especially struck by something they said, mention it just so they'll know you were really listening.”

By Dawn Wotapka

Dawn Wotapka is a Georgia-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, senior editor of newsletters at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

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