Avoiding unemployment: Perfecting the art of the informational interview

For the last few weeks, I’ve been dishing out my best tips about how to avoid unemployment. From getting a business card to reading up on industry news to establishing an online portfolio, I hope you’ve started to get some ideas about how to successfully avoid unemployment.

Busy and don’t have quite enough time to do everything all at once to prepare for your career? I understand. So, here’s your call to action in big, bold font:

If you do nothing else, there is one thing I would highly, highly recommend that you do: informational interviews. And, start them now.

Lucky for you, I have a few quick tips on what they are, how to set them up, what to expect, and how to use them to advance your career!

What they are: An informational interview is just that — an interview with a professional where you get information about them, their job, and their career path.

How to find professionals: Your informational interviews should be with professionals who work/have worked in the industry you’re most interested in. Here are some great places to find them:

  • Alumni databases: A lot of career centers at universities offer a free database filled with information about alumni — where they work, what they’ve done, and how to get in contact with them. Letting someone know you’re an alum of the same school they are is a great way to make an initial connection!
  • LinkedIn: This is a gold mine of potential contacts. Look for professional groups to help identify potential interviewees. For example, I’m part of the PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) Delaware group, which has about 180 members, and so this winter, I went through and sent many of them a LinkedIn request. I personalized it (don’t you dare send a LinkedIn request without personalizing it first!) by introducing myself and my background, mentioning that I’m also part of the PRSA Delaware group, and would love to follow up sometime for a quick meeting or chat to learn more about what they do. The responses were overwhelming — and almost everyone agreed to meet with me!
  • Networking events: Now, this is where those business cards come in! Get yourself to some networking events. Whether they’re offered by professional societies, chambers of commerce, on-campus organizations, young professionals group, or another type of group, sign up, go there, and start meeting people! (Most events offer student discounts to attend. In addition, go to on-campus pre-professional societies to look for opportunities. For example, our PRSSA Chapter was allowed to send two students to monthly PRSA Delaware meetings free of charge!)

    Image courtesy of Google Images.

How to ask: Be polite and professionals, and always mention that you’re a student interested in learning more. (You are NOT asking for a job at all.) If it’s an email or LinkedIn message, here’s a good template:

  • “Good morning, Mr./Ms. ___________; I’m _______, a student at ___________ studying ___________. We met at _______, and I just wanted to follow up with you.  I’d love to learn more about your job in the ______ industry, as well as your career path. Would you be willing to set up a short meeting with me either in-person or by phone in the coming weeks to chat with me? I look forward to hearing from you, and I appreciate your time.”

How to prepare: Remember, informational interviews are informal, but they’re a great opportunity to practice interacting with a professional. My best advice is always wear professional clothing (even if you’re just coming from class and meeting them for coffee at a local cafe) and do your research. Know what they do and past places where they’ve worked.

Ask questions: You asked to meet with them…so be prepared to ask questions! Some questions I like to ask include…

  • What is your favorite part of this industry?
  • What is your least favorite part of this industry?
  • What’s your best advice for someone looking for a job/internship in this market?
  • What do you look for in job candidates? (if they do the hiring)
  • What types of industry publications do you read?
  • What is the most important skill in this industry and how do you develop it?

Let them talk. You’ll be surprised at all the things you learn! Avoid talking too much about yourself, but do let them see a little of your personality and who you are. Always be genuine.

Thank them. Chances are that this person is busy — really busy — and they just made time for you in their day. Thank them in person. Follow up with a thank you email and even a handwritten note. (We’ll talk about thank you’s in another post!)

Informational interviews are an amazing opportunity to learn, and you can only use the “I’m a student and want to learn more” card for so long. I started getting serious about doing informational interviews during the fall of my senior year and had completed about 25 by graduation in the spring. However, my best advice is — start early. The more you learn (and apply what you learn!), the better chances you’ll have to avoid unemployment.

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About Abby Ecker

PR pro and healthy living blogger in the First State
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