Learn how to initiate an informational interview and make the most out of this great opportunity.

By Maggie Seaver
Updated August 30, 2019
dos and don'ts for an informational interview
Credit: Getty Images

Throughout the process of looking for a new job—or completely changing career paths—the number of ways to put yourself in front of the right people seems to multiply by the minute. There are cold emails to alumni, phone interviews, video calls, in-person interviews, and even the rare group interview. But never underestimate the power of the informational interview.

These can be an incredibly helpful way to meet people with the job you want, or working in the industry you’re looking at. They’re typically shorter and less formal than actual interviews, but you shouldn’t take them any less seriously—and you never know, they could lead to an awesome opportunity you never considered before. Here are the key dos and don’ts to keep in mind to make the most of these short, but significant meetings.

1. Don’t expect a job offer—they’re different from actual job interviews.

“An informational interview is an opportunity where there may well be no job opening,” says Sandy Golinkin, the founder and CEO of Raising the Bar, a career consultancy company in New York City. “It’s usually with somebody whom you’ve met, possible through a family friend, a colleague, or even through Linkedin.”

For example, maybe you’ve been researching marketing positions online and found someone who went to your college who’s been working in marketing at your dream company. “Send them a message saying, ‘I know you’ve been working in marketing for the last few years, and we both went to the same college. I know you’re very busy, but I’d love to hear more about how you got started. Could I possibly stop by your office for 15 minutes, or buy you a cup of coffee sometime in the next few weeks?'” Golinkin suggests.

2. Do get as much information as possible.

Again, there may not be any potential to get hired literally, but it's the perfect opportunity for you to learn more about how to get closer to that job or industry. Get curious, go deep, and be a detective.

“Informational interviews are so important because you can learn a lot more about the position, company, department, or the industry,” says Golinkin. “I’m a big believer that knowledge is power—you can gain so much more knowledge through an informational interview.”

3. Don’t wing it.

“Present yourself as if you were going on an actual interview,” Golinkin says. “Be respectful of their time and be well prepared."

No one wants to have an informational with somebody who seems unprepared and disinterested. Golinkin says the worst vibe you can give off is one that selfishly conveys, “OK, so how can you help me, please?”

“Do your homework on the person,” says Golinkin. “Then ask them how they got started and what they think were the biggest lessons they learned in their first few years.” This will convey your respect for them, their experience, and their time.

4. Do prep answers about yourself too, as well as questions for them.

You need to inspire them with good information [about yourself], Golinkin says. What amazing things do you want them to say about you behind your back?

“First, make a list of all of the questions you want to ask them—whether it’s two questions or 24,” she says. “Then prioritize them, assuming you’ll get to ask maybe four or fewer. Then also make a list of the two or three things you want them to remember about you so they can articulate your strengths.”

When preparing an elevator pitch, remember to be concise and relevant. If you rattle off your life story or a laundry list of strengths, they won’t remember anything. Keep it short and sweet, as well as aligned with what you think they most need to know.

5. Don’t take up more than 15 to 20 minutes of their time.

This is the sweet spot for informational interviews, which takes the pressure off both you and them. They’re busy, and maybe not even that close to you—say, a friend of a friend—so an hour-long meeting isn’t necessary. Of course, “if they’re being welcoming and chatty, and want to give you a few extra minutes that’s great,” Golinkin adds.

6. Do let them open unexpected doors for you.

Even if you don’t go into this coffee meeting or in-office chat with a specific role in mind, there’s no telling where it might lead—in a good way. “If it goes well and you’ve made a good impression, there’s a possibility that the person you met with will write to a colleague or HR and say, ‘I had coffee with this person, and thought she was impressive. I think she should be strongly considered for something here,’” says Golinkin. This could kick start some important next steps for you professionally.

7. Don’t be late.

Don’t just be on time, be early. Golinkin recommends arriving 10 to 15 minutes early so there’s zero chance you’ll be late. So plan accordingly.

8. Do say thank you.

“Begin and end the conversation by thanking them for their time, because it’s been really nice of them to go out of their way to be helpful to you.” Express your gratitude when you arrive and at the end of the meeting, but don’t forget to follow up with another email reiterating your thanks.

The bottom line when it comes to informational interviews? “Be a good listener—everyone thinks listening is so easy, but it’s not. Listening is an art. Be a good listener, be very well prepared, and be able to articulate what you could contribute to be the strongest, most standout candidate for the position,” Golinkin says.