A career expert spills her secrets for keeping your cool and making an impression during an important job phone interview.

By Maggie Seaver
Updated August 26, 2019

Phone interviews are a job search enigma few people can totally figure out. While it's not quite the same as showing up in your workday best for an in-person interview, a phone interview still requires you to take it seriously. In other words, "phone interview" is not a fancy synonym for "informal chat." And despite the fact that your potential employer can't see you—a relief to most job candidates—phone interviews aren't exactly easier.

"A phone interview is different from an in-person interview in that it’s more difficult," says Sandy Golinkin, the founder and CEO of Raising the Bar a career consultancy company in New York City. "You have to work harder to keep them engaged and make a good impression."

But how do you do that—capture (and keep) your interviewer's attention and ultimately wow them—without being able to read their body language or convey physical cues yourself? The more phone interviews you do, the easier they become, but the most important thing to do is treat them as seriously, and with as much preparation and respect, as a face-to-face interview. Here are Golinkin's top nine tips for acing your next phone interview.

1. Smile.

Yes, even if it feels weird, you should smile as if you were talking to someone one-on-one. “I strongly urge people to smile when they're on the phone with somebody," says Golinkin. "It sounds really silly because they can’t see you, but if you smile hard, people often say it’s reflected in the tone of your voice because you have a good disposition."

This could make all the difference in the world, especially since one of the only tools you have for a phone interview is your tone of voice. According to Golinkin, by "smiling and sitting up straight, you're presenting your verbal self with the strength with which you'd present your physical, in-person self."

2. Cap your answers around 40 seconds.

“When you’re asked a question, don’t speak for more than 40 seconds—otherwise the person on the other end of the phone may stop listening to you," Golinkin warns. "You keep them engaged, and if you speak for too long, their mind may wander or their computer might grab their attention.” This way they’ll be more inclined to be attentive to you, which is exactly what you want.

But don't worry, you're not going to get passed over for the job if you talk for 41 seconds. If you feel it'll take you a minute or two to answer a question, that's fine. Golinkin simply suggests keeping an eye on the time and taking a pause around the 40-second mark—at which point you can courteously ask your interviewer: "Would it be OK if I continue? Because I have more information if you need it." It's about handing the microphone back and forth to keep a flowing dialogue and your interviewer engaged.

3. Always look appropriate—just in case.

"Always be prepared to be visually presentable," Golinkin says. "What I mean by that is have your hair brushed and a perfectly presentable top on." While it's highly unlikely, you never know if or when someone might suggest switching over to a video call (it once happened to Golinkin​​​, who was very relieved she happened to be wearing an appropriate outfit that day).

That said, do you have to wear a pantsuit in your bedroom? Probably not necessary. "You have to do what you need to bring your A game," says Golinkin. "So if you can bring your A game in pajama bottoms and a nice button-down top, that's fine. As long as you brush your hair and look pulled together—so you feel pulled together."

4. Prepare like you would for a formal, in-person interview.

Golinkin cannot stress this enough: "Be extremely well prepared." Again, they can't see you, so other than your tone of voice, what you have to say is one of your only weapons.

"A lot of people think phone calls can be informal or that they don’t have to work as hard to be prepared, but the phone call is usually a screening device to see if you’re worthy of being invited in. If you can demonstrate a good knowledge of the company, the department, and what’s needed for the opportunity, they'll be impressed and pleased that you've worked hard to be prepared," she says.

5. Enlist a friend.

If you can, ask a trusted friend or family member to give you honest feedback about how your voice sounds over the phone. Ask them point-blank, "How do I sound when I'm on the phone with you? Do I speak too quickly, quietly, slowly? Do I seem distracted? Does my voice sound too young? Do I rely on verbal crutches?" Then practice answering potential interview questions with their feedback in mind. In the end, however, what you actually have to say is key—so don't get too hung up on how you sound, unless there's a serious issue you need to iron out.

6. Have a cheat sheet of notes at the ready.

Take advantage of the fact that no one can see you by keeping your resume and talking points on hand. "If there are important things you want to be able to articulate on the call (e.g., their competitors, your interpretation of their mission statement) it’s wonderful to have a cheat sheet of notes," Golinkin says. "It might make you less anxious or nervous because you don’t have to commit it to memory."

7. Be your own best advocate.

You don't only want to prep notes on the company and your past job experience. "The other thing you want to have is two or three points on your ‘wow factors,'" she adds. "What are your points of pride you want to make very sure the interviewer knows about you?"

"If you’re on a phone interview (or an in-person interview), [imagine] an invisible bucket on the interviewer’s desk that says 'Reasons Why I Should Hire (Your Name).'" Your goal? Fill that bucket, says Golinkin. "If, at the end of the call, you haven’t had the opportunity to share your two or three wow factors, you could say (politely), 'If you have another minute, I'd love to share with you why I would be so strong for this position.'"

8. Take notes.

If you're someone who forgets what happened because of nerves—or simply because you try to stay present and focused—use this opportunity, when no one can see you, to take notes. Jot down interesting points they make, questions that bubble into your head along the way, or other reminders about next steps.

9. Begin and end with gratitude.

"With a phone interview, it’s so important to be respectful and mindful of the fact that you’re the person they interviewed," Golinkin says. "Be very appreciative of their time and the information they’ve given you. Say something like, 'I know you’re extremely busy and I really appreciate your taking the time to speak with me.'"

Before you hang up, ask for your interviewer's direct contact information so you can send them a follow-up thank-you email—a small gesture that goes a long way.