Here’s the good news: They liked your application! They want to talk to you more about the job on a phone call or in a Zoom session.
But then you realize: Oh no. You need to prepare for a telephone interview. You’re terrible at phone interviews!
Don’t stress. Every job seeker—from CEOs to apple pickers—has to get through critical steps in the search for their dream position. All you need is to prepare and practice for when that phone rings.
In this article we will explore the following:
- Any interview invitation should be celebrated — including a phone interview invitation
- 10 of the most common phone interview questions and how to answer them
- How to prepare for a phone interview
- Tips on how to make the most of a phone interview
- Questions you might wish to ask during a phone interview
A phone interview invitation — embrace the opportunity
Your phone buzzes and you get “the alert.” Your email inbox shows a new Zoom link. You get a FaceTime notification from that recruiter you talked to. You discover a voicemail message with an invitation to a phone interview. Regardless of which one of those methods was chosen for the conversation, this is your new job opportunity. The one you’ve been waiting for. It’s an email from that company you sent three separate applications to. And you might have messaged the VP on LinkedIn. Can anyone blame you for being eager to secure that job interview?
Here’s the deal these days: Whether you end up landing this job or a different one, you will likely be doing a lot of your work on the phone or in video calls. This “new normal” of remote employment — at least part-time — is persisting to a significant extent, even with the post-pandemic re-opening of workplaces. So get used to it and get prepared.
Phone interviews are a great way to show recruiters that your professionalism will shine in any communication circumstance. On the plus side, phone screening interviews mean you won’t have to drag out your work clothes right away. (However, we will provide a quick primer with bonus tips for video interviews at the end of the article).
Thinking about potential phone interview questions and answers before the interview is important, but give yourself the mental space to respond to the actual question that has been asked rather than the question that you have prepared for in your head. If you trot out a potted answer, you risk the interviewer thinking that you were not listening. Pause before you answer and think about what they want to hear.
Top 10 phone interview questions and answers
While it is never a good idea to over-prepare for specific telephone interview questions and answers, you can be relatively certain that some version of the most common questions will crop up. The question might sound slightly different, but the information that the interviewer will be looking to find out will be the same.
Here are 10 of the most common phone screening interview questions:
1. Tell me about yourself.
It’s the infamous TMAY question. It comes in many forms but they all mean basically the same thing: Pitch me on yourself as a professional.
You should expect this phone interview question, just as you would for an in-person job interview. The number one thing hiring managers are looking for in a phone screening is fit within the company culture, and TMAY questions are a good measuring tool for fit.
It’s a little tricky. How can you encapsulate an entire human life into a few sentences? Should you talk about every past job? College? Hobbies? Family? This confusion is why some people are more comfortable composing a resume (which is fact-based) than writing a cover-letter (which is similar to a TMAY screening in that it showcases personality).
Of course, it’s a balancing act. You want to give a quick — but broad — impression of yourself that doesn’t last more than 90 seconds. Give a sense of your professional self and offer a glimpse of your off-the-clock personality, within reason. What do you value in your work ethic? What are you proud of in your chosen profession and career history? Focus on things like that. Definitely leave out your crazy college escapades.
The key is to wrap up your response to this phone interview question with a bang, instead of an awkward fizzling conclusion. Always end by your answer by telling the reason you applied for the job. It’s a great strategy to make sure your TMAY answer brings you and the interviewer up to the present day.
2. Why did you decide to leave your last job?
We’ve talked about this trap before. Asking why you left your last position in a job interview invites a lot of negativity into the room. Whether you quit, were laid off, or your company simply dissolved, it’s a tempting opportunity to complain.
But that’s not only unpleasant for the interviewer, it is a big red flag that leaves them with the impression that you’re a complainer. Worse, they might conclude that you were the problem at your old workplace. So, whatever reason you left your last job, the critical thing is to be positive.
One great way to flip the script is to focus on the things you’re looking for out of a new job rather than the things you disliked about the old one. Did you have a terrible manager? Now, you’re looking for a strong mentor.
Weren’t paid enough? Now you’re looking for a job with more growth potential. If you do it right, you’ll leave the interviewer thinking about how they can satisfy the things you’re looking for rather than what might have gone wrong at your last job.
If you are still working at your current job, you applied for the job because the opportunity was too good to pass up. If you do say that, be prepared for the obvious follow-up question: Why?
3. How did you become interested in your chosen career path?
Every superhero has an origin story, and now it’s time to share yours. Hiring managers know that passionate employees will perform better. It’s in their best interest to hire someone who is happy with their chosen career.
Hopefully, coming up with some reasons why you chose your career won’t be too tough. If it is, it might be time to reconsider your profession.
This question is a little tougher for people with rambling careers—which in this modern age is most of us. How does someone go from programming apps to writing screenplays to applying for an HR job?
Career advisors recommend thinking about your career as a story rather than a one-time decision you made back in college. Focus on explaining briefly how each major step led to the next. And, most importantly, how they all came together to bring you to this particular telephone screening.
4. How did you learn welding/Python/dressage?
Especially if you’re applying for a technical position, questions about your skill set are common. So if you list a technical skill on your resume, expect to get asked about it.
Think of it this way: a juggler who doesn’t know how to juggle is not a great candidate for a job at the circus.
On top of that, asking about the ways that you acquired the skills you mention on your resume is a great way to learn about how you approach your job. Hiring managers are listening for the way you talk about your skills, not just a confirmation you have them.
That’s why we recommend telling a story about learning the particular skill you listed on your resume. Alternatively, talk about the last time you used it. It’s a great excuse during the interview process to let your interviewer know how learning it has made you better at your job.
5. Tell us about Position X at Company Y.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. There’s a good chance your interviewer did very little to prepare for your telephone conversation. They’re probably calling a dozen other candidates today, so they haven’t had time to study your resume or cover letter. They might not remember your work history or have had the time to Google your LinkedIn profile.
So it makes sense that going through resume items is one of the most common questions you’ll get on a phone screening. It’s the easiest thing for them to ask about. The piece of paper is literally sitting in their laps.
But that’s no reason to take these questions lightly. The vast majority of hiring managers will reject any candidate they suspect of lying or exaggerating on their resume.
You’re also unlikely to get to the next level if you can’t inspire some interest in your experience.
That’s why it’s important to practice telling an interviewer something interesting about every item on your resume. If you can’t think of one, why is it on there in the first place?
While we’re on the subject of explaining resume items, need any help explaining a big gap?
6. Describe your ideal workstation.
This is a question that I’ve been asked several times and have, at times, been unprepared for. After all, why should they care how I like to set up my desk?
I’ll tell you why. It’s another one of those infamous “culture fit” questions. The interviewer wants to know how you’ll fit in in their work environment.
Knowing if you dislike open-plan offices (like many do) or if you expect to work from home some days helps interviewers to get to know your style of work and, again, that all-important “will you fit in with the company’s culture?”
Plus it’s a chance for employers to get a flavor for your personality. Do yourself a favor and practice this answer so you won’t be caught flat-footed, as I have been.
7. Where do you see yourself in five years?
Some positions are designed for people who want to rise through the ranks, while others might be built for “lifers,” so to speak. Which are you?
That’s something your interviewer will want to know, and that’s why you’re likely to see a variation of this question. This is another way of asking you for your career goals.
For many hiring managers, reducing employee turnover is a major goal of the hiring process. It’s almost always in your interest to emphasize a vision that would let you stay at the company you’re interviewing at for the medium term.
And if you don’t know off the top of your head how you’d answer this question, you really should do some thinking. A career plan never hurt anybody!
8. Why do you want to join our company?
Eventually, your interviewer will turn from evaluating you to evaluating your interest in the position. As we mentioned, passionate employees perform better, so they’ll want to know you can be passionate about working with them.
This question is more about avoiding the wrong answers than hitting the right ones. Hiring experts agree that focusing on the pay is a bad idea for a number of reasons.
But a worse answer is “I don’t know” or “I haven’t looked it up yet.” Hiring Manager Benjamin Spiegel over at MediaBistro explained it this way:
“I cannot begin to tell you how many interviews have gone sour because the candidate was not prepared ... Trust me: Nothing is more frustrating than having to tell our story 100 times to them.”
So do your homework, and give an honest answer that focuses on something other than money or prestige. If they don’t like the honest reason you want to work there, it’s probably not a great fit.
9. Do you have any questions for me?
There is only one acceptable answer to this question: Yes! Asking even just one thoughtful question about the company or the position will increase your odds of being hired. Make sure you are well-versed in both the job description and the company. That will help you ask more specific questions and show off the fact that you did your homework by analyzing the job posting, the company website and corporate culture.
Ideally, you’ll be struck by something interesting said during the interview. Just in case, keep these stock questions stored at the back of your mind:
- When did you first join the company?
- What do you think will be the biggest challenge for the person in this role?
- What’s your favorite part about working for this company?
- Does the company have a mentorship program?
Keep asking until your curiosity runs out. The interviewer will let you know if they’re running out of time.
What should you not do in a phone interview?
Whether it’s a phone interview or an in-person interview, declining to ask your interviewer any questions about the position or employer is a vitally important missed opportunity.
10. Are you interviewing anywhere else?
Next to money questions ( like asking for a raise), telling an interviewer about other interviews you have scheduled is one of the more awkward questions to field. Your interview knows you’re in the midst of a job search, so it won’t be a surprise if you are.
Executive Recruiter Mike Petras points out that companies ask this for two reasons.
- To make sure you’re not about to sign on with someone else.
- To get a taste for how desirable a hire you are.
So it’s a narrow needle that you’ll need to thread with this answer. That’s why it’s important to practice! You want to give the impression that you’re a desirable candidate, but that you’re still on the market.
I like to keep it vague. Something like: “I’ve been interviewing at a few places. I’m keeping my eye open for the right fit.”
Some bonus interview questions:
- What are your salary expectations?
- What is something we should know about you that’s not on your resume?
- What is something you think you’re better at than anyone we’re likely to talk to?
- What was your favorite and least favorite thing about your most recent manager?
- How do you like to spend your weekends?
- How did you first hear about this position?
- What is your dream job?
- What is your greatest weakness in the workplace?
- What is your greatest strength in the workplace?
Preparing for a phone interview
The inability to pick up on an interviewer's visual clues means that phone interview prep is somehow even more important than preparing for a face-to-face interview (where you have far better "live" feedback cues). Here are some things you might consider when preparing for a telephone interview.
Rehearse the stories you want to tell in your head.
You can't tell someone else your career stories unless you are clear yourself in terms of what happened and why. Some of these things may have been a few years ago, so rather than "umming" and "arring" to a complete stranger over the phone, make sure that you have approached the stories from multiple angles so that they seem as fresh as yesterday.
Playing through them in your mind will make them seem that little bit more real and your subconscious will likely remind you of subtleties that have been long-since forgotten.
Be clear about why you want the job.
As the phone interview is often the first stage of the recruitment process, one of the most important things for any interviewer to understand is why you want the job.
When you are clear about your motivations, your answers to the questions will fit around that narrative and everything will "make sense" for your interviewer. If you aren't quite sure why you want the job, your answers won't seem so cohesive.
Ensure that you are mentally prepared.
While there are a thousand-and-one thoughts buzzing through your brain in the days leading up to any interview, it is vital that you are able to clear your mind in the minutes (and hours) before the call itself. Tell yourself that you have prepared enough to rock this phone interview. Go for a walk to get some fresh air and allow yourself to dream about what this new job might mean.
Coming into a phone interview with a positive mindset will add a sparkle to your tone of voice that will be unmistakable. It is little things like that, which could make all the difference.
- Prepare thoroughly with answers to common phone interview questions.
- Pause, listen and reflect.
- Begin with a positive mindset.
- Be prepared to ask detailed questions.
- Prepare obsessively / not at all.
- Unleash long monologues.
- Let on that you feel nervous.
- Try to get off the call as quick as possible.
- Say any of these things.
Telephone interview tips you cannot afford to ignore
As you are preparing for your phone interview, it is likely that you will have read a lot of content in preparation. From our perspective, you can never be too prepared, so here are four more phone interview tips that you may wish to consider:
What do interviewers look for in a phone interview?
A phone interview is often the first part of the recruitment process and serves as a screening mechanism rather than an in-depth exploration. Many initial phone interviews will be conducted by HR professionals rather than hiring managers, so think carefully about the level of detail that you do wish to share.
If a phone interview discussion does get in-depth with a hiring manager, keep your statements relatively brief so they have a chance to ask clarifying questions and keep the conversation on their desired track.
What to say at the beginning of a phone interview?
One golden rule of a phone interview is to let the interviewer set the initial tone at the beginning. Don't blather on about the weather or the latest sports results and make sure that you are professional and succinct in those initial exchanges. If conversation becomes awkward, that awkwardness is unlikely to disappear quickly.
You will sense that you have license to be a little more expansive once the interviewer warms up. So much as you would love to launch into your career highlights, be patient and let the chat develop naturally.
How long should a phone interview last?
Typically, you should be made aware of the length of the interview beforehand, but if you are not sure, make sure that you ask! This is a very normal question and it is even worth clarifying at the start of the conversation. If you do not know how long you have to chat, it is hard to manage the length of your answers.
Is a phone interview a good sign?
Yes, of course, it is a great sign! Any indication that a company is interested in hiring you is fantastic. You should seize any opportunity to explore a potential fit and both phone and video interviews are understandably common for logistical and financial reasons.
A phone interview is not an ideal way to get to know a potential hire, but there will likely be face-to-face interview stages later along the line. You have to make the most of the phone interview first.
Part of that includes finding out more about the role, your future boss and the company culture:
Top 5 questions to ask in a phone interview
Any worthwhile phone interview is a fact-finding exercise for both hiring manager and candidate. The questions that a candidate asks will show how engaged they are in the process. (But don't waste precious questions on information that you can find out yourself).
Here are five great questions to ask during a phone interview:
- What challenges will I face in terms of exceeding my performance goals?
- How would you describe your ideal relationship with a direct report?
- After reading my resume, where do you feel my developmental needs lie?
- How can I help you to be more successful in your role?
- I would like to understand more about (this) aspect of the job description?
Plus a bonus question ... the answer is obvious, but ask it anyway:
- What are the next steps?
Quick tips for video interviews
This video interview advice is also worth implementing in phone calls, where clues about demeanor may be detected in your voice.
- Don't forget to be friendly and try to feel physically relaxed. You're likely dealing with good, friendly people. Think of them as living, breathing human beings who respond to a positive outlook.
- Body language is half of human communication. Smile if you're in a good mood. Acknowledge things by nodding. Use hand gestures to emphasize points.
- And most of all remember: you're going to be fine!