Informational Interviews: What They Are and How They Can Advance Your Career

  • Copy by: Jackie Saffert
  • Image via: Emma Dime

During my senior year of college I signed up for a class on career tips for design majors. The course covered the sometimes dry yet oh-so-important topics that everyone faces post-graduation: resumes, cover letters, applications, design portfolios, and interviews. All the good stuff. On the first day of class as I scanned the syllabus, I stopped at one particular requirement for the semester: to conduct an informational interview with a professional in our field of interest. The first thought that popped into my head at the time was, “What the heck is an informational interview?” And then the second thought was, “This sounds intimidating.”

Let’s back up. For those of you who’ve never heard of an informational interview, it’s essentially an opportunity to meet with a professional in your field of interest, chat about their career path, and the field in which they work, and ask for any career advice they have. It’s not about outright asking someone for a job; it’s simply about learning from someone you admire. You bring the questions. You meet for coffee (this step isn’t necessary, but I personally take any excuse to stop at a coffee shop!). You learn from them. You keep it short and are respectful of their time. And you thank them profusely.

When I had my first informational interview for that particular college course, I was terrified (this may be a bit dramatic, but meeting with a stranger whom I admired while hoping I didn’t stumble over my questions… it was definitely a little nerve-wracking.). I poured over the internet for someone in my field who might be interested in meeting with me and, upon finding a candidate, sent them a email. Much to my surprise, I heard back, we met, and I learned immensely from the experience.

Since then, I’ve had many more informational interviews (I even did one with Alaina Kaczmarski, editor and co-founder of The Everygirl, a few years ago) and have learned a thing or two along the way. Here are a few helpful hints and pointers for landing and successfully executing an informational interview.

Decide who you want to meet.
It can be anyone you admire—either in the field you’re in, or in a field you’re hoping to explore.

Send a cold email.
Keep it short. Keep it concise. Keep it friendly. Tell them you’d like to meet to learn more about their career background and their field or industry.

Set a date and location.
If and when they agree to meet, set a date and let them pick the place and time that works best for them. Sometimes it’s a coffee shop. Sometimes it’s their office. Be open and willing.

Do your research.
Prior to the meeting, look up this person’s LinkedIn page and any other background information. This helps you get a sense of where they’re coming from and what you’d like to know about them. Prepare questions and think about: What do you want to walk away from this interview having learned? A few question ideas I’ve used: When did you first become interested in this field? What skills do you think are necessary to work in this field? What is the office culture like at your job?

Dress professionally.
Dress appropriately for the field this particular person is in. For more advice, check out our tips here!

Arrive early.
Get to the location ahead of time. After all, you want to make the best first impression possible! And if you are meeting at a coffee shop, offer to buy them coffee.

Ask your questions.
During the interview, take notes if you’d like, but try to keep them short. Yes you want to walk away remembering everything that was discussed, but you don’t want to spend the entire interview with pen to paper. Make eye contact and smile!

Bring your resume.
Have your resume handy—not to pitch yourself for a job, but to get their feedback. For me, coming from a background in architecture, clean lines and a minimalist resume layout were valued above all else. When I asked a public relations professional for her feedback on my resume, she said she always looked for something a little creative with more personality. It was interesting to hear her opinion, and it was something I never would have known had I not asked.

Wear a watch, and keep an eye on the time.
Five or so minutes before the end of an informational interview, discreetly check your watch and say something like, “I want to respect your time and it looks like we only have a few minutes left, so I just have one more question for you.”

Get referrals.
At the end of the interview, ask if they can recommend anyone else you should meet. Make sure you know whether or not your interviewee wants you to use their name when reaching out to their contact. It’s always important to respect their professional relationships.

Send a thank you note.
How you send a thank you note is, of course, a debated topic (email or letter? both?), but I generally prefer a simple handwritten card. In the note, thank them for meeting with you and make mention of a few things that you learned from them. If possible, send the note out the day of or the day after the interview.

Keep in touch.
Depending on how things go, feel free to keep in touch with this person. If you have any follow-up questions or think of something that might apply to them, feel free to reach out in the future. Professional networks are so important, and you never know where a cordial relationship with someone in your field may lead you in your career.

In short, informational interviews are a great way to connect with professionals in your field of interest. They’re informal, informative, and they allow you to expand your network.

So tell us, have you ever conducted an informational interview? Do you have any advice for each other? Please feel free to leave them below—as always, we love your input!