What Recruiters Think About Phone Interviews (But Probably Won’t Tell You)


In my career as a recruiter I’ve done hundreds of phone interviews. Now that I’m a career coach, I share the same advice based on this experience over and over again with my clients.

Why are phone interviews important? In a typical recruitment process, organizations select 5-10 candidates to phone screen, 3-5 for in person interviews, and 1 to offer the job. With the average job receiving at least 100 applications (and some many more than that), that means you have at best a 5-10% chance of being selected for a phone interview even if you do everything right, so it’s important to make the most of the opportunity. Of course these odds will increase if you’ve played your cards right by networking with people at the organization and getting referred internally, but you still won’t make it any farther in the process without acing the phone interview. 

You can do your best by putting yourself in the recruiter’s shoes and understanding what he or she is thinking and wants to learn about you. Here are a few insights:  

  1. We hate phone interviews as much as you do: as a candidate, I think phone interviews are much harder than in person ones, and they’re not much fun as a recruiter either. Really, who likes awkward conversations with no ability to read body language or interact with the other person? There has to be a better way! But until there is, the phone interview will remain. While the format may not be ideal, you can make the most of it by following these tips. Most importantly, remember to amp up your enthusiasm and energy. Recruiters often batch phone interviews, so by the time I’m talking to you, it may be my fourth or fifth conversation in a row. “Smiling through the phone” will go a long way to ensuring that I remember you and come away with a positive impression.
  2. We really want to like you: when I get on the phone with you, I want you to knock my socks off and be the rock star candidate I’ve been waiting for. But you have to give me solid evidence in this short conversation that proves me right. Remember: I will have to sell you internally to the hiring manager and other key people on the team. I have to go to bat for you. If I recommend moving you forward in the process and you don’t do well, that reflects badly on me. Help me be your advocate by anticipating what I need to know to feel confident recommending you and proactively sharing that information (see below). Don’t raise any red flags, be personable and establish rapport, and ask good questions, like these. Get me to like you!
  3. There are three main questions we’re trying to answer: In a phone interview, I want to know (1) do you have the experience and knowledge to perform the basic requirements of the job (2) are you a good fit with the organization’s culture and mission (3) are there any logistical issues such as relocation timeline or salary requirements that would be difficult to overcome. These conversations are called “screens” for a reason. I’m not going to delve too far into your technical skills, as that’s an area more appropriate for the hiring manager and team to evaluate. I do want to know that you “check the boxes” on the main skills outlined in the job description and that you’ll gel with the team and the organization. Be prepared to talk about why you are excited about and a good fit for both the role and the organization and to provide examples of the top 3-4 skills outlined in the job description. And do have a salary range in mind in case that question comes up. It’s fine to ask first what the budget is for the role, but some recruiters will press on this because they don’t want to waste time (theirs or yours) if the range you need is too far beyond what they can offer.
  4. We need to hear details: one of the most frustrating aspects of interviewing is when candidates don’t go into detail about past experiences. There isn’t a lot of time in a phone interview, and when I have to spend it digging for specifics and asking a ton of follow up questions (or listening to a long, rambling example), it limits the other questions I can ask. When I ask about a time you’ve done something in the past it’s because I anticipate you’ll have to solve that kind of problem in this job and I want to know how you’ve done it before. That means I need to know specifics about what you did: how did you approach the problem? What was your thought process? What steps did you take and what challenges did you encounter? Who did you involve and what did you learn from the experience? Many candidates gloss over these specifics, but they are the most important parts of the story! Use the STAR framework to organize your examples and practice in advance with a friend or using these online resources so you’ll feel confident delivering concise, detailed, 1-2 minute examples of your past accomplishments.
  5. Thank you notes matter: you may hear different opinions on this one, but for the positions I recruit for in the social sector, sending a thoughtful follow up note within 24 hours definitely matters. That goes for phone interviews too. Remember, as the recruiter I need to decide whether to recommend you, and getting a thoughtful, well written follow up note puts one more check in the “yes” column. If I don’t get a follow up, it makes me wonder whether you’re really interested in the role. While it won’t be the deciding factor if you’re really not a good fit, if an organization is on the fence about you (which happens a lot) it can absolutely be a differentiator. You may think this is a no-brainer, but I’m continuously surprised by the number of candidates who don’t send thank you notes.  It takes just a few minutes and gives you the chance to reiterate your enthusiasm, reinforce why you’re a good fit for the role, and address anything you may have forgotten to bring up in the conversation. Think about it – if your competitors are sending thank you notes, do you want to be the one who isn’t?

While I can’t speak for all recruiters, I do believe these these tips hold true across industries and organizations, and I hope they help as you prep for your next phone interview!   

Need help strategizing for your job search or preparing for an upcoming interview? Contact us to set up an individual coaching session or learn more about our group coaching programs.

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