Informational Interviewing: What, Why, and How?

I just received the following email from a law student:

"I've got a couple of informational interviews coming up and I've never really had an informational interview before. Is there a protocol for what to wear or discuss?  Should I bring a resume or cover letter?  How does the tone for this sort of (what I perceive to be) informal interview differ from a job interview, if at all?"

This student is making a smart investment in his future by taking time to schedule informational interviews. What is an informational interview? It's an interview where the goal is not for you to market yourself for a specific job or school; instead, your purpose is to learn what someone does in a particular job or field, or about an individual's experience at a school, and to make a networking contact. It's an opportunity for you to ask the questions.      

Think about whom you want to talk to and learn from: A student at your dream school? An attorney at the non-profit organization or law firm at which you hope to work someday? A successful associate at a business you follow and respect? I suggest you contact alumni from your high school, college, or graduate program, since they are often very receptive to current students and fellow alums. However, you may also request informational interviews with people to whom you are not connected.

Request a meeting in a polite and deferential manner via email, so you won't put your contact on the spot and she can review her calendar before responding. Explain that you are not requesting a place in the incoming class or a job interview, just an opportunity to discuss her career path and experiences. (I know that you may be hoping secretly for a job or that the contact will put in a good word for you with the admissions office, but focus on learning about the person and making a good impression -- the potential rewards may follow down the road.) Tell the contact a bit about yourself -- where you go to school or work and why you are interested in meeting with him or her. If the person doesn't respond within a week you can follow up once, but if they neglect to respond to a second email, move onto another potential contact.

So what happens when you hear "Yes, let's meet"? Despite the fact that you're not applying for anything during an informational interview, you want to make a great impression, so take it seriously, prepare thoroughly, and follow up with your contact.

Research the individual with whom you are meeting and his or her school or employer. Use the organization's website and google, and check the local newspaper's search engine. Your search might generate questions about some of the following issues:

  • The organization: What can your contact tell you about the company's work or the school's atmosphere, its day-to-day structure, and its short and long term goals? What does your contact like most about the organization? What does she like least? What has surprised her?
  • The day-to-day experience: What does he do each day? What skills does he utilize in his work? What is most interesting and challenging about his work?
  • Following in her footsteps: How did your contact get her current job? What steps did she take to get there? What skills are important before applying or working there? How can you position yourself to be admitted to the school or get a job at the business?

This type of first meeting, even though solely informational, does create a lasting impact, and you can impress the contact with your questions and professionalism. Wear a suit to show that you are respectful of that person's time and role. Bring your resume to your interviewers, because it's an efficient way to convey your background and experience to them, and they can refer to your resume in case they think of amazing internships or jobs for you in the future. Ultimately, the information you learn can be used effectively to help you consider your options, write better cover letters or personal statements, and articulate your interest and applicable skills on interviews. 

After meeting with an individual for an informational interview, send a thank-you note via email or snail mail within 24 hours. In most cases you should plan on maintaining contact with this person on a regular basis via email: he may provide advice as your career unfolds and he may learn of job openings in the future that are good fits for you. Maintaining contact with networking resources on a regular basis is one important aspect of career exploration that many people ignore. Do not make this mistake!

Nicole Vikan is a graduate of NYU Law School. She spent her first law school summer at a large law firm, and her second summer in the Homicide Investigation Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. She returned to the District Attorney's Office after graduation and spent five years as a criminal prosecutor, handling cases such as robbery and assault. Nicole then joined Fordham Law School's Career Planning Center, where she advised students seeking employment in the private and public sectors. She is currently a career counselor at Georgetown Law Center's Office of Public Interest and Community Service. As part of the Anna Ivey team, Nicole works with law school applicants and people exploring legal careers. 

Questions or success stories about informational interviewing? Post here!