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Career Strategies for Librarians
It’s Your Call: Telephone Interview Strategies
by Tiffany Eatman Allen

So, you have a telephone interview.  The good news: they’re interested in you.  The not-so-good news:
this may be all that stands between you and an actual in-person, on-site interview, which can be very
intimidating.  So what exactly is a telephone interview?  How is it conducted, who conducts it, and most
importantly, what should you expect and how do you prepare?

What are Telephone Interviews?

Telephone interviews are an exchange of information, by phone, regarding a candidate’s suitability for a
position. They usually occur between the candidate and a search committee, or a candidate and an
organization’s human resources professional.  In some cases, the caller may also be the hiring
supervisor or a recruiter from an external search firm.  Telephone interviews usually last anywhere
between 30 and 60 minutes and can happen at any time.  In most cases, the calls are scheduled with a
candidate in advance, but sometimes they aren’t, so being prepared to speak intelligently at a moment’s
notice is incredibly important.  If you receive a call when you aren’t prepared to talk, ask for a minute to
gather your things.  Asking for a minute is far less of an offense than fumbling through a telephone
interview because you aren’t prepared and you don’t have your materials.  Additionally, if you need
accommodation to participate in the telephone interview, please be sure to ask.  And a word to the wise:
if your voicemail message isn’t something you would want a potential employer to hear, be sure to
change it as soon as you begin applying for jobs.

To be successful in your telephone interview, you really need to understand the purpose of conducting
this type of interview.  As with any other interview, the primary purpose of a telephone interview is to learn
a little more about you as a candidate and your suitability for a position.  The search committee, hiring
manager, and HR professional all use telephone interviews as a way to further assess a candidate’s
qualifications, clarify any questions they have about experience or education, and to learn more about
you as a candidate.  For the hiring agency, telephone interviews help to narrow the pool by screening
several candidates without having to spend a lot of money or time to bring candidates on site.  A
telephone interview ultimately helps the hiring organization determine which candidates to pursue
further, which in many cases involves checking references and inviting candidates for an on-site
interview.

How Should You Prepare for a Telephone Interview?

Organization and preparation are definitely the two most important factors for a successful telephone
interview.  Create a folder for each position you apply for.  In the folder, keep a copy of the vacancy
announcement with a copy of the resume you submitted.  As you research the company or institution,
make notes, print copies of web pages, etc., and keep that information in the folder with your application
materials.  If you have all of your information about that job vacancy grouped together, when you get a call
you can simply grab the file and be prepared to answer their questions.  Also, be sure to keep your files
in a place that’s easy to access, perhaps conveniently located next to the phone or on a desk.  You want
to ask people to hold for only a moment, not while you run down the stairs, out of your house, and to your
car to grab the files out of your trunk.

Just as with an on-site interview, you will need to be prepared to talk about your qualifications for the
position and detail how you meet each requirement listed in the vacancy announcement.  Be prepared to
share specific examples of how you meet both their required and preferred qualifications.  Make notes
(and keep them in your interview file) about the position, the experience you have that is relevant, and
specific examples of your work or coursework that you feel are important to share.  And think about any
questions you may have about the position, the department, or the larger organization, and write those
down as you go along in your preparation.  These questions will serve you well as you think about the
position and imagine yourself in the job.

To prepare for a telephone interview, practice is actually very important.  Some recommend practicing
with friends (for example, give them a list of interview questions to ask you and then you respond by
telephone). Some also advise taping yourself as you respond out loud to interview questions and then
playing back your responses to check for clarity, enunciation, volume, and enthusiasm.  You can also
practice by answering interview questions while sitting back to back with a friend; this way, you can
practice talking to someone without being able to view their physical responses, like eye contact or facial
expressions.

During the Interview

While it may be stating the obvious, make sure you have a reliable, high-quality telephone.  Because of
the unpredictable nature of signal strength, this isn’t really the best time to use a cell phone.  Also, be
sure to be in a place that is free from distractions—no radio, television, pets, children, noisy roommates,
etc.  It is also recommended that you sit at a desk or a table so you can have access to your materials.  
You can also try standing because your voice will project better.  In any case, you will want easy access
to your interview materials so you can review your information file easily without having to shuffle papers.  
And by sitting at a desk or standing, your voice will sound stronger and more confident than if you are
lying in bed or on the sofa.

As you progress through the interview, be sure to listen carefully to each question and answer each
question fully.  If you are unsure if you’ve completely answered the question, feel free to ask the
interviewer to repeat the question or ask if you’ve answered the entire question.  There may also be
pauses or gaps in the conversation.  Don’t worry about these—without physical cues, it’s difficult to have
a conversation this rich in content over the telephone, so participants may pause to make sure each
party is finished speaking.  The interviewer is also probably taking notes, which may add to the delay.  
Try to be patient and use these moments to catch your breath or (quietly) take a quick drink of water.

At the End of the Interview

As the interview winds to a close, there is usually an opportunity for the candidate to ask questions.  
Keep track of the time.  If your appointment was for 30 minutes and your interview has taken 25, ask one
or two questions.  If you have more time, ask two or three questions.  Make sure the questions are about
the position, the department, or the larger organization, more along the lines of “Can you please tell me
more about your progress in the area of digitization and this position’s role in that process?” and less
along the lines of “How many vacation days will I get?”  When you’re presented with the opportunity,
always, always, always ask a question; it shows interest in the position and engagement with the
process.

At the end of the conversation, be sure to say thank you and tell the interviewer that you look forward to
hearing from him again as the search progresses.  Just as in the conclusion of a cover letter, the tone of
your closing remarks during a telephone interview should be confident, positive, optimistic, and
enthusiastic.

Final Remarks

During a telephone interview, a candidate is seeking to convince the hiring organization of his or her
qualifications and suitability for a position.  The preparation is very much like that for an on-site interview,
while the actual act of being interviewed by telephone is a little different.  Keep in mind that it is
sometimes difficult to connect with people over the telephone—there’s no eye contact or physical cues
such as nodding heads or smiling faces—which is precisely why you need to convey an upbeat attitude
and enthusiasm for the position in your tone of voice, word choice for responses, and the questions you
ask.  Being organized and prepared will not only serve you well during your phone interview, but will also
serve as a great foundation for all the preparation you’ll need to do for your on-site interview once you’ve
aced the telephone call.

About the Author:

Tiffany Eatman Allen is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a BA in
Psychology and Political Science, and a Master’s of Library Science.  She has worked in technical
services in an academic library and a small corporate library, and currently serves as Assistant
Personnel Librarian at UNC Chapel Hill.  As Assistant Personnel Librarian, she serves ex officio on all
search committees and participates in each librarian interview.

Article published Jan 2007

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