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Ace Your First-Round Phone Interview

A woman is talking on the phone while sitting at her desk.

Bestselling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.  

While people around the world are working from home and social distancing to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, first-round job interviews are mostly happening over the phone. 

Employers often use initial phone interviews to weed out less-qualified contenders. They are looking for reasons to reject candidates and winnow down their stack of applications. You, on the other hand, want to convince them of your talents and skills. This is an important conversation that can lead to more interviews and job offers.

Expect the Unexpected

Get organized, because it's important to be readily accessible should an interviewer call unexpectedly. When we are working and attending school from home, that means telephone interviews will often come at inopportune times, such as when the kids are playing or the dog is barking. 

These things happen. Recruiters expect them and have heard them before, and they won't be offended if it takes you a moment to establish calm. Try to sound positive, friendly and collected:

"Thank you for calling. Would you wait a moment while I close the door?" You can then take a minute to settle yourself, pull up the company information on your computer and review the job posting before you resume the call.

Take a few controlled, deep breaths to slow down your pounding heart and put a smile on your face (it can improve the tone of your voice). When you pick up the phone again, you'll likely be in control of yourself and the situation.

If you didn't expect the recruiter to call and you are leaving the house or absolutely cannot have a phone conversation, say so immediately: "I'm heading out. Can we schedule a time when I can call you back?" (Beware of overfamiliarity. You should always refer to the interviewer formally until invited to do otherwise.)

Frequently Asked Questions

Remember, the initial phone interview is a time when the manager or the recruiter wants to rule you in or out as quickly as possible. Ace your answers to these two commonly asked questions, and you're likely to be well on your way to making the callback list.

  • "Tell me a little about yourself."

This not an invitation to ramble. The interviewer wants to know about your experience and qualifications for this job. Answer the question well to create a good first impression and set the tone for your job candidacy.

You should already have prepared the answer to this question. The target job deconstruction exercise (TJD) we discussed previously helped you identify the key skill sets that all employers seek. You'll know:

  • How employers prioritize, think about and express the responsibilities of the job you are interviewing for, so you can communicate more effectively by using the same words and descriptions.
  • The problems you must anticipate, identify, prevent and solve. List the ways you execute your current responsibilities to identify and prevent those problems from arising, and the ways you handle those problems when they do arise.
  • How your current job helps support company goals.

Take these points from your TJD and turn them into four or five sentences that reflect your experience in each of those areas. This gives you a condensed professional work history that focuses on the experience most important to what employers look for in this job—and it gives your phone interview a very strong start.

  • "What do you know about the company?"

It's possible that the interviewer spends the majority of his or her waking hours at work. Your knowledge of the job and understanding of the company—who they are, what they do and what they believe in—help interviewers evaluate your skills and engagement with the work.

Take the time to research each company you apply to. Learn each company's achievements, and express your admiration during the interview. That displays your research in a businesslike and complimentary way. 

If you can answer these two questions effectively, there's a good chance you'll move on to the next round of interviews.

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.


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