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by David Solloway | November 09, 2020

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Informational interviews are treasure troves of information. What you collect from these types of networking meetings—in which you build relationships with people at the organizations you want to join—can provide you with insights that can help you improve your resume, cover letters, and interview answers. Sometimes, they can even grant you access to job opportunities that aren’t posted. And, most important, they can help you build relationships that lead to job referrals in the short term and support throughout your career in the long term.

Of course, the way to unlock the treasure of informational interviews is through outreach. Although many jobseekers struggle with the idea of sending emails to strangers asking them if they have time to chat, the bottom line is only those who take this step—and manage follow-up communications well—will reap the full benefits of these types of meetings.

Here are four tips that will help you land informational interviews and take full advantage of them.

1. Search for contacts with the best insights

The first step of setting up informational interviews is identifying your most desired employers. Starting with your top five employers is a good place to begin. Then, you’ll want to search for contacts at these employers. Prioritize finding contacts based on who’ll most likely be able to give you the best insights and strongest referrals. Consider “functional relevance” (ideally, you’ll want to contact people who hold positions one or two levels higher than your target role) and “commonalities” (ideally, you’ll contact fellow alumni of the schools you graduated from or are attending; people from your home country or previous employers are valuable as well). Make sure to keep your contact names in a spreadsheet categorized by employer. Adding a “Notes” column is helpful to track key details about contacts as you meet with them and beyond.

2. Send short outreach emails

Outreach emails should be short and ask if people would be willing to set up time to share more about their work experience. The goal is to gain insights and advice, not ask for a job. Avoid the temptation to list your qualifications. Hyperlink your LinkedIn page in your signature instead. Here is an example of what an outreach email could look like:

Hi <first name>,

I’m an MBA grad from <school>. I’d love to learn more about your experience working as a <role> at <employer>. Would you be willing to chat for 20 minutes in the next few weeks?

I’d like to get your advice and insights as I learn more about <specific industry>.

Best regards,

<Your name>

3. Prepare questions and responses to move from stranger to advocate

Before you enter your first informational interview, carefully consider the questions you’ll ask. Your first question should be a small talk question like, “How’s your day going?” Follow the momentum of small talk as long as the contact is willing to chat. Then transition by saying something like, “Well, I have a few questions I’d love to ask you about your experience. Mind if I dive into those?” Then ask open-ended questions that seek insights you can’t find via a Google search. That’s most easily done by asking about the person’s experience, thoughts, perspectives, and advice. Checking out the contact’s LinkedIn page can help you discern topics they’ll likely know a lot about. Avoid asking about controversial or negative topics. Also, again, don’t ask for a job. Lean into positively framed questions and questions that set up the contact as an expert. Below are some examples of questions to ask.

  • What’s one of your favorite parts about your role?
  • What are some of the projects you’ve enjoyed during your time at the company?
  • What does a typical work week look like for you?
  • What traits do you think people need to be successful in the organization?
  • What do you think people should know about your company [or industry] that they might not have heard?
  • What resources do you think I should explore to learn more about the organization [or industry]?

Once you write down the questions you want to ask your contact, take time to prepare for the questions contacts might ask you. They’ll likely ask, “So, tell me about you.” Expect them to explore why you’re interested in their employers, industries, and roles. They might even ask you about a career accomplishment.

4. Don’t forget to follow up

As you send your first set of outreach emails to contacts at your top employers, set calendar reminders for roughly one week later that say something like, “Follow up with <contact> at <employer> if haven’t heard from them.” Then, if you haven’t heard from that contact, forward your previous email and kindly ask if they had time to consider your request to chat. If they don’t respond to that follow-up, don’t keep emailing them. If you haven’t heard back from your initial contacts within three business days, don’t be afraid to reach out to a different contact at the same employer.

Thank-you notes

After you meet with someone, send them a thank-you note within 48 hours. That note should contain a specific insight you found helpful and mention that you checked out any resources they recommended. Be sure to ask your contact if it would be alright if you reached out if you have additional questions in the future. If they say “sure,” you have an advocate.

Check-in emails

You don’t want your relationships with advocates to end after one informational meeting. Often, there’s a gap between the time you conduct an informational meeting and the time an application opens. After roughly a month of your initial meeting, send your advocates an email asking how they’re doing. If they mentioned a project during your last chat, ask them how that project is coming along. Share how something they mentioned came up in one of your classes or something you read online. Wish them well.

Pre-application emails

Before you apply, reach out to your advocates. Thank them again for their help throughout the process. Tell them you’re applying for a role at their company. Ask if they have any advice before you apply on X date. This is also the time to ask them if they’d be willing to refer you to the hiring manager.

A final note

Don’t underestimate the potential of informational meetings. When you strategically prioritize your target employers and send outreach emails that ask for advice (not jobs), you give yourself a great chance of building advocates to help you throughout your job search. And when you follow up with your advocates throughout the various recruiting stages, you give yourself a great chance at earning referrals for the roles you want.

This post was adapted from the forthcoming Vault Job Search Guide for MBAs and B-School Grads.

David Solloway is a career consultant, life coach, and cross-cultural training/development specialist. He works as the assistant director for Daytime MBA Career Services at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. He is the author of the Vault Guide to Behavioral Interviews and a co-author of the Vault Guide to the International MBA Job Search.

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