How to Crush Your Informational Interview

NiuShi
Rank: Senior Gorilla | banana points 938

Mod Note (Andy): "WSO Best of 2013" - this was originally posted Aug 1st.

So summer is winding to a close and recruiting season is rapidly approaching. Monkeys will be dusting off their resumes with the hopes of securing IB and PE interviews and eventually offers from the jobs of their choosing.

A key aspect to any successful job search is the informational interview. The purpose of said interview is not to ask for a job directly, per se, but to learn about a selected profession, company, and often to lock down an introduction to someone who might be able to get a resume in front of the right people.

Here are a few tips for navigating successful informational interviews:

1) Have a tight, well-crafted story

This is not only an opportunity for you to practice your interviewing skills, but for you to put your best foot forward for someone who might be able to introduce you to 'the powers that be' within your industry or company of choice. Lead off the informational interview with a succinct and clear story of exactly why you're interested in the target field and the precise reason you wanted to speak to this specific person.

This can, and should, change depending on who you speak with, but it's important to start with this for a number of reasons: 1) Make them feel that you sought after them in particular, not just any old banker/trader/whoever. Now they're listening. 2) Get them onboard with your story and why you want to break into the industry. This will let them know you're serious. 3) Give them a well-articulated and precise goal. This will inform them of exactly the help you need. If you impress them enough and they think you have a future, you've spelled out for them how they can help you achieve your goals.

2) Give, give, get

Arrive at the informational interview with value. This could be as small as the cup of coffee/lunch you're buying the person you're speaking with and it could be as big as a tip/insight on a company or even an introduction. Offer this up early on in the conversation. You don't need to be showy about it, but a simple, "Hey, Mark, I just want to say how grateful I am that you are taking the time to speak with me. I know you're generally very busy and I'm thrilled to be able to treat you to lunch today." Especially if you're going out for a drink/food, set the expectation early that you're going to pay so there's no awkward fumbling for wallets at the end. If you're making a connection/giving information, casually mention it at the beginning of the conversation: "Oh hey, Mark, before I forget, I know you're a weekend warrior on the golf course and I have a good buddy who is running a free short-game clinic two weeks from now. Remind me as we're heading out and I'll give you his contact info, yeah?"

Don't be a leech. Give before you expect to get. Not only will the gesture prove sound and the person across the table will be thankful, but also it's a natural human emotion to repay in kind. Be a giver and you'd be amazed how much people will give back.

3) Lead the conversation by listening

Not rocket science here. You want to maintain control of the conversation, but you can't learn if your mouth is open, yapping away. Listen intently, take notes if you want (not too aggressively - that can get weird) Show the other person you're interested and invested in what they're saying with classic body language of nodding, smiling, and the occasional 'uh-huh' or 'okay.'

It's almost like a date, right? Start off with small talk about this or that, so the other person warms up to you a bit and they're willing to be candid, then shut up and let them tell you all about themselves. Throw in a memorable story here or a witty riposte there, and boom, you're the world's most affable conversation partner. The industry professional will be walking back to his office thinking to himself, "What a great guy!"

4) Directed, efficient questions

This informational interview is about you. You are there for a very specific mission. What this mission is, you need to decide ahead of time. It could be for a direct referral, industry background information, overall career advice, specific firm-related questions, what have you. You need that objective to drive the discussion. Don't waste this guy's time with, "So, what is working at Goldman Sachs like? Is it a high-pressure environment?" Ask a pointed question, receive a specific answer, and take that answer and add it to your arsenal of industry knowledge and future interview responses.

A few goldmines from past experience:
- "What surprised you most during your first year of private equity?"
- "What advice would you give to someone in my position looking for a full time offer 18 months from now?"
- "What is the most important thing a person wanting to enter PE should know?"
- "What part of the job do you find the most satisfying?"
- "What particular skills or aptitudes do the most successful PE analysts have?"
- "What are the differences between _________ and its competitors?"

You'll notice that these are all 'What' questions. You don't want to appear like an automaton during the informational interview, but I have found that asking 'What' questions, yields responses that give you very specific pieces of data that you can then deploy when you need. Asking 'Why' or 'How' questions are also effective, but you will get a different sort of response all together - a much 'softer' answer. (Note: some will disagree with me here, I'm sure - I guess it's a personal thing, but I find getting jewels of data proves more valuable than broad brush stroke responses)

5) Ask for a reference and follow-up

Crucial. And underdone. At the conclusion of the interview, make a point of asking for a connection or referral to someone else within the field/company. I find a good way of doing this is within the interview, ask about the person's team, when they mention their teammates, make a mental note of remembering one person's name. Towards the conclusion of the interview, a simple, "Mark, this has been really great - thank you again for taking the time to speak with me. Hearing about your experiences in X has really confirmed to me that it is something I would be interested in learning more about. You mentioned your teammate, Sally, before. Do you think that you might be able to put me in touch with her or another one of your contacts in the industry? I'd be interested in following up with them and learning more about their experiences in X as well." Then shut up. Don't move. Wait for it... and yes...

In 25+ times I've said this, I've actually never had this not work before. But I'm sure you monkeys have all had different experience asking for referrals, so I can't speak for everyone. If the person doesn't connect you to Sally, or whomever they've previously mentioned, they will invariably connect you with someone else because you asked that question. (as long as you follow-up)

All it takes to butter that bread is the follow-up thank you e-mail with another request for the connection. By doing this, you've already established credibility with the second person you're speaking with, as the first person has given their 'stamp of approval' on your personality and professional potential. This second or third informational interview is where you can make 'the ask...'

So, monkeys, the above clearly isn't an exhaustive list, so what are the best questions you ask during your informational interviews? Any stories out there of how your interview helped you land your job?

Comments (59)

Best Response
Aug 1, 2013

Don't have anything to add to this (...yet), but skimming through your post, and this is awesome stuff! thanks for the info.

I would like to echo your point about 'what' questions vs. 'why' questions - in my experience, the questions that begin with 'why' can sometimes put the person on the defensive, or may sound more aggressive than you intend.

For example, the question "What initially led you into banking?" will yield a better answer, and is less intrusive than "Why did you decide to work in banking?"

The 'why' questions sort of seem like the person has to defend their decision to do X or Y, if that makes sense. But perhaps other people have different opinions on it.

"You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are." - Mister Rogers

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Aug 1, 2013

Great post, SB'd.

Aug 1, 2013

Very helpful, thanks a ton. SB'ed you as well.

Aug 1, 2013

Had two "informational interviews" today, and I can say this is generally sound advice.

Aug 1, 2013

Really helpful post. Thanks!

Aug 1, 2013

+1 spot on.

Aug 1, 2013

Well done.

Aug 1, 2013

Terrific post. Pre-interview, I had an informational interview of sorts with my friend who works for the company and he set me up with a VP, who I bought coffee for and also had an informational interview. That led to an unexpected phone call with the boss a couple weeks later, where I got myself a real interview.

Just have to progress up the ladder a bit and be persistent.

Aug 2, 2013

Great post. Thanks a ton!

Aug 2, 2013

Good stuff, thanks

"It's not about pride or ego. It's only about money. I can leave now, even with Grama and KGB... and halfway to paying Petrovsky back. That's the safe play. I told Worm you can't lose what you don't put in the middle. But you can't win much either."

Aug 2, 2013

Really helpful, thanks!!

Aug 3, 2013

Great stuff.

One question I have is regarding paying for his/her coffee or food. I feel like it would be awkward (but maybe that is just me haha). I have no problem with it, they are taking time out of their workday/lunch hour to talk to me but it still seems weird. Someone told me that usually people just pay for themselves, especially if it is something small like coffee.

I ask since I am going to Chicago next week and have one informational interview set up (trying for a couple more) and we are going to meet at her office lobby and then grab coffee. She made it sound like she was busy but would try and fit me in.

I've only done 1 informational interview and we met at his office so there was no buying involved.

Thanks for the write up and tips!

Aug 5, 2013

I agree with ALF, it just seems odd that I (a broke college student) should offer to pay for him (a successful banker). While it makes sense on paper, I do agree there is a certain awkwardness to it.

Aug 6, 2013
ALF.:

Great stuff.

One question I have is regarding paying for his/her coffee or food. I feel like it would be awkward (but maybe that is just me haha). I have no problem with it, they are taking time out of their workday/lunch hour to talk to me but it still seems weird. Someone told me that usually people just pay for themselves, especially if it is something small like coffee.

I ask since I am going to Chicago next week and have one informational interview set up (trying for a couple more) and we are going to meet at her office lobby and then grab coffee. She made it sound like she was busy but would try and fit me in.

I've only done 1 informational interview and we met at his office so there was no buying involved.

Thanks for the write up and tips!

Totally fair question mate. I'd still recommend buying the coffee though, unless you and he/she are really close or already friends before you have the discussion. Although it may feel awkward, a simple act like paying for the coffee just shows your appreciation for their time. Perhaps an imperfect comparison - if I borrow someone's car, I'll fill up the tank of gas as a thank you. But if that person is one of my best friends or family members, I might get away with not filling up the tank every time. It's just a matter of courtesy.

If you feel that awkward about buying someone who is more wealthy than you a cup of coffee, then I suggest you ask to meet them around their office. Here they may even have a cafe/snack bar and because now it's on 'their home turf' they may just go ahead and treat you.

If lunch/dinner, I recommend going to the bathroom when the meal is finished and slipping the server your credit card. That way when the bill shows up, you just sign and are out of the door. No time for arguing or putting up a fight on their part.

They'll appreciate the gesture. Use the above point on dinners with the in-laws as well...

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Aug 21, 2014
NiuShi:
ALF.:

Great stuff.

One question I have is regarding paying for his/her coffee or food. I feel like it would be awkward (but maybe that is just me haha). I have no problem with it, they are taking time out of their workday/lunch hour to talk to me but it still seems weird. Someone told me that usually people just pay for themselves, especially if it is something small like coffee.

I ask since I am going to Chicago next week and have one informational interview set up (trying for a couple more) and we are going to meet at her office lobby and then grab coffee. She made it sound like she was busy but would try and fit me in.

I've only done 1 informational interview and we met at his office so there was no buying involved.

Thanks for the write up and tips!

Totally fair question mate. I'd still recommend buying the coffee though, unless you and he/she are really close or already friends before you have the discussion. Although it may feel awkward, a simple act like paying for the coffee just shows your appreciation for their time. Perhaps an imperfect comparison - if I borrow someone's car, I'll fill up the tank of gas as a thank you. But if that person is one of my best friends or family members, I might get away with not filling up the tank every time. It's just a matter of courtesy.

If you feel that awkward about buying someone who is more wealthy than you a cup of coffee, then I suggest you ask to meet them around their office. Here they may even have a cafe/snack bar and because now it's on 'their home turf' they may just go ahead and treat you.

If lunch/dinner, I recommend going to the bathroom when the meal is finished and slipping the server your credit card. That way when the bill shows up, you just sign and are out of the door. No time for arguing or putting up a fight on their part.

They'll appreciate the gesture. Use the above point on dinners with the in-laws as well...

ha nice idea. sb'ed

The Auto Show

Apr 4, 2017

lol in-laws

Aug 6, 2013

Excellent advices. I have one question though, hope some of you guys can help me out.

I am planning a weekend trip to HK two weeks from now and am about to email some people to set up informational interviews. I know it's always easier to meet in person if you have previously talked on the phone before, so should I directly mention that I want to meet in person, or is it better to ask to speak on the phone first then try to set up an in-person meeting afterwards. The problem with that is, the two conversations would then only be a week apart.

Thanks in advance!

Aug 6, 2013
NiuShi:

Use the above point on dinners with the in-laws as well...

This has saved my ass once pretty well. Great piece of adivce.

As for informal interviews, the same applies :D

Aug 6, 2013

I have an informational interview today with an Associate that I am looking forward to crushing! Awesome info!

"He profits most who serves best"

"Every failure brings with it the seed of an equivalent advantage"

*Meditations 8:45

stoictrader.net

Sep 6, 2013

The most useful thing I've read in a long time.

Sep 9, 2013

Thank you for the tips. The coffee idea is brilliant!

Every morning I get up and look through the Forbes list of the richest people in America. If I'm not there, I go to work. - Jay Z

Sep 9, 2013

Very informative, thanks niushi

Sep 12, 2013

This is great, although in my experience, whenever i've done drinks or food during informational interviews the person usually pays without any thought at all. I've pulled out my wallet 100 times and 100 times been told not to even try. That coffee idea is pretty awesome though, definitely going to try it in the future.

Sep 13, 2013

really really informative mate!

Sleep is for wimps

Sep 15, 2013

Great post! Thanks for posting

Sep 19, 2013

How would one go about asking for a face to face informational interview once you've spoken with them on the phone. I have a informational phone interview tomorrow and would like to ask him is it possible to come by your office and meet you face to face towards the end or say something this has been great. I'd like to buy you coffee someday etccc. Please help.

Dec 30, 2013

To add to the discussion regarding paying, there wasn't a single time where the investment banker allowed me to pay...so I just gave up. I met plenty of people 15+...they always paid...even non-alumni. Of course I thanked them but there was no point arguing or insisting...it would've looked weird.

Dec 31, 2013

A lot of good advice here. I've done a bunch of coffee chats with college juniors the past few weeks and I do think that the biggest thing is having lots of questions ready to ask. I had one call that lasted only like 10 minutes because the kid only has 2 questions ready, and then awkwardly cut it off.

I'm not saying it has to be one-sided, I'm happy to talk and talk and share everything about my experience, advice, etc, but you got to be ready to ask questions.

Dec 31, 2013

Fake a laugh at any stupid joke they may try and make if you have to to keep things from getting awkward.

Dec 31, 2013

I don't think the coffee buying is necessary.

I've done many informational interviews when I was just out of university and as an employed person looking to meet some people in a new field. Every person I've gone out with has offered to pay to which I give a simple thank you after they buy the coffee. At the end of the interview you thank them for their time and any offer they've given to help you out.

What it boils down to is that most of the people you're talking to, the $2-5 they pay for your coffee is meaningless, and they're probably going to expense it anyways.

Most guys generally want to help other people out because they know how hard it was to first get into their first role (usually). Just be an interesting person to talk to, let them feel like they're helping you and be appreciative.

"The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it." - George Bernard Shaw

Dec 31, 2013

All very good points of advice and well written. Thank you!
One question you had mentioned that I don't suggest though:
>> "What are the differences between _________ and its competitors?"
This is a painfully broad question and nearly impossible to answer unless the person has experience at multiple firms. With LinkedIn and personal bios (usually) available to reference, I would only ask this question if you could make it more direct. For example: "What are the differences between XYZ Group at your CURRENT firm and the XYZ Group at your PREVIOUS firm?" It would be even cleaner to narrow the question down to a specific aspect, like say, deal process, analyst/associate involvement and responsibility, training programs, etc.
Just my opinion though...

Make opportunities. Not excuses.

Jan 1, 2014

Great Post! Thanks!

Jan 1, 2014

NiuShi- Excellent Post!

Echoing what you said, I like taking control of the interview (quickly) by stating your agenda/questions and then turning it over to the person to speak as much as possible.

Something like: "Thank you for your time, as I mentioned, I'd like to ask you for your advice on ____, I've read your bio on LinkedIn/Company website (shows you have done your homework), and first, I'd like to ask about how you got to where you are/the choices you made in your career. People love taking about themselves, and it's a great way to build rapport. This exact sequence is probably a little too fast (and sounds rushed), but you get the idea.

Regarding the face-to-face interview, I think the request is easier the further you are traveling--and Hong Kong (if you are coming from outside of Asia) is totally legitimate. I always try to get a face-to-face interviews wherever possible, and a few things can help: 1) Offer to buy breakfast (everyone has to eat, and usually people have some time free in the AM, unless there is a meeting) 2) Promise to take no more than 20 minutes of their time (and stick to it!) -if the talk is going really well at 20 minutes, say you want to be respectful of their time (and you enjoy talking)--would it be easier to schedule another time to talk? People generally respect that you respect their time and you are not asking for 20 minutes to take 45. 3) Sometimes saying "I will be in ____ (Town or area their office is in) for a meeting that day", could work (with the promise to only take 20 minutes of their time), as it can lower the barrier to entry for a 20-minute meeting. This last idea is probably the weakest of the three-- but if you can use all three , the better.

Regarding paying for the coffee, it never hurts to offer. I like the idea of giving the credit card ahead of time. I agree, why would a student deep in debt offer to pay for coffee for someone? I think offering to pay is classy, and usually the other person will pay anyway (they have been in your shoes before). And if you do pay, reciprocity is a powerful human force--Buffett followers know this from reading Robert Cialdini's book "Influence". Nothing wrong with having someone feel they owe you something---even if it's just a coffee.

I really like Ellis Chase's article on networking that has many similar points to ones NiuShi mentions--great minds think alike (it's free, just google his name to get his site). Ellis was a career counselor at Columbia B-school when I was there, and I thought he was great. His book (which I own) also breaks down any interview question into 5 set questions you must answer. I've found that tool alone very useful (it used to be free on his site, and you may be able to google it and find it for free). I get no compensation or benefit whatsoever from recommending his work/book/etc...--he's just given me lots of useful advice.

Good luck!

    • 1
Jan 3, 2014

Very informative post. Thank you.

Feb 12, 2014

How do you know whether you are dealing with an informational interview or a real interview? The former partner-in-charge of a group sent my resume with a recommendation to the current heads of her group at a bank, and a VP in the group reached out to "discuss my interest" in the group. The conversation went reasonably well, but I didn't give a hard sell on why they should hire me and I could definitely have shown more enthusiasm for the group. Instead, I asked questions about what the group was like, etc. Was this an informational interview or was it really a first-round interview in disguise, and did I completely blow it?

Jul 29, 2014

Awesome post!

Jul 31, 2014

How do you ask them to see whether they are hiring or other groups within their firms are hiring or not in a polite way?

Aug 15, 2014

Just politely ask. No one will be surprised by the question. "Is your group currently looking for an intern/analyst/associate?" If not; "Do you know any other groups that may be adding to their teams? Oh really, Arbitrage has an opening? Could you introduce me/pass me along to someone in that group?"
I've tried beating around the bush with questions about deal flow and if they're 'busy' or not but everyone in finance is busy. If they're not busy, they're probably not going to tell you that. Also, don't wait till you're standing up to leave to ask. Plug it mid-to-late in the time slot so there's time for the conversation to run its course.

Make opportunities. Not excuses.

Dec 16, 2014

What about a situation where you are on an informational interview and you know in advance that the firm is hiring for a position you are qualified for? It seems like bringing it up as "I understand that xxxxx is looking for..." may ruin the rapport and make the whole conversation seem tainted since you knew this in advance.

Any advice for bringing it up tactfully? Or maybe approaching it earlier in the conversation by asking more information about the position?

Aug 13, 2014

this is awesome

Aug 14, 2014

This is a great post, thanks!

My question is.. how prepared should you be in that person's particular field before going to the information interview? I had one with someone in equity research recently and although he was very nice, I thought it was obvious i didnt know too much about his field or the work he performs.. but i guess the purpose was to learn about the position in the first place

Aug 28, 2014

bumping this, tons of threads popping up right now about informational interviews. @"AndyLouis" home page this ish

Aug 28, 2014

good call, will homepage tonight

WSO's COO (Chief Operating Orangutan) | My story | My Linkedin

Aug 28, 2014

Step #6: When you enter the room, look your informational interviewer in the eye and tell him, "I am going to absolutely crush this informational interview."

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Aug 29, 2014

Lets say somebody has a long distance informational interview on the phone with a top guy at a respected firm and basically has no way to offer anything in return (i.e. can't do any professional favors, can't offer to buy lunch/coffee). In this situation, is it appropriate/recommended to include a small gift in the follow up, like a bottle of wine or golf balls or something?

    • 1
Mar 8, 2018

Venmo him $20

    • 1
Sep 2, 2014

"Yeah, you know whatcha doin."

    • 2
Sep 13, 2014

I've tried the follow up thing. It doesn't work quite well when you can't develop a personal feeling. I've had them all say yes but the ones that actually do it is a small percentage.

And I think doing it through email is even better because you're going to have to send them a follow up thank you email anyways. Instead of constantly saying "please refer me please refer and using them" you need to mention it once and in the follow up email its fine

Oct 20, 2014

Great info, especially the example questions you gave!

Jan 25, 2015

This is great, thank you!

Feb 6, 2015

This thread is awesome. I had an informational interview today and asked a few of those questions that OP stated. Got some really good answers and the people I talked to definitely could tell I came well prepared.

Mar 30, 2015

How common is it to be quizzed/tested on things during these types of interviews? I hear that the more junior people may ask you some technical questions, but is it something that should be expected when speaking with MDs and other senior bankers?

Thanks.

Jul 28, 2015

Very helpful. Thank you!

  • Anonymous Monkey
  •  Feb 25, 2016

What questions to ask for a campus recruiter for corporate finance division at TD Bank?

Feb 28, 2016

Great post... Thanks for putting best 10 posts about this topic on the front page. Puts some light on my recent forum post about informational interview.

Sep 27, 2016

Was wondering about a good way to ask for a reference after an informational phone interview with an analyst?

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