Top 15 Informational Interview Questions to Ask (and Why) was originally published on Forage.
Informational interviews put you in the driver’s seat. They are phenomenal opportunities to find out more about a job, career path, industry, or company you’re interested in. But any interview is often only as good as the questions the interviewer asks. And in the informational interview, that’s you!
When creating your list of informational interview questions, you want to ask questions that will teach you something and spark you to ask additional questions. No idea where to start? This guide’s got you covered!
The Power of Informational Interviews
Conducting an informational interview can have a powerful effect on your long-term career plans. Talking to someone who does what you want to do (or think you want to do) can help you understand what you need to do now to achieve your professional goals. And asking the right questions can also help you learn things about the career, industry, and role that you may not have thought about.
15 Questions to Ask in an Informational Interview (and Why You Should Ask Them)
Of course, an informational interview is only as powerful as the informational interview questions you ask. While there’s no one right set of questions to ask, here are 15 informational interview questions to get you started on creating your list.
Start With Yourself
OK, OK. This isn’t an informational interview question. But you should start by explaining who you are and what you hope to learn. This may seem a bit redundant, given you likely gave your interviewee some of this information when you set the meeting up. But starting with information about yourself helps set the stage and gives the interviewee an idea of what you’re looking for, which can help them frame their answers.
For example, if you’re unsure whether or not you want to pursue this career, you can explain that you’re curious about the field but don’t know if it’s right for you. The interviewee might explain the pros and cons of the job to help you make your decision.
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1. What’s your career story?
Kicking off a job interview with “Tell me about yourself” is fairly predictable. However, it’s also a great way to kick off an informational interview. But instead of starting with this particular phrasing, Tanja Hinterstoisser, assistant vice president, career design and employer outreach at Champlain College, says you should start with “What’s your career story?”
She advises interviewers to frame the question with, “I’m interested in hearing more about what you do, how you got to join this organization, and why did you choose this profession?”
This open-ended question lets the interviewer give you their elevator pitch with more details. And you get to listen for and ask about the intriguing points that may be relevant to you and your situation.
2. How and why did you choose this profession?
Some people have known what they wanted to do since they were eight years old and did everything in their power to make it happen. Other people had no idea and didn’t figure it out until they were in college or after they started a different career. You may even find someone who fell into what they’re doing because of various circumstances.
Asking how and why someone is in this career can help you figure out if you’ve got the same hows and whys, different hows and whys, or if you need to figure out what how and why looks like to you.
3. What kinds of skills do I need to succeed in the field?
The skills you enter the workforce with are just the begining of your long-term career success. For example, you may start your career with a basic knowledge of spreadsheets. But as you continue in this career path, you may need advanced spreadsheet skills.
Hinterstoisser says you should ask about the skills someone needs in the role. This can help you understand what areas you may need to focus on and improve throughout your career.
What’s more, you may need to develop your hard and soft skills in ways you may not have realized. For example, someone in coding needs a hard skill like Java or PHP. But if you want to be a team leader or go into management, you’ll also need soft skills like communication and conflict resolution.
4. What is the interview process like?
Though there’s tons of general advice about how to interview, asking someone who’s been through the interview process for the company or field you’re interested in is unique and valuable intel!
“Ask questions about how they got the job,” says Hinterstoisser. “What was the interview process like, how rigorous was the interview process?”
Even if your interviewee hasn’t been in a job interview for a while, they likely have some idea of their company’s interview process. They may be able to tell you if the company uses one-way interviews or phone calls for early screening rounds and case studies for later interviews.
Your interviewee also has some idea of what industry standards are for a particular role. Someone applying for a marketing role may need to analyze data and create an action plan as part of a take-home project, while someone in data science may be asked to analyze data and come to a conclusion during the interview.
5. Why do you think you got the job?
This informational interview question could be a bit tricky, so proceed with caution.
Asking someone why they think they got the job allows them to describe what impressed the hiring manager. It could be that they quantified their achievements, which helped the interviewer understand the impact this person could have at the company. Perhaps the interviewee had a unique skill set outside what the hiring manager was looking for.
Then you can ask follow-up questions to learn more about how the interviewee accomplished their goals or obtained their skills. Did they learn everything they needed to on the job? With a mentor? Did they pursue outside education and get certificates? The answers will give you a clearer idea of what you might need to do to similarly impress a hiring manager.
Someone who says, “I have no idea,” may truly be unsure about their skills and abilities. However, it could also be that they work for a company that recognizes and values potential in applicants, so consider asking about their cover letter or resume to try and figure out how they landed the interview in the first place.
6. What activities outside of the industry help you on the job?
Though some people like working all the time, not everyone does. So, asking what kinds of activities the interviewee participates in outside of work can lead to a discussion of how this person develops relevant skills outside of the job.
For example, someone in UX or UI might run a hobby blog and learned not only how to create a good user experience but why it matters. Your interviewee may have volunteered at the local animal shelter and developed extensive project management skills while the shelter built a new addition.
7. What have you learned from the role?
Learning is a lifelong process and shouldn’t end once you get a job. Whether you’re working an entry-level role or leading the company, you should always be learning and mastering new skills.
Ask your interviewee what they’ve learned on the job and throughout their career. You’ll likely find that what they learned in earlier roles prepared them to move up the career ladder. And if you hear that someone developed their skills outside of the job, probe a little bit to see if that’s something they wanted to do or something they felt they had to do. People in the “had” category may be working for a company that doesn’t prioritize employee development.
8. Was your major relevant to the role? How or why not?
If your interviewee graduated college, ask them how important their major was (in their opinion) in securing the role. Likewise, if they didn’t finish or didn’t go to college, ask if they think college is necessary for the job.
Some roles don’t have a specific major or degree requirement. For example, people in marketing often have degrees in business, English, or creative writing. Other jobs, like accounting, may require a specialized degree.
And no matter what you’re studying, it’s unlikely you’ll learn all the skills you’ll need on the job at school. Asking how much or how little a college major is connected to a job can help you measure how much you’ll learn in the classroom versus on the job and help you decide if you need to take on an internship or gain work experience to enhance your skills.
9. Do you have a mentor? How have they helped you?
Some companies have a formal mentoring program for new staff, but not all do. And even at companies with programs, not every mentee gets something out of the relationship.
Start by asking if they have a mentor and if the relationship has been beneficial. If the interviewee doesn’t have a mentor, you can reframe the question: “Is there someone you’ve worked with who has helped you grow professionally?”
Not all professional relationships are as formal as a mentorship, but they can help you develop in unexpected ways. As an example, a writer may say that working with a particular editor helped them improve their craft.
10. What are the most frequent challenges you face?
Asking about “frequent” challenges gives you an idea of the common or recurring obstacles the interviewee faces. Their answer will give you insight into if those challenges are from the nature of the job, the company, or the overall industry. This can be a critical factor in determining what you want to do and where you want to work.
For example, if you’re meeting with a consultant and they say the most frequent challenge they face is a lack of work-life balance due to the constant travel, you can ask a follow-up question about if they think it’s specific to the job (consultants often travel a lot) or the company (it may be that this particular company insists their consultants travel to the job site instead of doing things virtually).
11. What’s the most surprising thing about your job or industry?
You can’t really know what it’s like to work in a specific career, particular industry, or at a certain company until you’re actually doing it! This is one of the significant advantages of informational interview questions — you’re speaking with someone who is doing what you want to do.
The answer to this informational interview question can run the gamut from “The amount of regulation we’re subject to” to “How much cross-collaboration there is,” and you might, ironically, be surprised by the answer. But that’s the point, and now you’ve got some inside information that can help you decide if you’re ready to take on these surprises
12. What’s the one thing you wished you had known before you started?
Asking what the interviewee wished they had known is different from asking about the surprises they found. In this instance, you’re asking what knowledge they lacked, so you can fill your knowledge gap accordingly.
For example, someone may say they wished they had more product management experience before starting. Clearly, they had enough to get the job, but knowing they would have liked more before starting can help you decide if you need to pursue more experience now.
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13. Where do you see yourself in five (or 10) years?
Sometimes people choose a career path and intend to stick with it until they retire, but things change. Asking where your interviewee pictures themselves in the near future helps you visualize the types of long-term challenges and obstacles you might face if you pursue this career.
If they say they’re leaving their field, ask why. For example, someone in investment banking might like the long hours at first but later may discover that it’s not conducive to raising a family. Conversely, they may want to move into something more aligned with certain values, like social activism.
14. How flexible is your role?
When you ask about flexibility, you aren’t just asking if the job is flexible (though that is part of it). You’re also asking how autonomous the role is or how much discretion you have in how you get things done.
For example, if you’re considering a career in mergers and acquisitions, you might have a lot of flexibility in how you gather information, when you work, and deciding if the deal takes place. But on the flip side, once you decide the deal should happen, you may have very little flexibility in terms of the due diligence that has to happen or how long things take because of legal requirements.
15. How has the role/industry/company changed since you started?
Change is inevitable. And asking about change within a job, sector, or organization can tell you a lot about its future — and yours!
Even someone who hasn’t been in the role very long should be able to give you an idea of some of the major changes that have or have not happened. For example, someone working at a start-up may have seen a ton of changes happen within the company in response to things that happened outside of the company. This can give you an idea of the market forces that may be at work in this sector.
Someone who’s been at their job for several years but says nothing’s changed is possibly telling you a few things. First, they may be telling you that they aren’t paying attention to the job, the company, or the market. The question you should then ask yourself (and maybe them) is, why aren’t they paying attention? Have they burned out? If so, why?
It’s also possible that nothing’s changed because the company isn’t committed to helping staff grow professionally. Going up the career ladder isn’t for everyone, but most jobs will give employees some professional development to help keep their skills sharp and engaged with the role.
Finally, it’s also possible the company isn’t committed to growing itself. A company that doesn’t keep up with changes in the market may be at the head of the pack right now, but things can shift rapidly. A company that isn’t staying in front of these changes may be one that isn’t set up for future success.
Ready to switch from interviewer to interviewee? Check out Forage’s advice on how to ask and answer interview questions.
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