How to handle a telephone interview

Use our checklist of telephone interview tips to tackle your initial interview with confidence and get through to the next stage of the graduate job application process.

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When preparing for a telephone interview, you should treat the process in the same way as you would a regular, in-person interview. It's your chance make a lasting first impression, so follow our telephone interview tips to give yourself the best chance of securing a second-round interview.

Jump to: What is a telephone interview? | Telephone interview tips | Telephone interview turn offs | Telephone interview questions

What is a telephone interview?

A telephone interview usually takes place at an early stage of the graduate recruitment process and is designed to filter applicants and decide who to progress. Although a short conversation, it’s your first opportunity to show enthusiasm and commitment to the role and the employer’s chance to gauge whether your personality will make a good addition to their team.

The absence of non-verbal cues means that a telephone interview provides the employer with useful insights into your verbal communication skills . If the job you’re applying for relies as much on your personality or telephone skills as on qualifications and experience, the recruiter will be particularly interested in how you come across.

As employers increasingly use platforms such as Skype and Zoom, they often employ them for what would have previously been the ‘telephone interview’ stage. While you will have to take how you come across on camera into consideration if this is the case (our article on video interviews should help with this), what you say will essentially be assessed in the same way as for a telephone interview.

Our top telephone interview tips for job-hunting graduates

Use the following to help ensure that you project confidence and an interest in the graduate job with the answers you give and questions you ask.

Research and plan your telephone interview

Be prepared. It's normal to be nervous before a telephone interview, but it will really help if you know you've done the groundwork. Make sure you find out as much as you can about the employer. Read the job description carefully and think about how you match the selection criteria.

    Write down any questions you might like to ask and plan answers to those questions you think are likely to come up – especially questions such as ‘ Tell me about yourself ’ and ‘ Why are you applying for this position?

    Practise beforehand

    Practice makes perfect. Any experience you have of using the phone in a professional context will help, for example a temporary telesales job, research during work experience or voluntary fundraising. If you feel you need more experience to build your confidence, ask a friend, a relative or someone at your careers service to help. They’ll be able to give you feedback on how you come across.

    You could also record yourself so that you can listen back and identify any problems, such as speaking too quietly or quickly.

    You can find resources to help you practise telephone interview questions from our partners at Shortlist.Me .

    Set up a space for your telephone interview

    Let your housemates know what's going on and ask them to leave the room and give you some peace and quiet. Only use speakerphone if you're sure there will be no interruptions and you are comfortable with this way of using a phone.

    Some people like to dress formally; if you feel professional you're more likely to sound professional.

    When the time of your interview comes round, make sure you are somewhere with a good signal and that your mobile is charged, topped up and switched on. Check that your answerphone message is suitable and will create a professional impression if heard by an employer.

    You might want to sit next to a table or desk with your notes, a copy of your application or CV, the interview details and a pen and paper to hand. Put them into a good order so that you can easily reach for information you might want to refer to.

    A recruiter should schedule a convenient time to call you, but if for any reason the call comes at an unexpected or awkward time, you could ask your interviewer to wait for a few minutes while you move to a quieter room or make other adjustments. Alternatively, if necessary, you could arrange another time to speak, but make sure you stick to it.

    If you're the one making the call, take a couple of deep breaths before you dial and remember to smile. It will come across in your voice, and you'll forget about your nerves once you're focused on the interview.

    Answering a phone interview call

    Answer the phone professionally: 'Good morning, Joe Bloggs speaking’ should do the trick.

    Be animated and enthusiastic, but polite. Don't be overfamiliar and don't start chatting as if you were talking to a friend. Remember to listen carefully and try to be succinct.

    It's unlikely that you will need to ring in to an interview, but if you are ringing in, think beforehand what you will say so that you don't fluff it: 'Good morning, please may I speak to Ms Jones? I have a telephone interview with her this morning.'

    Stay calm

    Speak clearly and at a reasonable pace. If you’re asked a tough interview question , take time to think – you can always say something like, 'Let me just reflect on that for a moment,' to buy time.

    Pauses are OK, just as in any interview. If you couldn't hear or didn't understand a question, it's fine to ask for clarification.

    Remember, a telephone interview is only the preliminary round

    Do ask questions at the end, but this is not the time for a discussion about salary, training and start dates. You may find that the telephone interviewer is working on behalf of the employer to do the initial screen of applicants and cannot answer detailed questions about the job and company. If you progress to the next stage, you will have a chance to assess the company in more depth.

    Take notes during the interview

    If you can, jot down notes during the interview, or write down what you can remember about the questions and your answers immediately afterwards, while it's still fresh. It will be a useful record to refer to when you go through to the next stage.

    Telephone interview turn offs

    The next set of advice points are what you should avoid.

    Lots of background noise

    Cafes are not good places to take the interview call.

    Munching and slurping

    Have a glass of water nearby just in case your mouth goes dry mid call, but don't eat or drink proper while taking part in a phone interview.

    Taking other calls or responding to messages

    Switch off your mobile if you are using a landline; switch off your landline if you are using your mobile... or move to another room.

    Multitasking

    Resist the urge to reply to emails, check your social media, make your lunch, wash up, and so on. Focus only on the person at the other end of the line.

    Being too laid back, literally

    Don't slouch on the couch; sit up straight, as it will help you feel and sound more confident and alert. Some people find taking calls standing up immediately gives energy to their conversation.

    Example telephone interview questions

    Telephone interviews are traditionally the first-round interview. As such, the interviewer is primarily interested in finding out whether you have a good understanding of what the job involves, whether you truly want it and whether you want to work for their employer.

    They are also likely to be keen to hear a bit more about you, your career ambitions and your skills. However, these questions are likely to be preliminary and you will get a chance to develop your answers in the next stage of the recruitment process.

    We run through some typical telephone interview questions below.

    Tell me about yourself

    This classic interview question serves as an icebreaker and to give the employer an early impression of whether you’re a suitable candidate. It may seem like a generic question, but the recruiter wants to hear specific information related to your professional life.

    Give the employer a brief run through of your work history, your education and why this makes you the best candidate.

    When talking about your work experience, mention where you’ve worked, what the job(s) entailed and what you learned from the experience – honing in on the experiences where your responsibilities were most similar to the new job. Make sure to emphasise any significant achievements that you may have contributed towards. This can include a big challenge that you overcame, in which case, share details of the approach that you took to succeed.

    Tell the employer where you studied and what your degree was. Then focus on a select few modules or experiences that were most relevant to the job. For example, which modules or extracurricular activities equipped you with essential transferable skills . Of course, this will be easier to do if your degree subject is closely related to the job you’re interviewing for.

    Finish by mentioning that you’re excited by the prospect of this new job and why your previous experience makes you a good candidate.

    Try not to regurgitate everything that’s on your CV. Instead, keep your answer succinct and focused on the most relevant points – this is the question where candidates are most likely to waffle. To avoid this, re-read the previous advice point on practising your answers .

    Why did you apply for this job?

    This phone interview question helps the employer to determine whether you’re after this specific job, or just a job in general. Recruiters want to see that you’ve understood the job description and, most importantly, that you’re genuinely interested in what the job entails.

    Research the role to inform your answer. Think about which of the job responsibilities you’d enjoy the most and what you’d like to achieve in the role.

    What do you know about our organisation?

    Employers usually ask this telephone interview questions as another way to test your interest in working for them.

    At the same time as reading up on the job role, set aside time to look into the organisation as a whole. Find information about its values, commercial aims (if a business) and the market or sector in which it operates.

    Information about values, its primary purpose or commercial objectives can be found on an employer’s own website – so dig around it. Read the ‘about us’ page carefully and see if there is a news, research or press release section.

    You can then do wider Google searches to learn about the market in which the employer operates. Find out who its competitors are and what sets the employer’s product or service apart from competitors.

    As you research, think about how you align with the organisation and its values and why you’d like to work for them rather than their competitors.

    Then, in your answer tell them what you know in your own words. It doesn’t give the best impression if you are just reading off the website.

    Can you tell me about a time when you demonstrated...?

    If you’re asked competency-based questions, the recruiter wants to know whether you have previously developed or demonstrated the skills essential to the role. A common competency question, for example, is 'Give me an example of a time when you worked in a team to solve a problem', which assesses both your teamworking and problem-solving skills.

    The best way to approach this type of question is by using the STAR technique, giving the employer information around the:

    • Situation you were in
    • Tasks that you needed to complete
    • Actions you took
    • Results achieved.

    You can read more about how to answer competency-based interview questions using the STAR method in this article .

    What do you like to do outside of work?

    Understanding your professional capabilities is only one side of the conversation. An employer will also want to get an idea of your personality.

    This is the time to let your hair down a little. Be genuine and talk about your hobbies and interest. That said, don’t rattle off every hobby that you have, and judge beforehand which of your hobbies are most suitable to mention.

    It’s not a trick question so you don’t need to give a ‘work-friendly’ answer. If you can naturally link one of your hobbies to the job, then do so. But don’t force it as this is your opportunity to let your personality shine through.

    Other example interview questions

    The above are only a select few potential telephone interview questions and there are others that an employer is likely to ask you, including:

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