What is an Informational Interview?

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What’s the difference between an informational interview and a job interview?

According to Wikipedia an informational interview

is a meeting in which a potential job seeker seeks advice on their career, the industry, and the corporate culture of a potential future workplace; while an employed professional learns about the job seeker and judges their professional potential and fit to the corporate culture, so building their candidate pool for future hires.

In other words, an informational interview is essentially a preliminary job interview. The ultimate objective is for the job seeker to get a job and for the company to hire an employee. 

The University of California at Berkeley Career Center, however, disagrees:

An informational interview is an informal conversation with someone working in an area that interests you who will give you information and advice. It is an effective research tool in addition to reading books, exploring the Internet and examining job descriptions. It is not a job interview, and the objective is not to find job openings.

Origins of the Informational Interview

Most experts recognize career planner John Crystal as the inventor of the informational interview. The whole point for Crystal was not to come across as a job seeker. Crystal considered informational interviews as a form of what we would now call networking.

”You can send out all the resumes you want and there’s no guaranteeing the offers you’ll get are the ones you want,” he once told an interviewer. ”Going through channels is nonsense. Personnel departments merely shield the more responsible people from the bands of totally uninformed job-seekers; they merely weed people out.”

Instead, he advocated an indirect route: ”Approach the one man or woman – never a ‘personnel’ person-who has the most knowledge of the job you truly want and enough seniority to hire someone for it.”

Crystal’s approach was popularized for the general public by Richard Bolles in his bestselling book What Color is Your Parachute? Since then informational interviews have become common features of job searches for mid-level jobs on up.

Job Interviews and Informational Interviews Compared

So what’s the real difference between an ordinary job interview and an informational interview?

  • A job interview in part of the job application process; an informational interview is a networking technique.
  • In a job interview, the employer asks the job seeker questions; in an informational interview the employer is asked the questions.
  • In an ordinary job interview, the job seeker is judged by the answers they give to questions; in an informational interview the job seeker is judged by how well-informed and penetrating their questions are.
  • In a job interview employer usually reviews the candidate’s resume in advance; in an informational interview, one does not offer ones resume unless the interviewer asks for it.

To learn more about informational interviews, check out Jeff Neil’s Informational Interview Handbook.