6 Tips to Ace Phone Screening Interviews
You will only land that in-person interview if you can ace your phone screening.
In the wonderful world of Zoom, there are still some businesses that start with the old-fashioned phone screening. If your calendar is just full of phone screenings and no in-person interviews, it’s time to step up your game.
Phone interviews can be ten times harder than in-person interviews. They're even harder than Zoom interviews. In either case, you can dress to impress, you can be a few responsible-looking minutes early, you can smile a lot, and you have far more opportunities to charm them. In person, you can give someone a nice, firm handshake and a smile that shows you’re just confident enough to succeed.
Over the phone… it’s just your voice. You’re losing a lot of the elements that could be on your side for making a good first impression.
I’ve had the pleasure and displeasure of doing well over a dozen phone interviews in the last 7 years. I got my first full-time job while I was still in college. I’ve since had 5 full-time jobs since I graduated and guess what—every single one started with a highly impersonal phone screening.
Half the time, phone screenings are done by someone in HR who you may never even meet face to face. Here’s how to get past those gatekeepers and get an in-person interview.
Be upbeat and avoid monotonous answers.
If you don’t sound cheerful or optimistic, a recruiter or other HR representative could interpret that as disinterest. Don’t jitter too much, but show that you’re passionate and serious about the position. Even if it’s not your dream job, you’ve got to start somewhere, and you’ve got to sound interested.
People want other team members who have enthusiasm. Being upbeat is the first hint you can give a phone screener that you’re pleasant to work with. But like anything else, keep it to a balanced, reasonable level of cheer.
Don’t be too hyper or speak too quickly.
When I first started doing phone interviews, I was extremely guilty of coming across too hyper. Even after I had a few jobs under my belt, if I was truly excited about the position I was interviewing for, I’d talk ridiculously fast.
I’d try to tell the interviewer absolutely everything that made me sound qualified. Don’t do this. Don’t ramble, don’t yammer, and don't rush to recite your entire resume on the first question.
There was one time where I ran through my entire work history with hardly taking a break. After I was done, the person had no questions for me. Yeah, it was just as bad as it sounds.
Keep your responses to a few sentences and don’t overwhelm the person with too much information too fast. We’re all human beings here—it takes a bit of time for the screener to keep up.
Mindfully avoid ‘uh,’ ‘um,’ or its distant but still delinquent cousin ‘like.’
If you stumble, repeat yourself, or overuse these indecisive little sounds, it’s not going to earn you any points.
It’s better to pause for a moment to collect your thoughts than to make these odd little noises. Again, your interviewer might take it as a sign of being unconfident, unqualified, or inexperienced. When you’re fresh out of college, work experience is a challenging obstacle in a job hunt. Don’t come out of the box seeming unprofessional or unable to handle speaking professionally.
I was once part of a hiring committee where we did our own phone screenings rather than let HR do them. It’s actually incredible how many people we spoke to who couldn’t get through a single sentence without one or two “uh” or “ums.”
Study the job description like scripture and make sure you use terminology that appears in it.
This bit of advice also applies to in-person interviews, but it’s particularly important with the dread phone interview. Your voice and your choice of words are all that interviewer is going off of.
Certain keywords from the job description and the job requirements are what the interviewer will be listening for. They’ll take notes on these things. The person you’re interviewing with is often looking for specific terms.
For example, if the job description asks for proficiency with Adobe PhotoShop, make sure you mention PhotoShop at some point when talking about your past work experiences or projects you did in college. Beyond that, people want to know that you're familiar enough with your industry to know the common lingo and jargon.
You’ve got to be comfortable talking about your experience.
Make sure you highlight everything relevant but do it all in good time. Again, you don’t want to slap someone with information overload. If you don't often talk or write about your work, try practicing. Try discussing your work with a close friend or family member so you're comfortable explaining what you do to another person.
If you're very new to phone interviews, you can also prep by reading common phone interview questions. A lot of recruiters follow similar scripts, so it doesn't hurt to prepare and start brainstorming your responses to the most common questions.
Always put yourself in the best position for a phone interview.
Finally, we need to go over a few basics. Make sure you’re in a quiet place and make sure you’re there 5–10 minutes before your call is supposed to start. This should be common sense, but I’m throwing it in here just in case. It’s slightly more generic advice, but you’ve got to have the basics of phone interviewing down too. I've been on several hiring committees and I'm shocked every time an interviewee is late.
While you should always be ready for the phone interview a good few minutes before it starts, don’t have a heart attack if the interview calls you a few minutes late. Most of the phone interviews I’ve had started one to three minutes after the appointed time.
I, of course, panicked each time. Keep a level head and know that people are just people. They’re probably pulling up your resume and making sure they’ve dialed your number properly.
Last but not least, be patient. It might take some time before the follow-up with you about scheduling an in-person interview. In the meantime, keep applying, keep doing phone screenings, and try to do a little better each time.