By Allison Kaplan
I always know when journalism classes are working on the “interview a professional in the field” assignment, because suddenly I’ll get a bunch of student requests for informational interviews. Just to be efficient, I recently did a few of these phone calls back to back in the car while shepherding my son Oscar, 13, to and from the orthodontist. At first I felt bad about having to take work related calls in the car, but I’m actually glad he got to hear how students only a few years older than he is conducted themselves when speaking to a professional in a field that interests them. After the interviews, Oscar and I talked about what the students did well, and how they could improve. I do a whole lot of these calls and coffees with high school and college students. I’m currently mentoring three students at three different schools, and I’m always happy to pay it forward. But I’m most impressed when the student is engaged, prepared, and eager to benefit from my experience.
So here are 10 ways to make a great impression, and get the most out of your conversation with a professional. You never know: It could lead to a job opportunity sooner than you expect.
1. Do your homework. It’s really easy to learn about people online these days —their career, especially. LinkedIn is a great place to start. Be sure to visit the website of the company where your prospective mentor works as well. Head into the interview with at least a general idea of her job title and career highlights. You’ll make a better impression asking: “Can you explain the responsibilities of the vice president?” rather than, “So what is your job?”
2. Don’t have your mom or dad or great aunt or neighbor call on your behalf. It tells me you aren’t serious. Even if there’s a connection, better to drop the name yourself.
3. Be on time. Seriously. It shows respect for the professional’s time. If you’ve never been to the office, do a dry run the day before. Know where to park and how to get in so you don’t get delayed.
4. Prepare questions! I’m always puzzled when a student asks to meet me, and then doesn’t seem to have any questions. Don’t be shy! And don’t expect me to interview you.
5. Don’t whine. Your assignment is due tomorrow? Not my problem, sorry. As busy as you think you are, remember that professionals are even busier. Be aware that it could take time to set up your interview, so don’t wait until the last minute to put in the request. It’s okay to follow up or make your timeframe clear by saying something like, “I’m hoping we can talk this week, if your schedule allows.” But don’t cry about your impending deadline. That just comes across as unorganized.
6. Share something about yourself. I don’t need your life story, but if you want to be remembered, it would be nice to know something specific to you. Maybe you’ve always had aspirations to be a magazine editor or a fashion designer, or you’re bilingual, and hoping to take what you learn from this experience with you to Spain. Share whatever compelled you to call me, specifically—beyond fulfilling a school assignment.
7. Make eye contact. Put your phone away so you’re not tempted. And stay focused on the person you’re talking to. If your eyes start wandering around the coffee house, I’m going to assume your mind is wandering too. That’s my cue to wish you well and bid you farewell.
8. Be an active listener. It’s one of the toughest things to do, but beyond recording answers to the questions you planned ahead, take the time to process them. So, if you’re interviewing a chef, and he happens to mention that he once cooked for Taylor Swift, you can jump on that little jewel and ask what that experience was like! What did TSwift order??? Always be ready and willing to ask follow-up questions that aren’t necessarily on your list.
9. Be gracious. Don’t end the conversation abruptly once you’ve got answers to the questions on your homework sheet. Take a moment to express your appreciation for the time, or say something about what you learned, or what you found most interesting. Leave the door open to stay in touch.
10. Follow up. A hand written note says you appreciated the opportunity, and increases your chances of being remembered. An email is okay—definitely better than no follow-up at all. It’s as simple as, “Thanks for your time and expertise.” Even better: Let me know how you did on the class assignment, or mention a book you think I might enjoy, or a link to an article you read that connects to our conversation. Anything to show you were listening, processing, and valued the advice.