Hung Up: The Telephone Interview


My nephew has been having a few telephone interviews for his university applications and asked for my advice on them – I thought I’d share what I told him…

Top Tips for Telephone Interviews

Be Engaged

Not literally. Keep the phone line clear if it’s an incoming call – don’t even text! Tell everyone in your vicinity to shut the F up – no background music, vacuuming, all local dogs tranquillized etc. – and be somewhere quiet and alone. If you’re making the call, be precise on the time.

But the bigger point is that this call is your opportunity to sell yourself, to find out if the offer is worth buying, to get a sense of the kind of people they get to interview someone (telling in itself), and to potentially start to build a relationship with someone you may come into contact with again.

Sound lively and awake, appreciative of their interest. This is not a chore, you’re glad the call came in – you haven’t been dreading it (or worrying about it) at all! It’s exciting.

Don’t overdo it (unless the call is about becoming a cheerleader), but there’s nothing worse than interviewing someone over the phone who sounds like they just want to wrap it up and hang up. The person the other end is probably doing a lot of these interviews, make it an engaging conversation and they’ll thank you for it.

Be Prepared

Read and re-read your personal statement and any other paperwork they have had to prompt their call. Ideally, have it printed out and in front of you so you can refer to it during the call if you need to (or at least, open on a screen – not the same one you’re making the call on, obv. – and on that note, never advisable to be on speaker phone unless you’re in a hermetically sealed, soundproofed environment; someone calling down the stairs “We’re out of bog roll,” in the background never makes a great impression).

Have a pen and some paper to hand, and a bottle of water in case you get dry mouth! Don’t drink too much ahead of the call so that you need to pee, however.

Know the name of the person calling if this is possible. If they give it, try to write it down – you might not need it, and you don’t want to be all overly familiar and “Hey Jane!”, or be too stuffy and “Thank you Mr Punch,” at the end of the call, but you might want (or need) to refer to it again.

During the conversation itself, I always try to avoid using people’s names unless I have to (“Thank you so much for asking me that question Tallulah…” – it’s a bit tacky and unnatural).

Additional, general, point – if you will need the caller’s name again and don’t catch it the first time, ask them to spell it for you. If you suspect it was something like Smith you could say “Sorry, could you repeat that please, I didn’t catch that.” I’ve come unstuck writing down an approximated guess and then struggling to find someone when calling back.

But the bigger point here is your mental preparation. What do YOU want out of this call? What do you want them to know about you, what should they know about you? They should want you, right, they’re going to be lucky to have you, so what’s going to clinch the deal? And, just as important, what are YOU going to bring to their party? What’s going to float their boat?

Universities and colleges want people who really like to get stuck in and involved in everything – inside the institution and in the wider community (it makes them look good). You read up on all the things you can do there, show that in the interview, show you’ve done your research, that you’re really excited about the chance to do X or Y or meet so-and-so or experience the new Blah facility or potentially go on that LaLa Exchange.

Be Curious

All of the above is all just common sense and you have plenty of it, so no worries. Also, you’re one of the few people in the world where the advice “Just be yourself,” is actually good advice.

But my final pointer is a real bugbear of mine and it happens in interviews all the time. I always find it dispiriting as, as an interviewer, I also always try to be engaging, respectful of people’s nerves and clear it’s a two-way purchase. But nothing is so irritating as coming to the point in the interview where you, as the interviewer, say “So, have you got any questions?” and the interviewee says ‘No.”

What, nothing? You can’t think of one cotton-picking thing to ask me, after I’ve just gone through a load of questions with you, noted everything down, held my focus during your boring monologue on overcoming adversity and struggled to make sense of your mangled dialect and you can’t think of something, anything, to ask me?

And it always gives me the same sense of someone – you just want this to be over (understandable, maybe) but I question your stamina, and you didn’t prepare enough, or, if we really have covered everything, you can’t think on your feet – and I’ve always found people who get on well in life (and every university and employer wants people who get on well in life) tend to be people who are always prepared, are able to think on their feet and have plenty of stamina. 

If you really want to be prepared, make a list of 5, even 10, questions ahead of the call – you don’t have to ask them all, many might be covered, but have at least one or two up your sleeve.

Part of being curious is also paying close attention to things. Listen to the questions. Maybe write a key word or two of each question down so, if you lose your thread, you can look back to what the initial question was: “Sorry, I’ve rambled a bit, let me come back to your original question…” – the audience always love the people on Question Time who do that.

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