How to Ace a Job Interview, Part 1: Passing the Telephone Interview
How to ace the job interview: Part one - the telephone interview.
You have already written a resume that accurately conveys your experience and education. That "lottery ticket" has paid off because now you get a phone call from the hiring organization and they want to conduct a telephone interview.
There are two likely scenarios: 1) they want to schedule a time for an interview of 15 to 20 minutes, or 2) they want to ask you some questions right now. Your goal in both scenarios is to be able to continue to successfully "sell" yourself so that you get invited to an in-person interview. Chances are good that you are one of many candidates who have so far "screened" positively, just based on the review of your resume/written application. If you have the opportunity to schedule the phone interview, take it, because that will buy you some time to prepare for it and make sure that you schedule it for a time of day that you will be your best (awake, alert, enthusiastic). Don't put too many demands on the scheduler - they can have an influence on who gets scheduled (or not) for in-person interviews.
In the scenario where they want to "just ask you a few questions now" - this is it! You better have all the facts ready from whatever written materials you submitted, whether that was a resume, an printed application, or an online form. Try to smile and focus while you are answering questions - even though the other party cannot see your facial expressions, it is well known that a positive facial expression will "carry over" in your voice. If you are on a cell phone, don't multi-task, this may be your only shot at this job opportunity. Sound enthusiastic and be sure that you thank the caller for the opportunity to answer questions about this job opportunity. Your immediate goal is to sound like someone that they must invite for an in-person interview. Very few managers are going to make a hiring decision based solely on a telephone conversation - and if they do, it is either because you have a super dynamic "telephone presence" or they are really desperate to fill this particular job with anyone.
Even though you may be answering their questions, you must convey your main points: Why you want this job and what makes you the best candidate for this position. Keep your answers brief and answer just the question that is asked. Do not offer personal information or go into long stories - the caller probably has many other calls to make and they'll let you know when your time is up. If you are given the opportunity to ask questions, the most appropriate would be to ask, "What are the next steps in the hiring process for the successful candidate?" That question doesn't pressure the caller and it allows them to tell you what to expect next, if you are going to get the in-person interview.
What do you say if you already have another job offer or if you have decided to withdraw from a job? In a phone interview, it may be too early to tell how competitive you are versus other candidates. If you have already accepted another offer, telling the caller that you have accepted elsewhere is the ethical thing to do so that you are not wasting their time - also, you wouldn't want your new prospective employer to learn from a competitor that you are still shopping around, would you? Likewise, if during the course of the phone interview you learn something that changes your desire for this job (forced relocation, salary too low), it is only fair that you let the caller know that you wish to withdraw from further consideration. Before you "pull the plug" you may ask the caller if there are any other positions being considered that you might qualify for - ask, you may be surprised that there is another vacancy in another department that has better conditions.
On the chance that you have the ability to schedule your phone interview, try to learn from the scheduler who will be calling you (just one person or a panel?), what the caller(s) title(s) is/are, and what the expected timeframe will be. DO NOT ASK: how many people are getting phone interviews, what numbers can you reach the callers at, or what questions can I expect. Again, the scheduler is dealing with a group of applicants and you don't want to be pegged as "the difficult" candidate. Thank the scheduler for their time too - remember, if you get the invitation for an in-person interview it is likely that you will be dealing with this same person again.
What to do (and more importantly what NOT to do) in the in-person interview will be coming up in a future Factoidz article:
How to ace the In-Person Job Interview.