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Phone screen questions, how to get past this job interview

The phone screen

To most candidates, phone screens are the great unknowns in the job interview process and most of us consider this the hardest step in the interview process to prepare for. I disagree. I believe the phone interview is the easiest interview to prepare for and the intent of this post will shed some light on why and change your attitude towards the phone interview.

The reason most people think the phone screen is the hardest interview to prepare for is that most candidates go into the phone screen not knowing what to expect. Most candidates believe that the phone screen is the black hole of uncertainty because we don’t really have any context for what to expect. If you have a great phone screen/interview and land the coveted in-person interview, you at least have an idea of what to expect based on what was discussed during the phone conversation. In addition to this, the recruiter who called you will often give you some insight into what to expect in the next steps or will talk with you about who you are going to meet in subsequent interviews. If not, we as a candidate can always ask the recruiter. Yes, you can ask the recruiter what to expect from the process.

If you are having a tough time making it past the phone screen stage, then this post is for you.

Phone screen insight

The recruiter’s tone on the phone screen will give us some indication as to what to expect in subsequent interviews. If the recruiter is excited on the phone, we leave the conversation with the impression that Acme Publishing is a great place to work. They wouldn’t be excited about their job or selling the job opening if it were not a great place to work. On the other hand, if the recruiter is rude, short or sounds like they are just going through the motions, we fear the worst. The info may be a false positive but based on the tone, we are mentally preparing for what to expect at the next level.

I believe that being scared of the phone interview is the wrong mentality. We should be approaching the phone screen with confidence for a number of reasons, and hopefully, this post will make you a believer so you are well prepared for your next phone screen.

Why you shouldn’t fear the phone screen

First and foremost, the number reason we need to be positive about the phone interview is that thinking about failure will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Preparing well is the best way to have confidence and the next two points will give you confidence.

The main reason you should not be fearful of the phone interview is that you are one of the chosen ones. For most jobs out there, the recruiter or hiring manager has a LOT of resumes to pick from and they picked yours. Yes, for once, you are the hot girl at the dance. Where I work, we just posted a job description for an HR generalist here in Seattle and the HR group had a pool to guess how many candidates we would receive over the weekend. The guesses ranged from 86 to 240 and this was only for the first weekend. We posted the position on Friday afternoon and will take a count on Monday at 9:00 AM.

Hiring managers have choices

The fact of the matter is whether we have 86 or 240 resumes; there are a lot of choices for the hiring manager. (Remember, this is only the first weekend) Someone in the department will sort through the resumes and then we will call 3-4 qualified candidates for the phone interview.

If you landed a phone interview then the hiring manager feels you are qualified. 

If there is no one who is qualified, we will change the headline on the job description, we may tweak the content of the job description, but we will NOT call candidates who are not qualified. We won’t waste anyone’s time, specifically ours.

So, don’t fret. You are not just in the ball-park, you are on base. The hiring manager is not just interested in you as a candidate, they are hoping you are the one. Your odds just went from 86 to one to 4 to 1. Play your cards right Gomer because you can win this pot.

How to prepare for the phone interview

The best way to prepare for a phone interview is to practice. I have conducted a lot of phone interviews over the years and for most candidates that I talk to, this is the weakest link. It is surprising to me how many candidates do not have a grasp on the message they want to deliver. I would say that 90% of the candidates I talk to are qualified, but then weed themselves out of the process because of the way they present themselves over the phone.

In most cases, a phone screen is only 30 to 45 minutes long. What this means for most recruiters is that they only have time to ask about 10 questions of the candidate. Remember, recruiters also need to make introductions, conduct a little bit of chit-chat to take the edge of nervousness off the candidate and then give the candidate an opportunity to ask questions. This only leaves time for 10 questions, maybe a few more, but with only 10 questions coming, we should know what is coming.

What are the 10 questions asked during a phone screen?

Any quick Google search for “top phone interview question for Customer Service Rep or Product Manager” will give you a number of lists. All of these lists will all be very similar. Remember, with only 10 questions, we are not going to be asking you about your favorite music, food or childhood experiences. This is not a session on the couch with your counselor. This is speed dating and we need to make an impression quickly.

Here is what I want to know

You should absolutely have prepared answers to these questions.

  • What are you most proud of?
  • What do you know about Acme Publishing?
  • What is your weakness?
  • What did you like about your last manager?
  • How much do you want to make?
  • What is your long-term / 3-year / 5-year plan?
  • Why should we hire you?
  • Why did you leave your last job? Why are you considering a new job?

Like most candidates, you read through the list and felt good about your ability to answer the questions. If you read the first question and in your mind formulated the first sentence to your answer (or came up with a general concept for an answer) and then moved on to question number 2, you are probably going to present poorly during the phone interview.

No short answers

If you came up with short one sentence answers and moved to the next question, the interview process will probably end after the phone screen. I hear a lot of great first sentences to interview answers on a phone screen but then most candidates stumble. They have a general concept of what they want to say, but they are not able to articulate the answer.

One of the best ways to prepare for a phone interview is to write out a complete answer to the interview questions and then tape record what we sound like when we answer the questions. I think that you will be surprised at what you hear.

Common problems with phone screen answers

The most common problem is that the candidate doesn’t sound articulate. At least not articulate enough to pay them $50K or their desired salary. There is obviously an idea of what the candidate wants to say to me. Unfortunatley, there is a lot of stumbling and a lack of well-formulated thoughts.

Write out your answers in their entirety.  Practicing these entire answer out loud will make a big difference in how we present over the phone. When we have a script, we don’t miss points we want to make and the answer has the opportunity to flow. We can literally tell a story with each answer.

The thing that listening to your phone screen answers will do is help ensure that we are answering the questions. Have a pre-planned answer. Listen to what our answer sounds like via a recording. This will ensure we are giving the interviewer what they want.

Common denominator

A good percentage of candidates that fail the phone screen have one thing in common. The candidates are asked an interview question and then the candidate gives a long explanation and background. All this before actually answering the question. We are losing the interest of the person on the other end of the phone when we give background explanations before answering the actual question. We want to make sure we answer the question first and then provide any necessary background information. Listening to your answer will make this painfully obvious.

If you have a phone interview coming up, prepare well thought out and complete answers and then record your answers to ensure that you are presenting your best self. The sighs, the heavy breathing and the “well you know” or overuse of the word “like” will disappear quickly.

For insight into why this recruiter thinks phone interviews go badly, read the prior post here.

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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