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Phone Screen, HR exec explains the most common mistakes and how to prepare

phone screen

Project excitement during the phone interview

Phone screen, the common mistakes

Phone screens are the great unknowns in the job interview process. I believe the phone interview is the easiest interview to prepare for and the intent of this post is provide reasons why and confidence. My goal is to change your view and potential fears of the phone interview.

Most candidates fear the phone screen because we don’t know what to expect with this first call. If we do well in the phone interview and land the coveted in-person interview, we have an indication of what to expect based on the initial phone screen. When it comes to in-person interviews, recruiters will often give the candidates some insight into what to expect and the names of the folks conducting the interviews. On the flip side, the phone interview is “first contact” and we don’t know what to expect or prepare for.  

If you are having a tough time moving past the phone screen, then you are probably missing something important on this call and hopefully, this post will help.

First and foremost, we need to be positive about the phone interview. Thinking about failure will become a self – fulfilling prophecy and recruiters can sense interview insecurity. It doesn’t smell or wear well. Remember, preparation is the best way to project confidence. 

The number 1 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 a horse in the race.

HRNasty’s reasons on why you should NOT be fearful of the phone screen

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

You have to believe you are qualified. If there are no qualified candidates, we will change the headline on the job description or tweak the content of the job description. Recruiters will avoid candidates who are not qualified. We won’t waste anyone’s time, especially 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 hopeful you will be the chosen one. Concentrate more on being qualified than how you might not be qualified. They called you! Play your cards right Gomer because you can win this pot.

How to prepare for the phone interview

I have conducted a lot of phone interviews over the years and with most candidates, this stage is a weak 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 most of the candidates I talk with are technically qualified but they weed themselves out of the process because of how they present during the phone screen.

In most cases, this interview is only 30 to 45 minutes long. What this means for most recruiters is that they only have time to ask 10 questions. Remember, within this call, recruiters need to make introductions, conduct a little bit of chit-chat to take the nervousness off the candidate and then give the candidate an opportunity to ask questions. This only leaves time for 10 or so questions, but with this limited time, we should know what is coming. They are not going to waste time with “what is your favorite color” or “if you were an animal, what would it be?”.

But what 10 questions are asked on a phone screen?

Any quick Google search for “top phone screen interview questions” will get the job done. If you want to be an overachiever, add more detail to your search with the following:

  • Top phone interview question for Customer Service Representatives
  • Phone interview questions for Product Manager’s

If you are lazy, just check out my link to the interview questions on this site here. These are not necessarily phone interview questions, but show the format of HOW to answer actual interview questions. 

Remember, the scheduled time will limit the number of questions that can be asked. 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.

  1. What are you most proud of?
  2. What do you know about Acme Publishing?
  3. What is your weakness?
  4. What did you like about your last manager?
  5. How much do you want to make?
  6. What is your long-term / 3-years / 5-year plan?
  7. Why should we hire you?
  8. Why did you leave your last job? Why are you considering a new job?
  9. What do you look for in a manager?
  10. When can you start?

If you are like most candidates, you read through the list and felt good about your ability to answer the above questions. Based on the answers I hear, I believe most candidates read each question, formulate the first sentence to their answer (or came up with a general concept for an answer) and are quickly moving onto the next question.

If you were one of the folks that came up with short one-sentence answers and moved to the next question, the interview process will probably end after the phone screen, if not before. You may not know it, but in the recruiter’s mind, finito. I hear a lot of great first sentences to interview answers during the 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 a complete answer. This is a deal killer. Lack of articulation will equal the lack of an in-person interview.

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 these questions. You will be surprised at what you hear. Remember, there are no “lemme start over” 2nd chances. 

Common problems with phone screen answers:

The most common problem is that the candidate isn’t articulate. There is obviously an idea of what the candidate wants to say, but there is a lot of stumbling and a lack of well-formulated thoughts.

Many phone interviews literally sound like this is the candidate’s VERY FIRST EXPERIENCE with an interview

Having well thought out answers to the questions, writing out the answers in their entirety, and then practicing the complete answer out loud will make a big difference in how we present over the phone. With practice, we don’t miss points we want to make and the answer will flow. This isn’t cheating. If you were hired and later asked to give a presentation to a customer or the CEO, you would practice your presentation. You would not wing it. You would not come up with the first sentence and then assume “I got this bitches”. 

The other thing that listening to your phone screen answers will do is help ensure that we are answering the question. One of the big phone screen killers is being asked a question and not providing an answer. Having a pre-planned answer and then listening to what our answer is, ensures we are giving the interviewer what they want.

Most candidates that fail the phone screen have one thing in common

The candidates are asked an interview question and the candidate gives a long explanation and background before actually answering the question. The hiring manager is losing interest in us as a candidate when we give background explanations before answering the actual question. Make sure to answer the question first and then provide any necessary background information.


Q: What do you know about Acme Publishing?

Non Answer: “I have done a lot of research. I have talked with friends, I obviously went to your web page and I have read forums on your customer service. I took a look at your year-end financials for the last quarter and saw you guys have a great Twitter following. I know that you guys did well last quarter and posted a profit. I saw on Twitter that you have 10K followers which is really good. I only have about 300 followers. Your web page says you were established in 1980 and have been in business for 25 years.

I shit you not, I hear this stuff. The candidate thinks they are answering the questions, but they are really just providing me fluff and the first 4 sentences didn’t answer the question. Those first 4 sentences were DOG sentences. Every single sentence was equal to 7 sentences of a dog barking up the wrong tree.

Better answer: Well, Acme Publishing was founded in 1980 and specializes in bookbinding and color catalogs for sports equipment. Customers are all over the world and include X, Y, and Z. Recently Acme has expanded to online web work and I am really excited about this part of the business. Per the financials, “we” posted a profit of about $1.2M on revenue of 15M and had year over year growth for the past 5 years.

If the recruiter says “enough already”, you know you answered the question. The point is, answer the question.

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 loss of what to say will disappear quickly.

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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