One of the biggest fears that undergrads have is going into the wrong choice of career. What if I accept this job and it’s not right for me? I didn’t have a chance to intern in this industry, so how do I know if it’s a good fit for me…should I still apply? All of these thoughts can cause a candidate to shy away from potentially great opportunities.

While it’s true that no one can “try out” every possible job before going into it, there is one way to gain a little more insight: informational interviews. What you must understand, before I go any further, is the purpose of the informational interview. It is NOT to get you a job. I repeat! It is NOT to get you a job. The reasons you conduct an informational interview are to build your network, and gain advice. If you get a job as a result of your interactions, that is the best case scenario! But it should not be an expectation.

Why Informational Interviews are Helpful

An informational interview is the chance to sit with a professional working in the industry, position, or company that you’re curious about, without the pressure of the job interview. This is something that you can do when you’re just beginning to think about career options, to when you are ready to enter the workforce and beyond.

While it’s still a professional meeting, and should be treated as such, not having the “you’re hired” or “we’ll pass” anxiety hanging over your head can really loosen up the conversation. And the best part? You get to ask questions you could never ask in an interview. “What’s it really like to work in this industry? What kind of classes did you take, or internships did you have to prepare you for this role? What do employers usually look for in a candidate? How did you land your job here? What does a day-in-the-life look like here? What kind of advice do you have for someone in my shoes? What are the typical salaries a college grad should expect to be offered in this position?”

All of this “insider” information can begin to shape a picture for you, one that clarifies whether a position is a good fit for you better than simply reading a job description or the “about us” section of a website. You can gain a clearer understanding of the work culture (jeans vs. suits, 9-5 vs. flexible schedules, lunches with the CEO vs. manager-level relationships only, etc.), which is something students in the Millennial generation are finding very important for workplace happiness. Along these lines, also very high up on the college grad list: work-life balance. What better way to truly find out if you’ll be burning the midnight oil than by asking someone working in the company?

But let’s back up. Before you can gain all of this great information, you have to find people to talk to first. Finding informational interview prospects is very similar to finding any other networking contact. Here are a few ideas:

Finding a Networking Contact

– Family and friends are great resources. They can best help when you are specific about whom you want to connect with in their circle. “I’m really interested in a full time job after college” is not quite as helpful as “I’d love to sit with someone working in music.” That helps narrow the scope and get you connected much faster.

– Your career centers and alumni offices can be wonderful resources for making connections. Many advisors stay in touch with past students now working in a variety of fields, or have access to online databases for the same. Depending on your college, you may also have access to such resources online.

-Linked In is a professional online tool that has millions of members, and can be a quick way to find up-to-date information on professionals across the nation. Hint: joining relevant groups can often help you connect with members one-on-one.

Once you have found your targeted contacts, keep some general rules in mind:

General Rules for Informational Interviews

– Be specific in your intentions for reaching out to potential interviewees. People are more likely to respond to requests when they know what’s expected of them.

– Always show up to meetings on time, and dressed professionally. While you may not need a suit for this occasion, you don’t want to wear jeans either. Find a happy compromise.

– Remember this is a professional interaction. Again, this is not a formal job interview, but the impression you make can carry you far. If the interviewee views you as someone who is professional and who takes your career path seriously, they are more apt to help you make connections later on. Don’t get too lax because it is not a “real” interview.

– Show your appreciation for their time. They do not have to do this; it’s a favor to you. Don’t forget that. Treat your contacts to a cheap lunch (they’ll understand you’re a college student with limited funds!), or give them a small token of gratitude (gift card for a cup of coffee, perhaps).

– Feel free to take notes. Don’t try to memorize all of the great advice you receive.

– Always send a follow up to thank them and recap/wrap up any loose ends of the conversation within 24 hours. No matter how useful the meeting, this experience will play a part in your professional story.

As you can see, informational interviewing can be very useful to someone just beginning to explore careers and also to someone nearing the job or internship search. So good luck in your journey! Be curious, and learn as much as you can about the areas that interest you. You can’t always gain relevant experience; sometimes you have to collect as much information as you can, and compare it to your goals and aspirations. And for those of you that are a little shyer than others, don’t fret; it gets easier with practice.

Updated: 16/03/2017