LearnPulling Back the Curtain: How to Prepare for a Phone Interview

Photo by Markus Spiske / CC0

Julie Menge
writes on September 8, 2016

You’ve scoured the internet, hit refresh on your favorite job boards over and over, tapped into your network, and crafted dozens of unique cover letters. Finally, HR calls to schedule an initial phone interview.

As you hang up the phone, you pump your fist. “Oh yeah!” But then your stomach starts to get queasy – this is happening. How will you prepare? What are interviewers looking for?

Let’s pull back the curtain and review some effective ways to prepare for the phone interview.

The purpose of the initial phone screen is generally to determine whether you’re a good fit (for the company, for the department, and for the specific job). This interview won’t likely be technical, unless you are told otherwise. Your interviewer wants to get to know you, learn about your motivations for looking for a new job, get an idea of your salary expectations, and fill you in on some details about the job and the company.


Before you even get on the phone (or on a video chat, as we like to do at Treehouse), you can (and should) do a few relatively simple things to prepare:

    • Review your list of deal-makers and deal-breakers. If, for example, you’re looking to minimize drive time and working for this company would require a lengthy commute, you’ll want to be prepared to ask questions. (To determine whether the company’s mission and culture make it worth the drive… or whether telecommuting is an option, for example.)
    • Research the company. You’ve already done some research, but now it’s time to dig deeper. Find out about any relevant industry news. See if you have any LinkedIn connections that already work there, and ask them what their experience has been like. Read the company blog if they have one. Check out reviews on sites like Glassdoor.com but take them with a grain of salt, of course.
    • Get familiar with the product. If you are interviewing with a software company, give the product a test-drive if you can. At Treehouse, when an applicant has checked out our content, it definitely works in their favor.
    • Review your resume and the job description. You’re probably sick of looking at your own resume. But it is worth the time to refamiliarize yourself with THIS job and really compare your experience with your interviewers’ expectations. Did the posting repeatedly mention problem-solving? If so, you can expect to be asked about that. Make notes of instances in your career when you have been responsible for solving complex problems. What did you do? What were the results? What did you learn?
    • Know why you want to work for THIS company. This is the perfect time for you to stand out and let the interviewer know that you’ve done your homework. Maybe you’ve heard that they are expanding to a new market, and you are excited about that. Maybe you are a huge fan of blue widgets, and they just happen to make blue widgets! Whatever it is, speak honestly and passionately. Many candidates do not clearly answer this question. If you do, it’ll give you an edge.
    • Prepare to answer the question, “Why are you looking to leave your current job?” You’ve already covered why you want to work here. But they’ll want to know – why now? Why do you want to make a change? There are many reasonable answers to this – maybe the new job seems like a great opportunity with a growing company, and you are excited to get in and make your mark.

Not sure how to answer the above question? Read on.

A Few Common Scenarios For Leaving a Job

  • You feel like you’re being underpaid in your current job. Recruiters won’t want to hear that you’re looking to leave your job because of money. A savvy and honest way to talk about this would be to point out that you’ve grown in your role, and you feel that your current organization no longer offers opportunities for you to advance your skills / career.
  • You’ve been recently laid off.  Gaps in employment are no longer the taboo that they once were, and interviewers generally understand that it’s very common for companies to downsize. Be honest – let the interviewer know that you were part of a layoff that affected X percent of the workforce. (Be specific, if you can, while still honoring any severance agreements or contracts that you have signed.) This helps demonstrate that you weren’t let go for performance reasons. If anything, recruiters are likely to be pleased that you are ready and available to work as soon as possible.
  • You’ve only been with your current job for a short time, and you don’t want to look like a “job-hopper.” Recruiters see this all the time, and most will understand if you have ended up in a job that just isn’t the right fit. You can demonstrate commitment (and that you’ve learned from this experience) by letting them know that you aren’t looking to jump ship for just anything. You are going to focus on finding the right opportunity now.

Are you starting to feel more prepared, confident, and ready for the interview? Now it’s time for the last few steps to set yourself up for succcess.

Tips for Making the Most of the Phone Interview

  • Sit in a quiet space with no interruptions. If you’re at home, minimize distractions. Go in a room and close the door away from the family dog.
  • Block plenty of time. Make sure you don’t have to be somewhere important immediately after the call is over. Initial phone interviews can range anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour (or more), and you won’t want to rush or cut the conversation short.
  • Have your resume and the job description in front of you. This will ensure that you don’t freeze up and forget all of your own qualifications!
  • Have a document to take notes. This will help if you think of a question during the call. Also, if the interviewer gives you information on next steps, you’ll want to be ready to jot that down.
  • Ask questions. If all of your questions were covered during the course of the interview, a great closing question is, “What’s your favorite part about working there?”

The Dreaded Salary Question

Every interview is different, but you can generally expect to be asked about your salary expectations. Some states are starting to ban questions about salary history, so keep that in mind. But, if the topic comes up at this stage, be prepared:

  • Do your research. What is the typical salary range for a job like this? Are you entry-level, or do you have more experience? Is there anything unique that you are bringing to the table? Sites like Salary.com and Glassdoor.com can be good starting points. Much of the data on these sites is unofficial, however, so try not to rely on just one source.
  • Know YOUR numbers. What offer would it really take to get you to leave your current job? Know your worth, and don’t settle for a wage that makes you uncomfortable.
  • If you say you’re negotiable, be negotiable. Candidates often start off the application process saying they are open and would even be willing to take a pay cut – then when an offer is made, they decline.  Putting in upfront thought and committing to a range will save you time and let your interviewers know you’re serious.
  • Keep the entire benefits package in mind. Salary isn’t the only thing to consider. Learn about other benefits like paid time off, retirement plans, and medical insurance. Plenty of companies are starting to offer unique perks as well, like flexible schedules and pet-friendly offices. How does the salary and benefits package they offer compare?

Always keep in mind that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. The initial phone interview is your opportunity to gather information and meet some potential new co-workers. It’s your chance to evaluate: “Is this the job for me and do the company’s values align with my values?”

You’ve come prepared. You know what they’re looking for. You know what you have to offer. You’ll do great.


Learning with Treehouse for only 30 minutes a day can teach you the skills needed to land the job that you've been dreaming about.

Get Started

2 Responses to “Pulling Back the Curtain: How to Prepare for a Phone Interview”

  1. Blake Wood on September 15, 2016 at 3:16 am said:

    Love this information. A few things that I would add:
    (1) try using microphone-enabled headphones. It helps to eliminate back ground noise as well as free up your hands to write notes and (in my case) talk with my hands (it helps me!!).
    (2) have a “conversation starter” ready to go. — most phone interviews start with “hi, John how are you today?” — most people will respond “good hbu?” — be ready to jump start the conversation with something a little more exciting. Obviously, don’t go over the top here, but even something as small as commenting on the weather can break the ice a little bit.

    Thanks again for the tips, I hope you liked mine as well.

    Big fan of TeamTreeHouse!! Whoop whoop.

    -Blake Wood

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

man working on his laptop

Are you ready to start learning?

Learning with Treehouse for only 30 minutes a day can teach you the skills needed to land the job that you've been dreaming about.

Start a Free Trial
woman working on her laptop