9 tips to ace your next phone interview

How does a phone interview usually go? Any tips on how to answer impressively?

For Unilever Business Week 2016 (yes, that long ago, I’m updating this blog post in May 2018), I had to do a phone interview as part of the screening test. I posted about it on ask.fm before, and since then, a lot of you sent in questions about how to go through the whole phone interview process.  

So, in the spirit of giving, which is what this blog’s all about, I decided to write some specific tips down for phone interviews!

I want to preface all this by saying that I still get anxiety from interviews to this day.

I always feel like a little blind bat during a phone interview because I have no gauge to see if I’m sucking at it or not. It also doesn’t help that my voice is really high, and when I’m nervous, I lose the ability to modulate it.

Over time, I’ve learned how to watch my interviewers for visual cues to pick up how well I’m doing. Those cues help me adjust how much charm, wit, and unflinching honesty to reveal, but phone interviews can’t give me that.

But I also see the great benefits of phone interviews. Not having to worry about my mannerisms like picking at my hair, my nails, or my lips is a godsend. All I have to worry about then is the tone of my voice, and the content of my answers.

So, in line with that, here are my 9 Tips To Ace Your Next Phone Interview, all tried and tested by me.

1. Have a cheat sheet in front of you.

The best part of a phone interview is that you can have your resume and your answers laid out in front of you, and the interview will never know.

It’s a little bit like doing an open-book exam. You can prepare answers and talking points, and not worry about forgetting them because literally all you have to do is read it off a sheet in front of you.

Beware of sounding like a monotonous robot though, which is what most people are prone to when they read something prepared out loud.

Protip: Have your answers ready in index cards and label them for easy access.

Don’t write your answers down on them; write down the important details you want to highlight for each answer that you’re prone to forgetting in the moment. I’m sure you know the gist of your experience, so use the card to note little details that slip when you’re nervous.

Other protip: I had a friend who had hundreds of index cards and mock questions prepared, which is a huge but necessary time-suck if you want to be the best.

When you’re unsure which of your experiences could be a better answer, you could give 2 examples just to be sure. A lot of what people say during phone interviews are directly related to what you pre-prepared during your mock interviews.

Personally, my cheat sheet is my notebook because I tend to write my answers down when I should be doing something else, like being in class. I practice reciting them nonstop while commuting, so I privately think my fellow train and jeep riders at that time thought I was possessed.

2. Be aware of what they are assessing for.

Remember: Recruiters are insanely busy. Depending on the company, they may conduct dozens of interviews on the same day or over the next few weeks.

Usually, they have a standard template to fill up. They get options for questions they want to ask, so you’ll see them flipping papers or encircling numbers, and all these questions are supposed to gauge a particular skill. (i.e. How well you work with others, How’s your grit)

Based on your answers, the interviewer will give you a rating on that skill. To keep things as objective as possible, they paraphrase your answers onto the paper, so speak slowly and give them time to write it all down.

The entire interview is supposed to give them an idea of your communication skills as well. How do you explain yourself, your past, your impact.

Bottom line: You’re being assessed for particular skills and if you look at enough questions and the job description, you can usually guess which ones are going to come up.

Protip: Don’t go off tangent. Trust me, it’s hard because I’m not a linear story teller, but you have to stay on tangent. You’re wasting their time and your time if you don’t.

Try to get to the core of your story as quickly and as interestingly as possible. The recruiters have difficult lives. Imagine hearing the same answers to “Tell me a time you failed.” (Spoiler: the worst answer is “There was never a time I failed.”)

And cut the BS (or at least be original about it!!) You have no idea how many times I’m with someone who booked a resume consultation, I asked the question ‘What is your greatest weakness?’ and heard back ‘I’m such a perfectionist’ or better yet, ‘I’m too much of a workaholic!’

Down with this as a weakness. Ya’ll know you’re lying. Let’s try to be interesting and a bit honest with our weaknesses please.

(Bonus: If you’re clearly BSing an answer, it calls into question just how honest all your other answers are. So you’re only hurting yourself here.)

Related: 6 Habits of a Failproof Pre-Interview Routine

3. Always outline what you say with the STAR/CAR Method.

Situational questions are usually phrased something like ‘tell me about a time when…’ and your answer should always be in STAR/CAR Method (situation-task-action-result / context-action-result).

This makes it easy for the recruiter to understand what you’re talking about. Remember that recruiters don’t know anything about how hard it was for you to become an AVP of that particular org, or how massive that certain project you headed is.

The forms your interviewers have to fill out are sometimes segmented into separate rectangles for context, action, and result, so by structuring your answer in that order, you’re making their life easier.

My resume is already structured like this, so it’s easy for me to glance at my resume, pick which experience to talk about, then launch into it quickly and concisely with objective descriptions and tangible results because I already went through the bother of writing it all down. 

So, what I’m trying to say is, write your resume in this format and you don’t have to worry as much. Swear bear.

A well-written resume saves you hours of work in the future. I used to have my resume ingrained into my memory so much so that I could write it from scratch anywhere. Now I can’t because I don’t use it as much anymore, but if I have it in front of me, I’d be ready for an impromptu interview anytime anywhere.

Bonus: When the interviewer asks me situational questions, I either recite the situations I placed on my resume or recent everyday situations.

Let’s say she asked “Tell me a time when you took charge.”, my answer is either ~resume situation~ or “Yesterday, during a project meeting…”  then expound. Either way it gives her a direct answer. And it sets you apart, saying how recently you experienced what they’re asking about.

4. Have some water with you. Or a snack that makes you calm. And isn’t crispy. Just have something with you.

I need water all the time to make sure I don’t croak from nerves randomly. But it helps to have something to fiddle with when you’re trying to find the right words to say. I peeled off my water bottle’s sticker and shredded 5 leaves mindlessly throughout an interview once. (I was sitting outside of Melchor Hall in UP Diliman.)

And I use food as an incentive to keep calm; when I finish the interview, then I get to eat it.

If you know you get nervous, you need to find a coping mechanism. You’re not going to miraculously stop doing your nervous tic, instead you can direct those energies elsewhere.

Example, when I do presentations, my hands are normally all over the place. So I hold a microphone, a piece of paper, or my other hand. I hold something to divert my nervous, moving hands.

Another tip is to force your body to stay calm: you could sit in a meditative pose aka straight spine, leaning slightly forward. This is proven to improve your circulation to your brain and calm your body, which should result in even breathing and help with any interview anxiety.   

Related: 5 Steps to Writing a Successful Cover Letter

5. Make sure you’re in a quiet, peaceful place.

I had my Unilever Business Week 2016 interview Thursday afternoon on a stone bench, in front of Melchor Hall at UP Diliman. It was relatively quiet, except when rowdy students passed by or cars honked loudly.

I had a really beautiful view on all 4 sides of my bench. I can’t even describe it because words can’t capture the vibe then, but that environment was eternally helpful to me during the interview.

Not only was it easy for me to relay my answers to the recruiter, but I was at peace with whatever would happen next. I could fail that interview, and be OK with it. There would always be some other opportunity on the horizon for me. Hell, there were a hundred opportunities right behind me since I was literally visiting CAPES, UP’s engineering students career fair. (I’m not an engineer though.)

Because I knew everything would be OK, I calmly answered all the questions. Plus, I never had to repeat myself because the recruiter heard me clearly over the phone.

Think about it from the interviewer’s perspective now. We hate it when we’re calling somebody with a bad connection, and who’s screaming into the phone from somewhere that sounds like a palengke.

If it’s a bad time, it’s perfectly okay to ask them to call back in 10 minutes and find a less busy place to sit down and talk. It also spares the interviewers the hassle of saying “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that. Can you please repeat that again?” a hundred times. Just run and find a great place during those 10 minutes.

6. Speak slowly and enunciate well.

But not too slowly. It sounds patronizing if you speak too slowly. Just be mindful that the person on the phone has to paraphrase what you say for the interview form, so be sure that you’re easy to understand.

Over-enunciate if you know you have a lisp or have a tendency to eat your words. Amy Cuddy wrote in her book, Presence, that when we need to project confidence, we need to sit or stand with good posture, shoulders back and down, breathing from the diaphragm, with eyebrows raised and arms up in a wonder woman pose.

The breathing and eyebrows makes your voice project better and the wonder woman posture subconsciously makes you feel more self-assured (which will reduce your stress levels). Even if we look like idiots while doing it. 

This is something I struggle with a lot. I speak fast, and the speed’s been often compared to that of a machine gun’s. It gets even faster when I’m nervous. So speaking slowly is a HUGE problem for me to this day. That being said, how I consciously speak slowly and enunciate well is by imagining myself talking to someone whose first language isn’t English. Like my grandmothers.

The recruiters are doing their best to write down our words as faithfully as possible. You’re buying time for both of you, if you speak slowly over the phone.

Related: How to Fix Your Resume in 1 Hour

7. Do not ramble. But also, don’t leave unexplained dead air.

It’s completely acceptable to take 5 seconds to think through your answer before launching into it. Or to repeat the question back slowly before answering. Taking a breath and then giving a coherent example is far better, rather than have the interviewer think how messy your delivery is and how it’s making the interview notes even messier.

If the recruiter takes a few seconds too long to say something after you’re done with your answer, don’t panic and rush to fill the silence. Most likely, they are just filling in your interview form and need a few extra seconds because talking, listening, and writing at the same time is difficult.

If you spend more than 10 minutes answering one question, I hope you’re a standout candidate because I don’t think you’re going to get a glowing review from the interviewer. You just proved that you can’t be straight to the point. And if you spend more than a minute in silence, that doesn’t bode well for you either. This means you can’t think on your feet.

The key answer time for me is 10 seconds to think, say you’re ready which adds an extra 3-5 seconds, and then launch into your < 3 minute answer.

Provide enough context to explain your action and results, but really the recruiters are mostly concerned with the latter two, so make sure those are clear, concise, and objective.

The interviewer usually has a lot of questions to ask and a ton of people to interview, so knowthat they probably won’t appreciate you spending too long on any one answer.

When the interviewer remains silent when you’re done talking, take a sip of water or a shot or something to ground you. Also take those seconds as time to assess your own performance, like your tone which leads us to…

8. Try not to sound bored, deadpan, or scared.

Your peg should be enthusiastic, determined, and most importantly, competent. Since the only way you’re communicating during this phone interview is through your voice, your tone’s most important.

Based on a person’s communication skills, anyone can already predict whether this person is competent enough for the job or not. Usually the ones well liked during the phone interview stage are the ones who get job offers. First impressions count.

Think of it as talking to your potential significant other in the early stages of your relationship. You’re happy, excited, and INTERESTING. You want them to like you enough to talk to you again. Same principle, different situation.

If you sound bored, they will think “S/he doesn’t want to talk to me.”, scared “S/he’s not ready for this.”, deadpan “Why are we even talking?”. And if you sound bored talking about your own achievements, well. That’s kind of weird.

I know it’s difficult to change the tone of your voice. But you have to try for this phone interview. There’s no body language or expressions for the interviewer to base your demeanor from. It’s all in your voice. So work on it.

Related: 9 Apps To Tweak Your Productivity When You’re Always On The Go

9. Calm down, and let your experiences do the talking.

This goes for everything to do with the recruitment process. Trust your experiences to back you up. You’ve already done 90% of the work which is actually doing the things you’ll be discussing in the interview.

If you didn’t have a decent resume to back yourself up, you wouldn’t have gotten this far in the process. At this point, all you’re doing is presenting what you’ve already accomplished. 

If you lived through the experiences, then it’ll be easy to calmly walk yourself through it all again. Just think of it as a humble bragging session; you want to come off as the big shot, without having to outright say it. Trust yourself.

You are your greatest support system and backup. You got this phone interview with your existing resume; all that’s left is for you to assure them that they need to hire you. Good luck!

Here’s a recap of my 9 tips to ace your next phone interview:

9 Tips to Ace Your Next Phone Interview

If you want a hi-res PDF copy to keep as a reminder, download it here.

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