The Cheat Sheet You Should Fill Out Before Every Phone Interview

At any given time in your job search, you’re likely juggling a lot of applications and, as you go on, a few in-person, video, and phone interviews as well. It’s a lot to keep straight!

Don’t let those phone interviews sneak up on you. They may seem minor compared to later-stage or in-person interviews, but you’ll still need to do well in order to get to the next round. Just like your resume should be tailored to each job posting, your phone interview answers should be reflective of the job you applied to. But when you’re trying to come up with specific, targeted answers on the spot, nerves can get the better of you.

That’s where our phone interview cheat sheet comes in. Phone interviews offer an advantage that in-person and video interviews lack: Your interviewer isn’t looking at you and can’t see what you have in front of you. So you can use notes!

That doesn’t mean you should be reading off a script the entire time, of course. Your interviewer will be able to tell if you wrote down your answers to common phone interview questions and are reciting them verbatim rather than focusing on having a conversation and making a connection with the person you’re talking to.

You can use our phone interview cheat sheet to prepare a few key points ahead of time to serve as reminders. We’ve purposely designed it to not have a lot of room for your answers: Boiling things down to a few important words and phrases will remind you of the essentials while allowing you to keep your answers natural and spontaneous.

Download the phone interview cheat sheet here—and read on for tips on filling it out before your next phone interview.

Possible Start Date

In a preliminary phone interview, you might be asked when you’d be able to start. Sometimes companies are looking to fill a role as soon as possible, and other times they’re just trying to plan ahead. Be honest here. If you can start right away, say so. If not, figure out what a feasible start date would be based on the amount of notice you’d need to give your current employer and any other factors you need to consider.

“Tell Me About Yourself.”

Tell me about yourself” is often the first thing an interviewer will say after confirming that it’s still a good time to talk. They’re not asking for your life story. This question is really: “Tell me about yourself as it pertains to this job.” And when you answer, you want to set the tone for the rest of your interview by making it clear why this is the right job for you and why you’re the right person for the job.

A simple way to format your answer is:

  • Present: Talk about what you’re doing now, with an emphasis on how it relates to the job you’re interviewing for.
  • Past: Give a brief overview of your past experience that is very relevant to the role you’re applying for.
  • Future: Explain what you’re looking for in your next role. (Hint: It should be a lot of the same things this job offers, but be honest about what drew you to it.)

While it might be helpful to write your thoughts out fully ahead of your interview, you shouldn’t do it on your cheat sheet. Instead, keep each bullet to a few words or phrases to remind yourself what you most wanted to bring up.

And be ready to respond to follow-up questions about your experience, working style, and preferences, like, “How do you like to be managed?,” or, “What type of work environment do you prefer.” Be truthful—and use the information on this sheet to help you keep this specific job in mind when answering.

Key Skills and Accomplishments

To fill in this section, look at the job description for the role. Take note of the skills and experiences they emphasize. (Ideally, you have most of them.) Jot them down. And if you have a past accomplishment that really shows your expertise in one of these areas, write down any highlights or key numbers that help quantify your success.

Key Stories

In most interviews, you’ll get a few behavioral questions like, “Tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership skills,” or, “Tell me about a time you made a mistake.” These are questions where you have to tell a story about what you did in the past in order to show how you handled different situations (and how you’re likely to handle them in the future).

You can’t predict exactly which behavioral questions you’ll get, but if you have a few polished stories, you should be able to adapt them to multiple situations. So you might come up with examples of a time you overcame a challenge, a time you worked on something interesting or significant, and a time you made a mistake. However, depending on your field, other stories might be more useful. For instance, if you’re in a client- or customer-facing role, you might want to think about a time that you dealt with an unhappy customer or client.

For the cheat sheet, give each story a title that reminds you what happened and add any numbers or specific details that might be difficult to recall in the moment.

Why Does This Job Excite You?

You may not be asked this question in exactly these words, but at some point you’ll have the chance to talk about why you want the job. So think it through: Why did you apply? What in the description makes you think, “Wow, I hope I get this!”? What does this job have that your current job doesn’t and that you want?

Focus on the specific role and fill in two or three reasons you want this job in particular. For example, maybe you’re looking for a job with more client interaction or maybe you’re passionate about the industry this company is in. Articulating your reasoning here will also help you talk about why you’re leaving your current role if asked, since it’s best to keep your answer positive and put an emphasis on what you’re looking for in the future rather than what you didn’t like about the past.

Regardless, steer clear of saying you’re excited about a position for the pay. It’s unspoken that you’d be getting money to do the job. But every job pays. Your interviewer wants to know why you want this one. If you have a logistical reason for applying, such as having to relocate to a different city with a partner, it’s fine to bring that up, but make sure it’s not the first or only thing you mention.

Pro tip: In addition to asking what drew you to this role, the interviewer might want to know how you found it in the first place. Be straightforward. Even if you didn’t find out about the opening through your network or another interesting avenue, the company might just be interested in how quality applicants are discovering their postings.

Why Do You Want to Work Here?

Take another look at the job description, but this time focus on how the company describes itself. Check out the company’s website and see if they have a profile on The Muse. Take note of any unique elements in their values, workplace, or benefits that excite you or match well with your work style and personality. After that, head to social media and Google. Has the company been in the news for anything cool? Is there an aspect of their company culture that you’d love to be part of?

All of this will help you get a general sense of the work environment and also help you see what the company is working on that you want to be part of. (Read more about researching a company here.)

Identify the top three things that make you enthusiastic about working for this company and summarize them in a few words for your cheat sheet. Try to make at least one of them about the work the company is doing and how you want to contribute. For example, maybe the company is rebranding and that’s something you’ve done before, so you’re eager to bring your experience to the table.

What Are Your Salary Requirements?

Questions about money can always be tricky—especially if you’re trying to think up an answer on the spot. This isn’t a topic you want to bring up first, but in case you’re asked, you’ll want to take a bit of time before your phone interview to research the average pay range for similar positions in your geographic area and figure out where you fall in that range (based on your experience and qualifications). You can always try to defer the conversation to a later stage in the hiring process, but it helps to be prepared in the event that this strategy doesn’t work.

Questions to Ask

There are a lot of questions you might want to ask in any interview, but you want to narrow it down and be prepared with the ones you’d like to bring up on this particular call. Make sure you have a few questions ready to go that are specific to this interview based on the role, team, company, and where you are in the application process. Maybe you want to know more about a project the company recently announced or a program or approach they’re known for. This shows you’ve done your homework and really care about the role.

For this section only, it’s okay to write things out more fully. When your interviewer asks for your questions, they’re expecting you to take a beat to think about things, so you’ll have time to refer to your notes.

Since a lot of the information here is specific to each role, you should fill out a new cheat sheet for every phone interview you do. Even if you don’t end up referring to it at all during your call, the act of organizing your thoughts ahead of time will help you get excited about the role and company, present yourself as the best person for the job, and get you to the next round.

By Pete Ostrander
Pete Ostrander Assistant Director of Career Development Pete Ostrander