Careers advice

7 vital phone screen interview tips

Don't be caught napping if your dream job calls for a phone screen interview. Here's how to get prepped.

“Hi, this is Samantha from YourDreamJob, I’m calling to chat about your application – is now a good time?”.

*Gulp*.

Preliminary over the phone interviews (or phone screens) are popular among New Zealand employers and recruiters, but can be daunting to candidates.

However, like any job interview, the key is preparation – and that’s exactly what you’re doing now. Choice. Let’s have a look at how these conversations work, some essential tips for success, and the questions you should expect.

Employers use phone screen interviews to reduce the number of candidates they have to meet in person.

What is a phone screen?

Phone screens exist to help employers narrow the applicant field and save time interviewing candidates who clearly aren’t suitable.

Getting a phone interview is a positive sign – you've made the first shortlist, and the employer wants to know more.

This is the final hurdle before the highly prized in-person interview, and one you should take seriously. Getting this far doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to reach the next stage.

Phone screen interview tips

1. Do some research, and prepare a cheat sheet

Research the company and role you’re applying for, then make notes on how you’ll answer commonly asked phone interview questions (see below).

It’s important you practice speaking your responses out loud. This is how you’ll discover where you stumble, meaning you can give a more professional impression when the phone rings.

Note: don’t read your cheat sheet word for word during the phone interview. This will be very obvious, and will make the conversation unnatural.

2. Get in the zone

Treat your phone screen like an in person interview – i.e. take it seriously.

Don’t just stick the TV on mute, turn your laptop off and get rid of pens or other desk items you’re likely to fiddle with.

While you don’t need to suit up for a phone interview, getting out of your PJs, and making sure you’re mentally awake will improve your performance.

3. Listen, and don’t interrupt

Even if you’ve removed all diversions, most people find it harder to focus in a phone interview than when face to face.

It’s vital you listen carefully to the questions, and wait for the interviewer to finish before jumping in with a response. Not only is this polite, it prevents you looking daft by answering the wrong query.

On this, it’s perfectly acceptable to take a second to think before you answer. This is far better than starting to talk without knowing where you’re going, and then trailing off without giving a convincing response.

Listen to the employer carefully, and don't jump the gun on questions.

4. Keep your answers brief

As a general rule, keep things on the shorter side.

The interviewer will ask for more detail if they need it, and you don’t want them falling asleep on the other end of the line.

5. Smile and be energetic

Even though your interviewer can’t see you, body language is still important in a phone interview. This is because it impacts how you speak. We recommend:

  • Standing, or even walking: your voice will have more energy if you’re standing up, and moving around can burn nervous energy. If you have to sit, avoid slouching as this negatively impacts your breathing.
  • Relaxing: whether you’re sitting or standing, avoid tensing. This will make you sound defensive and nervous.
  • Smile: smiling naturally makes your voice more friendly and open for conversation.

6. Have some water handy

You don’t want a hoarse or cracking voice, so keep a glass of water close by. Just remember to take the phone away from your mouth when drinking!

7. Keep your objective in mind

The goal here is to get an in person interview. As the conversation comes to an end, thank the interviewer for their time and ask if it would be possible to set up a face to face meeting.

They might not be able to say yes or no on the spot, but this reinforces your enthusiasm for the role and should prompt them to tell you the format for next steps.

Common NZ phone screen interview questions

If you’ve read our article on standard job interview questions, you’ll be in a good position already – there’s a good deal of crossover here.

Favourite questions include:

1. Tell me about your past experience

The interviewer isn’t looking for a list of everything you’ve ever done. They want to know how your education, qualifications and past experience set you up for their role.

Our advice? Read the job description thoroughly and only mention stuff that directly links to their list of desired skills. Keeping a copy of the listing, your CV and Trade Me Job Profile to hand is helpful for answering this one.

Have the job listing, your CV and Trade Me Job Profile to hand while on the phone.

2. Why did you apply for this job?

Careful – this isn’t asking for a dramatic speech on why this role would be a dream come true. In reality, the interviewer is looking to discover if you’ve fully understood what you’d be doing in the position.

For additional brownie points: mention why the business as a whole appeals. Is it known for having a great company culture? Do you see room for personal and professional development? Do its values align with your own?

3. What are your salary expectations?

Employers want to get an idea of your desired salary early on. It’s vital you do your research to avoid giving a wildly unrealistic answer, as this can damage your chances.

Use comparisons with similar job listings, online salary tools and trusted contacts to gauge what’s reasonable.

In addition, we recommend giving a range, rather than a specific figure, and mentioning you’re open to negotiations. This way, if your calculations were a little off, the interviewer knows this isn’t a line in the sand for you.

4. Why are you leaving your current role?

Don’t, we repeat, don’t, rip into your former employer.

Even if your old boss made Monty Burns look good, now is not the time to get any emotions off your chest.

Other than this, be honest here. Common reasons for moving on include:

  • Looking for a new challenge or a chance to learn different skills.
  • A change in personal circumstances – e.g. relocating or the arrival of kids.
  • Being made redundant – this happens, and good employers will understand it’s not your fault. Better you tell them than lie and they find out another way.

Ragging on your old employer is a very bad look.

5. What’s your notice period?

This is purely practical. If you’re currently working, know the terms of your contract so you can give an answer on the spot.

6. What was the biggest challenge in your previous position, and how did you overcome it?

Behavioural job interview questions like this are best answered using the STAR method:

  • Situation: what was challenging?
  • Task: how was this impacting you specifically?
  • Action: how did you solve the issue?
  • Result: how did this improve things?

7. Do you have any questions for me?

Not all phone screenings will give you time for your own questions, but it’s good to have a couple up your sleeve just in case. Your research should come in handy here, as informed questions about the company or role are your best bet. Just make sure it’s not something that’s already been covered!

From here, it’s time to thank the interviewer and ask about the possibility of an in person meeting. You should also ask the interviewer for their email address so you can follow up and reiterate your interest.