How to Ace that Initial Phone Screen


I spend a significant amount of time screening candidates.  I love getting to know people and finding out why they are interested in a particular organization or position.  I am often the first point of contact for a candidate during the interview process and at this stage, it is critical for candidates to be prepared.  So, with that being said, I would like to share some advice on how to ace that initial phone screen to get you to the next phase in the interview process.  

1. Be mission-oriented

I am in the business of talking to folks who want to work in educational organizations and nonprofits, a mission-oriented industry.  Thus, I look for candidates who seem mission-driven.  Have they shown in previous assignments or work experiences that they truly love the work of ensuring all kids have opportunities to learn and grow?  Is their passion for this type of work palpable?  Explain how you are passionate about working in this sector or how you might be excited to work in this particular organization.  You don’t need to be gushing about it but I like to get a sense that at the end of the day, you feel satisfaction for choosing to work in this field.  

2. Research the organization and know their products

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to spend the time, even if it’s a few minutes, to learn about the organization.  Spend time looking over their website, reading about their mission and their products.  I personally love reading the biographies of the staff and doing this will help you to understand the types of people this organization likes to hire.  Do they seem like individuals whom you could connect with and work well with?  What have been their past experiences and what expertise do they bring to the organization?  

If an organization has a particular product, like an education technology platform or tool, do you have a basic understanding of how it works?  Do you know who their target audience is and how that audience might benefit from this product?  Sometimes there are demos of the product or videos on the organization’s web site and you should take the time to watch the videos or actually do the demos to gain a better understanding of a product’s functionalities.  

3. Know the specifics of the job responsibilities

One question that I like to ask candidates is about which specific responsibilities of the job most resonate with them.  In other words, what expertise do they bring to this particular role and how does it match with the job responsibilities listed?  Not knowing what specifics are listed on the job description makes a candidate look unprepared.  

For instance, if the role is a Marketing Director, I may ask that person to “market” a product to me.   Demonstrate those strong communication skills needed for the position.   If the role requires a great deal of writing, then a strong cover letter is a great way to show off one’s abilities in this area.   If it is a leadership role, then provide specific examples of how you have led teams and projects and make sure to emphasize any success stories.   

4. Be prepared to talk about some failures or struggles

Honestly, one of my favorite questions during the interview is when I ask someone about a time they struggled and how they dealt with the situation.  I am not just looking for a candidate to admit failure but rather, to see how they react to a tough situation and how they overcome adversity.  We are all human and we all make mistakes.  Failure is a part of life.  I worry most when a candidate tells me that they cannot think of a time when they struggled or when they did not receive any kind of professional feedback towards areas of improvement.   I look back at my own struggles and have learned more from those situations than from times when I never received any feedback or when things seem to be chugging along nicely.  It’s how you pick yourself back up from those tough times that will make you stand out.

5. Be honest and have a sense of humor

Be honest with what expertise you bring to the table and what areas you may need some professional development.  It’s okay to laugh at yourself when describing situations you’ve been in or experiences you’ve had that have not always turned out the way you had envisioned or hoped.  I realize each recruiter is different but I love to laugh and if we can find humor in work situations, it always seems to make the conversation flow more naturally.  

6. Come prepared with some basic questions

I’ve always believed that the interview process is a two-way street.  You should be doing just as much interviewing to see if this could be a good match.   Some basic questions could be: 

  • How would you describe the organizational culture?  
  • What is the salary range for this position?  
  • What is the leadership team like at the organization?”.   

Asking questions shows me a candidate has a natural curiosity and is doing their due diligence.

It’s hiring season so with all this advice, go and ace that initial phone screen!

-Serena Moy

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