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Make the Cut: Mastering the Phone Screen

The phone rings for your screening interview. As you pick it up, do you want to sound cocky, rude, flighty, or confused? Or do you want to sound professional, responsible, and composed?

If you're in the middle of a job search, you want every employer to think of you as the latter. However, if you're not prepared for a phone screening interview, you may make the wrong first impression.

Screening interviews have become even more commonplace by phone since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. These interviews typically come before a videoconference or in-person interview, and they're often shorter.

But their shorter length and telephone-based nature are no reasons to treat them as an informal event. Employers use screening interview calls to "weed out" less qualified contenders. Use these tips to make the cut - and land a great new job:

Do Your Research

Quick: Which employer is calling you? Why did you apply to their company? What would be different about working for this company than for others you might have applied to?

Without doing some background work, you may find yourself at a loss to respond to the person calling you. Stumbling on your end may be interpreted as a failure to prepare - or worse, a total lack of interest in the job.

When you apply for jobs, keep a "cheat sheet" of each employer and position you applied to, as well as a note or two about why you thought the business and the job would be a good fit for you. Keep these notes handy, so you can refer to them before a phone interview.

Reduce Distractions

With so many people working or doing school lessons from home, reducing distractions to take a phone call can be tougher than in the past. Yet trying to do a phone interview amid the chaos of noisy children, barking dogs, or ringing phones won't help you or the interviewer.

As much as possible, reduce distractions before you take the call. Shut yourself in a quiet space and warn your family ahead of time not to disturb you. If your house is especially chaotic, consider sitting in your car or even going for a walk around the block.

Talk Like the Interviewer Is in the Room With You

When we're on the phone, it's tempting to reserve the energy we would spend on facial expressions and gestures. The other person can't see us anyway, right?

While it's true that your smiles and gestures may not be visible to the phone interviewer, this doesn't mean they aren't conveyed at all. Interviewers can hear the changes in your tone and pace of speaking that indicate a smile, enthusiasm, or excitement. These changes make you more memorable, for all the right reasons.

Don't hesitate to talk just like you would if you were face to face with the interviewer. Think of the phone screening as a Zoom meeting rather than a phone call.

Discuss Pay - Diplomatically

Questions about pay expectations are always tough to answer. You don't want to lowball yourself, but you also don't want to price your work so high that you drop out of consideration.

Researching comparable salaries online can give you an idea of the typical ranges for pay and benefits in similar positions. These numbers can help you determine how to answer pay questions diplomatically. For instance, you might say, "My salary in my last position was $X, but I don't know how that translates to your company."

When you're prepared to address the pay question, you demonstrate that you've thought about your value in the context of your work and industry. You don't leave the interviewer hanging by dodging the question, either.

Give and Take

Does listening to someone else drone on and on bore you? It bores phone interviewers, too.

When you're asked a question, pause to collect your thoughts. Then, get to the point as quickly as you can. Let the interviewer ask follow-up questions if they're confused or need more information.

And don't forget to ask the interviewer a few questions if you're given a chance. People often have a positive impression of someone who took the time to ask a meaningful question and then listened to their answer.

Follow up Professionally

Once you hang up, take a deep breath. You took a big step toward a great new job. Congratulations!

But you're not finished when you hit "end." Complete the phone screening by sending a follow-up note, just as you would for an in-person interview. Thank the interviewer for their time. Mention you're still interested in the job, and name one specific way you'd like to contribute if hired.

Finally, don't hesitate to share your success with your staffing partner. Or reach out to a staffing agency for interview advice or help to find a new job opportunity.