Phone Interview Tips: 10 Clear Steps to Acing It

My first phone interview was a magnificent disaster.

I fumbled my own name, couldn’t go through my work experience without mixing up words, and I forgot the name of who I was speaking to. Basically, I was ripped to shreds. At the first round, over a phone, by HR.

Telephone interviews are an important first step in the recruitment process used by most finance jobs. With fierce competition for the best jobs in finance sectors like investment banking, accountancy, asset management and corporate finance, it makes sense to be be prepared for what I think is the easiest interview stage with my handy list of phone interview tips to avoid the same disaster I went through!

Read on!

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How phone interviews work

Working in finance may be lucrative, but it’s also a highly stressful environment. Hiring managers simply don’t have enough time to interview everyone who applies for a vacancy. 

With around 250 applicants for every average corporate job in the US, and some of the top financial firms receiving tens of thousands of applicants for graduate positions, the phone interview was introduced as a necessary means of easing the burden. 

It has now become an established method of effectively reducing long lists of hopefuls. If you’ve put together a well written resume to pique the interest of a recruiter, the phone interview is usually the next stage in a process that often involves multiple rounds.

Phone interviews are generally undertaken by recruitment staff. They have the gruelling task of reading every application, then selecting a shortlist of up to twenty candidates for a phone interview.

In the vast majority of cases, you’ll be contacted at a pre-arranged date and time, but there are nerve-racking instances where a recruiter will phone you completely by surprise.

You then have a few minutes to make an unforgettable impression while answering a variety of questions. The time limit is often thirty minutes although in some cases, it’s just fifteen.

On average, only two to four applicants make it past the phone interview stage, a demoralizing figure of between 0.8% and 1.6%. 

If you’re deemed successful, your name is added to the next round, which could be a face to face interview.

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Common phone interview questions

The questions you may face during a phone interview have become fairly standardized, so they shouldn’t be a complete surprise. The answers you provide should help the recruiter decide if you have the qualities the company is hoping to find. 

The recruiter has your resume to tell them about your qualifications, but speaking to you over the phone can give them a brief insight into your personality and ambitions. Here are a few examples:

Why did you apply for this post?

Refer back to the advert and follow its lead. This could include mentioning opportunities for training, being part of an enthusiastic team, or the chance of eventually moving into higher positions of responsibility.

You should also make sure you research the company so that you can explain why you think you’ll be a good fit, what you can offer and why the role is a great fit for your skills and personality.

What are your strengths?

This is your opportunity to define your finest attributes.

Perhaps you see yourself as a reliable team member, or maybe someone who dedicated to clear a heavy workload in record time. Whatever you do best, it might just match what the company wants.

Don’t be afraid to give concrete but brief examples of how you’ve used your skills in action, as this can be a good way to get the message across and make yourself memorable to recruiters.

Do you have a weakness?

Not many people want to own up to their failings, but it often pays to be honest.

Anyone who claims not to have a weakness is indicating they have an ego, which could potentially cause problems amongst colleagues.

Suitable answers might include showing how interested you are in improving your skills, or actions you’re already taking to boost areas you’re less strong in and improve your knowledge of the industry, such as studying for the CFA.

What makes you enthusiastic?

This refers not to your hobbies, but to the procedures and practices that apply to the role or the company you are applying for.

Tailor your answers for the best possible match. If you’ve got a real passion for a certain area of the role then let this shine.

Why do you want to leave your current job?

You won’t impress by being critical of your current employment, manager or colleagues.

Interviewers are looking for signs of discretion and trust.

Focus on the positive merits of your new job and how this fits into the career path you want to follow.

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What inspires you?

It’s easy to stray off topic here, but try to keep to work related inspiration.

Perhaps the prospect of new challenges, such as really getting your teeth into an in-depth financial research project, is what makes you look forward to each working day.

When are you free to start the job?

You need to be sure beforehand about the terms of giving notice in your current employment. The answer you give might not be compatible with the deadline of filling the position, however it’s best to be honest about your existing commitments.

It can usually take up to one month to complete interviews and make a firm job offer, and if you’re applying for a graduate position there are often cohorts of new hires who start at defined times of the year.

Where do you think you’ll be in five years?

Your career plan could let you down if it involves moving beyond your next job or organization too quickly.

While in some sectors of the finance industry employees are only expected to stay in roles for a couple of years before progressing, interviewers often use this question to gauge your company loyalty. It’s an attribute that has been in general decline for some years, with around 40% of people considering quitting their current jobs in the near future. 

Recruitment, onboarding and training can be expensive for companies, so they often prefer to invest in people who’ll be sticking around longer than a year. Look at opportunities to progress within the organization you’re applying to, and talk about how this fits with your plan.

job candidates colleagues

Top 10 phone interview tips from experts

The impersonal brevity of phone interviews can make them appear ruthless. Impromptu phone interviews are by far the worst as they usually find interviewees completely unprepared. 

On average, only about 2% of applicants reach the in-person interview stage. However, the pressures within the finance industry often require employees to think and act fast. Your performance during a phone interview should reflect those exact qualities. 

Spontaneity and decisiveness are vital attributes to cultivate if you’re serious about furthering your career. However impossible the odds of progressing may seem, your prospects are far more promising if you have thoroughly prepared your strategy with some of the useful tips below.

1. Preparation

Recent analysis shows that it takes somewhere between 20 and 80 applications on average before you are finally appointed to a new post. It often takes several attempts to feel you are developing a reliable interview technique. 

Being prepared is a vital part of making a good impression, particularly during a phone interview. However, many applicants are often reluctant to devote the estimated ten hours experts recommend you should spend researching different aspects of the role. 

Regard your preparation like being in training for a fifteen-minute sprint that could put you on the path to career success. Being unprepared is one of the main reasons why so many applicants fail to make any progress beyond the phone interview.

2. Start strong for a great first impression

Phone interviews offer such a short time frame for you to impress, nerves can easily make the experience difficult. In the US, 93% of applicants are nervous about job interviews, while research has found that interview anxiety can negatively impact performance, and that interviewers can rate anxious candidates less favourably.

You can combat your anxiety to some degree by using stress management techniques such as practising deep breathing before the allotted time. If you are caught off-guard by an unexpected phone interview, take a few seconds to steady yourself.

Creating a strong first impression is vitally important. Interviewers are looking for confidence, professionalism and a reassuring ability to conduct yourself well when under pressure. Your opening sentences and level of composure are usually enough to convince the interviewer if they want to hear more from you.

3. Research the company

When new employees arrive for a job, managers are hoping they will immediately fit in with the way the company operates. According to data, new employees operate at only 25% of their full productivity level to begin with, and it can take around eight months on average before new hires are performing at full capacity. 

Research the company as much as possible before your interview:

  • Check the company’s website for press releases about their latest projects.
  • Know what the company does and what are its main sources of revenue.
  • Discover if they have any involvement in forthcoming deals or projects such as a merger or acquisition. 

It’s vital to know as much as you can about the company and the role you’re applying to, as this information will help you to answer a range of questions asked by interviewers. A few hours of investigation may only contribute to a few seconds of an answer, but it could be enough to push you into the next round.

phone interview tips

4. Tone of voice

If the person who will be your direct manager is part of the interview panel, they’ll likely be looking for a candidate they feel they can get along with on a day to day basis and who will be a good fit for the team, as well as someone who can do the job well.

Recruiters have an important role in assembling a team that’s harmonious. It’s well-known that conflict amongst colleagues is highly distracting, resulting in lost productivity.

As part of the interview process, recruiters will be looking for individuals who can contribute to a good environment and develop positive relationships with other staff and clients. A positive tone of voice therefore can help recruiters to identify you as someone who would have a positive impact on their workplace.

When answering questions, be pleasant. Smiling a little reflects in your tone of voice, helping your personality appear conciliatory.

While it’s beneficial to use a friendly tone, avoid cracking jokes throughout the interview. It’s unprofessional and indicates you lack concentration. You might even be considered an irritation around colleagues.

5. Speak about experience

Your work experience will no doubt be listed on your resume, but recruiters usually still question you about it. Your response should refer to only one or two aspects, but it provides an insight into the areas you are most interested in. 

However, it’s important to keep your answers matter of fact. Being boastful can indicate the old problem of ego, but the topic may not have the same level of importance with your potential employer. 

Recruiters are interested in what you can bring to the table in terms of experience, and how it can benefit them. So whether it’s experience of performing in a similar role to a high level, or experience in solving problems that your potential new employer is facing, keep it relevant to how they stand to benefit directly from your knowledge and skills.

Thorough research, as outlined in point 3 above, should help you focus on past glories that are compatible with the company’s own achievements and pending projects.

6. Prepare to ask some good questions

Asking the interviewer a few meaningful questions indicates your eagerness to learn more about the job vacancy.

A lack of enthusiasm often leads candidates being rejected even if their credentials appear first-rate. This can sometimes give off the impression that the candidate’s heart isn’t really in the job, meaning they might not give the role their full attention or effort, or may be likely to move on quickly.

While showing enthusiasm for the job is important, it can also be beneficial not to come across as being too enthusiastic. Research suggests that while recruiters value a certain amount of enthusiasm for a role, they perceive overenthusiasm as being non-genuine, unprofessional or inappropriate, and in turn are more likely to reject these candidates.

Only through conducting in-depth research will you gauge the type of questions the interviewer wants to hear. Keep them appropriate for the role on offer. Make a list of potential questions and re-word them to sound positive rather than negative. It’s a subtle method of reinforcing your enthusiasm and commitment to the role.

7. Have notes or visual cues to hand

One of the biggest differences (and advantages) you have in a phone interview is that the interviewer is not able to see you. 

Using pre-prepared notes is perfectly acceptable at any interview. They demonstrate you have done your research and want to know more. An advantage during a phone interview is you’re not obliged to maintain eye contact. 

You can read your check list of possible questions and even have cue cards at hand to provide useful prompts.

However, you should make sure your notes are particularly concise, not in-depth or lengthy. It can take too long to find the information you need, and you could sound as if you are reading a script. Try to limit your notes to single words, phrases or the names of topics to talk about. They’re there to support you if your mind goes blank, and to make sure you stay on topic.

Remember, interviewers want enthusiasm and spontaneous reactions to questions.

8. Speak confidently about experience and qualifications

It’s easier to sound confident about your achievements if you believe your chance of success is relatively high. For instance, research statistics indicate that male interviewees are generally more confident about their abilities during interviews than female applicants. 

While it’s important not to exaggerate your achievements too much, having confidence in your experience and qualifications allows you to sell yourself to recruiters.

As part of your preparation, try writing a list of the biggest achievements you’ve made in your career so far. Think about the problems you helped to address, the actions you took, and the results you achieved. As in tip number 5, try to keep your information in step with the company’s goals and future projects.

When it comes to talking about your qualifications, it’s worth reminding yourself that some financial exams are considered amongst the most difficult in the world. So if you’re a CFA charterholder, or are working towards it, then have confidence that you’re part of a group that has completed something extremely challenging. 

9. Posture and facial expressions can help

The relative anonymity afforded by a phone interview can give the impression that you don’t need to worry about your posture or expressions. However, your posture can directly affect your voice. Poor posture means a less efficient respiratory system that restricts the vocal tract

Holding your head incorrectly affects the throat and larynx resulting in an uncontrollable voice that sounds tired. Slouching in your chair makes you sound weary, unenthusiastic and older than your years. 

Grimacing or laughing while answering questions can make you sound unpleasant, distracted or both. It’s also wise to conduct your interview where you can have complete privacy away from friends who are having fun at your expense.

10. Wrap up and how to end

When your phone interview reaches its conclusion, it’s your chance to clarify anything you are unsure about, but be brief as you don’t want to overrun your allotted time. It’s just common courtesy of valuing the other person’s time.

Thank the interviewer for their time. Repeat your enthusiasm for the job vacancy by asking for their email and when you might expect to hear more. 

As soon as the interview closes, it’s regarded as polite practice to send a follow-up email thanking the recruiter for the interview. Repeat how interested you are in the post with that particular company.

career ladder up progress

Develop your phone interview skills for successful career progression

You need to be just as alert for a phone interview as one that’s in person. Competent research about the company provides clues regarding the qualities and experience the interviewer may be seeking. Record how you answer practice questions, paying attention to your posture and voice control. Maintain privacy during your appointment and tailor your responses and queries to the type of financial projects the company is well-known for.

Additional resources such as exercises to improve your diction and clarity of speech can easily be found online. Assuming a confident air, keeping your conversation polite, but concise, can help create a good first impression in the opening seconds of your interview. Building upon your progress by following the tips above could help you secure that elusive invitation to a second interview.

Ultimately, applying for, preparing for, and interviewing for jobs can be a time consuming and sometimes stressful experience.

However it’s important to remember that each time you attend an interview, regardless whether you’re successful or not, you’re developing skills and gaining experience of the process that should come in useful throughout your career, not just for a single interview.


Best of luck for your phone interview! Let us know how it went and if you’ve further tips to share with a comment below.

Meanwhile, you may find these related articles of interest:

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