How to Nail the Phone Screen Interview

"I'd like to give you a quick phone call to discuss your job application"

Ah the magical beast that is the phone screen interview. How on earth can you possibly do yourself any favours in such a short space of time?

But let's back it up a little first. I recently overheard a private conversations about hiring and I realised that a lot of people had no idea what a phone screen is.

Phone screens, but not the type I'm referring to.

Phone screens, but not the type I'm referring to.

A phone screen is a short, 15-45 minute, phone conversation a hiring manager has with potential interview candidates. It's a simple early-stage mechanism for screening potential candidates.

It's the first shortlisting, a pre-shortlist shortlist if you will.

As a hiring manager that has interviewed and hired hundreds of people I can vouch for the importance of this step in the recruitment process. I consider it an essential tool in recruiting.

Why is a phone screen so important?

There are two core reasons why hiring managers do phone screen interviews - reducing time spent on low quality candidates and starting to build the relationship with high quality candidates.

Reduce time spent on low quality candidates

Recruiting is a long and arduous process so anything that optimises time and focuses it on the top-level candidates is fantastic. Not having long interviews with obvious low quality candidates is a good example of how a manager can save their precious time.

Some people look good on paper but as soon as you meet them or begin a conversation with them you can tell, almost instantly, that they are not the right fit for you, your team, or are just not suited for this particular job. It might be a communication issue, poor manners, or maybe they just bomb some of the simpler technical questions.

It's much better to find that out in the first few minutes of phone conversation rather than in the first few minutes of a face-to-face interview where you have scheduled (and now wasted) many people's important time.

Phone screening allows a manager to focus their time ans energy on the high quality candidates.

Start the relationship with high quality candidates

When it comes to recruiting I love to use the metaphor of dating.

Just like in dating, recruiting and job seeking is essentially just a few people meeting up and exploring the viability of forming a long term relationship together. Do you want to work for me? Will you fit in with this team? Are you a weirdo and, more specifically, are you my kind of weirdo?

A good phone screen conversation gives both parties a chance to chat in an atmosphere that is more relaxed than a formal sit-down interview. There is less pressure in this situation and, if you get along, it sets up the following interview to become more relaxed too. By that stage you've already met and had a decent conversation so the interview just becomes a simple extension of the (hopefully blossoming) relationship.

Pro tip: A lot of good managers don't even realise they are doing this second part when they conduct phone screen interviews. Their sole focus for the phone screen is just to weed out the poor candidates and they don't even realise they are subtly setting the foundation for their future interactions. As a job seeker that can play in to your favour. If the manager conducting the phone screen is only doing it to weed out people that means they have set their bar pretty damn low. They are not expecting a great conversation which means they are not expecting you about to blow their socks off…

How to nail the phone screen interview

There are LOTS of things you can do to ensure you nail the phone screen interview. But first..

Check your mindset

Remember that your goal is not just to pass the phone interview. That's a chump's focus. Don't be a chump.

Your goal is to have a great conversation and be memorable so that this potential long-term relationship is starting off on the right foot. In terms of dating metaphor think of this as like having a-grade level text-game.

Now on to the tips. Here's how to nail the phone screen interview:

Prepare good stories

Know how to tell a good story about yourself and your experience that showcase you in a positive light whilst answering some common questions they might have. Some example questions

  • Why you leaving current job/looking for job?
  • Why us? What interests you about their role?
  • What is your passion? What motivates you?

Keep the stories quick and ensure you show off your personality.

Research the role

Even if you did take the terrible shotgun approach to job seeking and you don't even remember this particular job, DO NOT say that.

Do some research on the company. Be able to summarise what you think they do. It doesn't matter if you are blatantly wrong here but so help me if you have to ask what the company does then you might as well give up now.

You wont believe the number of people who have literally told me some version of "I was just applying for any job I saw. I don't remember your company specifically. What do you do?"

That sort of apathy sees you land straight in the discard pile.

Pro-tip: having a thoughtful question about the product/company shows that you have…well, it shows that you have taken the time to actually think about this role. Doing this will put you in the top few percent for applicants.

Align your skills to their needs

Before a phone screen you should reread the job ad and align your skills to their requirements. I mean you should have already done that in the first place when you were applying but I wont presume too much...

Be able to rattle off quick examples from your experience or skills that tick off the specific job requirements. You may not even need to use them but it's good to have them up your sleeve if the chance presents.

Plus if they don't come up now they will definitely come up in the next interview.

Prepare for deceptively simple questions

In these types of interviews there are some common mundane and administrative questions you are likely to be asked. Prepare your answers for these just like you do for the harder technical questions.

The types of common questions will vary for each manager and company. You can search only and foun countless examples so I wont bother with too many examples. But as a sample here are some of the things I want to know from all my candidates:

  • Current salary/salary expectations
  • Availability for interview
  • Notice period
  • Applying/interviewing elsewhere?

This sounds like such a no-brainer but the number of times I've asked people what their notice period is or when they are available for interviews, only to be met with a blubbering stammering vague answer is astounding.

Be ready to answer the simple questions.


Once you've thought about all the above points and prepared some answers you should actually practice them. Aloud and in front of a mirror.

The first time you do this I guarantee you will definitely feel like an idiot, but that is kinda the point. If you can't say your answers to yourself with complete confidence without feeling fake then how can you expect to do it in an interview?

Go back and try again. Then repeat the process until you don't feel like such an idiot.

With all that done you should be ready to nail your phone screen interview.

It's pretty simple. Remember the key is to put the extra effort in now because it will set you up for much greater success in the future. You sow the seeds now to reap the benefits later.

A great phone interview makes the face-to-face interview so much easier.