Phone Screening Interview

How To Ace A Phone Screening Interview


Face-to-face interviews can be tough, but trying to ace a phone screening interview can be even harder sometimes.

Not long ago, I was at Disneyland on vacation. While waiting to get into the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor in the Magic Kingdom, I spotted a sign on a door that read: “Inhuman Resources.” Good humor, of course, is best based in reality, and the reality here is simple: most job hunters think of HR as inhuman. HR staffing specialists often get “no respect,” as the late great Rodney Dangerfield would say.

Take a minute, however, to look at the hiring process from the other side of the desk. A typical HR staffing person might be assigned to deal with 20 to 40 job requisitions at a time. Each one of them might attract 100 – 500 candidates in today’s job market. If you assume each applicant has a two-page resume, that amounts to 200 – 1,000 pages of repetitive, boring, and all too often, irrelevant resumes for EACH job requisition. Overburdened staffing specialists can’t possibly afford the spare seconds to ask: “The candidate said XXX. I wonder if that means he has done/can do YYY.”

The reality is that the HR person’s role is screen OUT more than screen IN: to look for any excuse to reject rather than accept a candidate. The human impulse to help people can be replaced by the “inhuman,” unforgiving response to any typographical error or small doubt about any given candidate. It isn’t about whether any given candidate might be able do the job if given a chance.  Rather, it’s about winnowing the field to find five or 10 exceptional candidates out of hundreds to pass on to the hiring manager.

I know this to be true because I used to be one of those people: sorting through the resumes, dealing with Applicant Tracking Systems, and conducting those initial phone interviews. The wise job hunter will look at the phone screening interview as a prized opportunity to gain an initial advocate. Here are tips how to do so:

1. Spoon Feed Information In A Way The Interviewer Wants It

The screening interview is about doing Due Diligence on the part of the company, dealing with “red” and “yellow” flags on resumes, discerning a candidate’s true interest level in the job, knowledge about the company, and general fit for the position. It’s ALL about the EMPLOYER’S NEEDS, and NOT the candidate’s. If you’re asked about a potential “red flag,” be grateful for the opportunity to deal with it and put it out of the way—and be prepared to do so. By the way you deal with these issues and others, you can build rapport and give the ammunition needed to help make your case, or you can shoot yourself in the foot.

2. Understand Each Question Has A Purpose That’s Not Always Obvious

Often screeners are given questions that every candidate must answer. Responding by saying, “If you read my resume, you would see what you’re talking about,” can be regarded as hostile. From your answers, your interviewer will derive insights about your intelligence, ability to communicate effectively, emotional disposition, eagerness to learn from failure or mistakes, and more.

3. Don’t Be Defensive Or Coy

For example, if you respond to the question, “What will be your salary requirement?” with an answer like, “I’m negotiable,” or “Make me an offer and I’ll consider it,” you’re more likely to generate antagonism than a next interview. It’s much more reasonable to say something like: “In my last/current position, I was/am earning XXX, but at this stage, I can’t know how that would equate in your company.”

4. Don’t Waste Time With Process Questions

Questions such as:

  • “When will I hear back from you?”
  • “Where are you in the hiring process?”
  • “How did I do?”
  • “When do you want the person you hire to start work?”

It’s obvious every job searcher wants the answers to these questions, but this isn’t the appropriate time.

Instead, when asked what questions you have, utilize the time to further demonstrate your understanding of the role, the company, your skills and your enthusiasm by the questions you ask and the way you ask them. Don’t forget to close by expressing your appreciation for being considered, and offer to provide any follow-up material that would be helpful.

The really good screeners know how to interpret tone of voice, attitude, levels of competence and self-confidence. Speak clearly, articulate your words, make sure you respond fully and forthrightly to the question that’s asked rather than spewing out some pre-determined message you want to get across.

It all comes down to this: Be the professional you’re so you may earn the respect you deserve, and the chance to proceed in the hiring process.

Happy hunting!

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Arnie Fertig

Arnie Fertig invites readers to follow him on Twitter via @jobhuntercoach and to linkup with him on LinkedIn. His primary focus is coaching mid-career job seekers.


  1. Just wanted to let you know that I used some of tips about phone screening…lead to 3 face-to-face interviews. However, no offers…Three 3 hour face to face interviews…spoke with 4-5 different staff memebers during each interview…positive feedback….only reply is ” we hired someone within org.” ! WTF !!! If compamies know they are just doing it for legal reasons…don’t waste other people’s time with going outside the wall but hire within. But at sametime, they are impressed with talent looking because the experience & tech know-how people bring to the table let them know someone has more than they do & they better not hire their next boss !

  2. Hi !
    What could be the best answer to the questions like:
    “Briefly Describe yourself ?”
    OR “Tell me about yourself ?”

    Also, kindly advice the alternative answers to the question about “EXPECTED SALARY”

    Aamir Khan

    • Corsten's countdown


      I have studied this and an appropriate reply is to ask them a question back such as:

      ‘Is there an area in particular you are interested in?”

      Hope this helps

    • “I’m not worried about salary. I’m sure we can agree on something fair.”

      Briefly describe yourself: There are many good articles online that focus specifically on that question. Generally speaking, just come up with the top 3 things you want them to know about you: experience, passions, ambition, whatever it is that you think sells yourself well for this position and/or sets the stage for a valuable conversation.

  3. Arnie,

    You mention…
    Don’t Waste Time With Process Questions
    Questions such as:
    “When will I hear back from you?”
    “Where are you in the hiring process?”
    A different coach states we NEED to ask about the next step.
    Any thoughts on this?


    • I think you have to consider the subject here…this is the INITIAL PHONE SCREENING. If you are called in for a face to face interview then I think those questions would be appropriate. But like the article says, don’t bog down the HR person with this stuff. They really are slammed and don’t have time to give EVERY applicant a warm and fuzzy about the hiring process.

      Save these questions for the face to face is the unwritten message here.

    • You can ask a short “What’s the timeline to bring someone onboard?” and they can proly answer in only 10-15 seconds. I mean you have hopefully spend considerable time getting ready so asking them a short direct does not seem unreasonable.

  4. Is it a good idea to ask about the person interviewing you on the phone, specifically to generate a conversation about the company and the goals of the position?

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