Informal interviews are increasingly common at the start of an interview process. I’ve hired multiple people after they made great first impressions in casual interviews.
Sometimes, these interviews happen because you come strongly recommended but aren’t a perfect fit for a specific role. Or because the company hasn’t decided what role to hire for yet.
But, even though they feel like casual conversation, informal interviews can still win – or lose – you a job offer.
To ace an informal interview, remember:
- 🧑💼 It’s still an interview. Take it seriously.
- 🦸 The goal is to show your competence. Usually, informal interviews aim to screen candidates for a role. The best you can do is to come off as smart, prepared, and capable for roles they might need.
- 💦 Prepare up front. Make sure to learn about the company, its products and strategy, and your interviewer. Run through your experience and accomplishments. And map out how you’ll respond to common questions.
- ❓Ask what they’re looking for. Say something like, “What are you looking for in the role?” Or, “What’s most important for you when hiring this role?”
For a complete guide on how to ace your interview, read on for:
- 🤔 What is an informal interview
- 🕙 Why employers conduct them
- 🔬 What employers are looking for
- ❓ Questions to expect
- 📄 Template responses
- 🙋 Questions to ask
- 🏋️ How to prepare
- 🙅♀️ Mistakes to avoid
- ✋ FAQs
- 🧰 Other resources
What is an informal interview
Informal interview take many shapes – calls, meeting over coffee or lunch, or walks.
The interviewer might say (or write) any of the following, to set up a casual interview:
- “I’d love to get to know you over coffee.”
- “We’re really impressed by your experience – I’d like to learn more about what you’re looking for, to see if we have a good fit.”
- “We’re always looking for great people and can hire opportunistically.”
Once the interview happens, the format will be more conversational (and less inquisitorial) than a formal interview.
Why employers conduct casual interviews
Speaking as someone who’s conducted dozens of these, there are four main reasons for an interviewer to have a casual interview:
- You’re a high-potential applicant. Maybe you came through a referral from someone they trust, you have a particularly strong background, or they’ve had trouble filling a role. In this case, they’re more focused on selling you than on screening you.
- They like your background but don’t have a perfect job yet. This reason goes hand-in-hand with the one above: the stronger your experience, the more likely they are to craft a role for you.
- They haven’t finalized hiring process. Maybe they don’t have budget secured, or they haven’t completed the job description or formal hiring process for a role yet. So they start with an informal process and build the rest on the fly.
- The role depends on personal chemistry (like a Chief of Staff or Executive Assistant role), and a casual conversation makes sense as an initial screen.
What your employers are looking for in informal interviews
In general, employers are looking for the same thing in informal interviews as they are in a more formal interview process. They want:
- Good communication
- Evidence of your ability to do the job(s)
- Motivation and goals aligned with the role(s)
- Relevant results from your past roles
- The “how” and “why” behind those past results
- Your strategic thinking and ability to relate your goals to company strategy
- How you would approach a problem their company is currently facing
Questions you’ll be asked in informal interviews
To get a sense of expectations in specific roles, first review the overview of major roles in tech companies here.
Then make sure you’re prepared to answer the following questions. (You can see a complete example of how to respond to these questions below.👇)
|Question||They’re looking for||How you can respond|
|Tell me a little about yourself.||Your best case for why you’d be a great team member.||Share your story: 1-3 of the most impressive things you’ve accomplished (with data), what motivates you, what you want to accomplish next (and how their role/company fits that ambition).|
|What are you looking for in your next role?||What motivates you – what your criteria are for finding what you want to do next.||Focus on goals that their company or role can help fill. But if you have important criteria (i.e. compensation matters, or you want a remote company, or child-friendly culture), say it here – it’s better for them to disqualify you early if they’re not a fit.|
|I saw you did X. Could you walk me through the process?||They might look at your LinkedIn, and ask a question about any experience you’ve listed. They’re looking for results, your ability to communicate what you did, how you did it, and why.||Start by explaining the goal. Then share the metrics for success, and what you achieved. Then walk through, step by step, how you achieved it.|
|Follow-up: Why did you do X? Why not Y?||They want to understand your rationale for a decision, but – even more important – they want to see if you can clearly explain your alternatives and defend your choice.||First, state your goal. Then explain the alternatives you considered. Then explain any analysis or decision process behind the choice you made.|
|Follow-up: What metrics did you use to evaluate your success?||They want to see if you understand what precisely your goal was. They might also use this as a way of clarifying the most important objectives of your role.||First, explain the most important metrics you were responsible for. Then state how they related to larger company goals or strategy. Finally, explain any secondary metrics. Then, assuming you hit your goals, explain what you delivered.|
|Follow-up: How did this project relate to the overall company strategy?||They want to see if you can think like an owner – by understanding how your work contributes to larger strategic priorities.||Explain the major strategic priority that your work was responsible for (often either increasing revenue or reducing cost). Then explain how your objectives related to that.|
|Imagine you had to X. Walk me through how you’d approach it?||They want to see you’d approach solving a problem that you’d face in the role – likely something they’ve dealt with recently. They’re looking for evidence that you know how to do the job.||First, ask any clarifying questions to make sure you understand the context. Then, if there are different potential approaches you might take, list the options and explain which you choose and why. Finally, list each step of your process and explain what you’d do in a few sentences.|
Informal interview response template
Imagine you’re having an informal interview for a content marketing role. Here’s a template for how you might respond to the most common questions.
Tell me a little about yourself.
- What motivates you: I used to work as a teacher – I really love helping people to learn. In college, I was the editor of the school newspaper, and I had always been interested in writing. I needed to earn more money, so I joined an ed tech startup as a content writer. It was an opportunity to use my teaching experience, and to write to help teachers do their work better.
- 1-3 of the most impressive things you’ve accomplished (with data): As a writer, I created more than 300 pieces in my first year. They have been read by 1.5 million people and are responsible for generating 100,000 leads and more than $500K in revenue. Later, when I was promoted to lead the content marketing strategy, I grew our monthly traffic from 200K to 500K visits in the first year and cut our acquisition cost from $400 to $150.
- What you want to accomplish next (and how their role/company fits that ambition): I’m really excited about the ability to build a content strategy from scratch. I think we can take your blog from 2K to 200K monthly visits in the first year, and reach 500K in the second – and that, over time, this will be 10X less expensive than ads for customer acquisition.
What are you looking for in your next role?
- I want to show that I can build an industry leading content marketing program from scratch – both in terms of quality and business results.
- One important thing is to make sure I have sufficient resources – either in terms of full-time writers, or a budget to hire contractors – so I ‘d love to learn more about resources.
- Also, I’m generally happy in my current role, and I’m currently paid $100K plus equity.
- So, to move, I’d really want to see better compensation and an opportunity to lead a larger team.
I saw you did X. Could you walk me through the process?
Q: Could you walk me through how you grew your team’s output by 4X and traffic by 2.5X in your last role?
- The goal. When I took over, our goal was to increase the efficiency of our lead generation, from $20 per lead and $400 per customer acquired through content.
- The metrics for success. My main goal was reducing CAC and increasing customers from content marketing. Secondary metrics were increasing traffic and leads captured from content.
- What you achieved. We decreased our cost per lead from $20 to $10, and our CAC from $400 to $150. At the same time, we increased traffic from 200K to 500K per month, and were able to increase our lead conversion rate and the percent of leads who were qualified (and eventually became customers).
- Walk through, step by step, how you achieved it.
- First, I did an an audit of our content and strategy. I looked at what topics were were writing, and analyzed the pieces responsible for more of our traffic.
- Based on this audit, I realized we could do three things to improve our acquisition cost. (1) Improve the quality of 100 existing posts that were ranking just below the first page of google to increase traffic 5-10X, (2) spend more time on fewer pieces, to ensure they would end up ranking in the top spots, and (3) change our keyword strategy to focus on higher intent search terms that would increase our lead capture and conversion rate.
- To implement content changes, I wrote a standard checklist to ensure our content was higher quality than anything we were competing against, and gave our writers more time per piece.
Follow-up: Why did you do X? Why not Y?
Q: Can you walk me through your rationale for writing less content?
- State your goal. I wanted to increase traffic, leads, and conversions to customers.
- Explain the alternatives you considered. To do this, we needed some combination of higher traffic, higher conversion to leads, and more qualified leads.
- Analysis or decision process behind your choice. The best way to get more traffic is to ensure your content ranks higher in google. For every spot higher in Google’s results, your content will get many times more traffic – let’s say 2X more. So, the difference between being ranked 11th and 3rd, is the difference between 10 and 2,500 visits per month. By spending twice the time to make our content excellent, we could get more than 10X more traffic.
Follow-up: What metrics did you use to evaluate your success?
- Explain the metrics you were responsible for. I was responsible for customers acquired and acquisition cost from content marketing.
- State how they related to larger company goals or strategy. This contributed directly to company revenue, 34% of which comes from content.
- Explain any secondary metrics. I also look at total traffic, leads generated from content, and the percent of these leads that are qualified.
- Explain what you delivered. I increased traffic from 200K to 500K per month, increased our total leads by 2.5K, and decreased our CAC from $150 to 400. Overall, my team acquires customers worth $400K each month, for only $30K in spend.
Imagine you had to build a blog attracting 200K monthly visitors. Walk me through how you’d approach it?
- First, I’d research potential terms. These would include questions your customers frequently ask in their jobs/lives, and particularly during the purchasing process or lifecycle of using your product.
- Then, once I had a list of 100s potential search teams, I’d prioritize which ones to focus on by looking for ones with at least 1K monthly searches in the US and limited competition – these, we should be able to rank in the top 3, and generate 100s of visits per month. I’d also look for more competitive titles that have 10Ks of searches per month.
- I’d write the first few pieces myself, and then write a style guide to communicate expectations to our writers.
- Then, I’d reach out to writers I’ve worked with in the past.
- I’d outline content briefs by writing headlines for the first 50 pieces, and assign them to writers.
- Once the program is up and running, I would ensure we get inbound links by creating syndication partnerships with other companies and bloggers.
Questions to ask in an informal interview
One benefit of an informal interview is that questions can go both way. So look at this as an opportunity to learn about the company and role from someone more senior than you typically would early in a hiring process.
You can learn exactly what they need, where they are in the hiring process, and what they’re looking for in the role:
- Do you have any open roles where I might be a good fit?
- Do you have budget / are you actively hiring for these roles?
- (For a role) What are the metrics you’ll use to evaluate success? What are the targets?
- (For a role) What are you looking for in this role?
- What’s your dream candidate profile?
- What accomplishments/results would you like to see?
- What skills will be particularly important?
- (For a role) Do you have any questions about my background or fit for this role?
- Can you walk me through the formal interview process?
- What is your timeline for any next steps in the hiring process?
You can also use this as an opportunity to learn more about the team or company strategy:
- Whom will this role be interacting with most closely?
- What are the team’s biggest priorities for the next 6-12 months?
- Follow-up: What does success look like? What metrics are you using?
Make sure to write down responses, since you can use this information to prepare for a formal interview process.
How to prepare for an informal interview
As with any interview, you should spent time preparing before a casual interview – ideally at least four to eight hours if this is the first time you’ve applied in a while.
Go through the following checklist, and make sure you’re able to answer any of these questions concisely (in one or two sentences – 20-30 seconds).
Informal interview preparation checklist
- Thing about your skills and goals. Make sure you can concisely answer the following about yourself:
- What do you want to be doing in two years? In five years?
- What activities do you most enjoy spending time on?
- What are you looking for in your next job? Things you’d like to keep from your current role? Things you’d like to change?
- Why do you care about this kind of work?
- Research role-specific questions. Make sure to read through the overview for your role here, and study common questions and think through how you’d respond.
- Review your LinkedIn or resume. Outline what you’ve done that’s relevant to the current role, and make sure you’re able to answer the following questions about each job or experience you list:
- What were the most impressive results?
- What problem did you solve?
- How did you solve it?
- How could you apply what you learned to the role you’re interested in?
- Research the company. Make sure you can answer the following questions about the company you’re applying to (or the specific product or team, if they’re big enough to have multiple products):
- What is their product?
- How do they acquire customers?
- What jobs does their product do for customers (learn more about Jobs-to-be-done here)?
- What is their product’s main competition?
- How does the job you’re applying for relate to their business model?
- Has their product or team had any recent news?
- What do you think are their biggest priorities?
- Are there any questions you have about their strategy?
- Research your interviewer on LinkedIn. Make sure you can answer the following questions them:
- Do you have any interests or experiences in common?
- What roles have they had?
- What results have they produced?
- Can you think of interview questions they’d ask based on their experience?
Mistakes to avoid in an informal interview
- Not preparing. Just because the interview is casual, doesn’t mean you can “wing it.”
- Talking too much. Don’t ramble, don’t give your life story. The interviewer is still evaluating you, so be professional and concise.
- “I’d need to gather data.” Speaking as someone who’s interviewed hundreds of people, one of the most annoying (and frequent) responses I hear is that you’d have to analyze data or do research before you could do something. Of course you need to do research. But, to an interview, this signals that you’re either indecisive or are actively trying to dodge the question. If your process starts with research, you can say, “First I’d do research. But I’d expect to find X, and if I did, I’d approach it this way.”
Casual interview FAQ
What to bring to an informal interview?
Bring a notebook and pen, to take notes. (A computer is distracting and can feel awkward if you’re typing notes during a casual conversation.)
If your work involves producing something tangible, bring the ability to show it – like a product, design portfolio, or computer to show a website you’ve built.
It’s OK to bring a business card and resume print if you’re applying to more formal company, but it most cases this isn’t necessary – they already have your digital contact details and resume/LinkedIn profile.
Who pays for an informal interview?
You don’t need to pay (or even to offer). The interviewer will pay, and their company will reimburse them, as part of their recruiting budget. But do say thank you!
What to wear to an informal interview?
Default to business casual. The only reason to change is if the venue (or culture) is very different. For example:
- If you’re in Silicon Valley, you can be less formal – jeans and a T-shirt or button-down (or whatever you’d wear to a silicon valley job) are probably fine. But still – hold the shorts and flip flops till you’re the founder.
- If you’re meeting for athletic activities, dress appropriately.
- If you’re meeting at a club or nicer restaurant, observe the dress code.
How to follow up after an informal interview?
- Send a thank you email.
- Make sure to include anything you promised in the interview, like your portfolio, introductions, or additional details on a question.
- Reach back out based on the timeline for next steps they mentioned in your Q&A.