Getting Past the Phone Screen

It’s Tuesday morning; you are driving to work and your phone rings.   “Hi, it’s Mary from ‘Your Dream Company,’ do you have a few minutes?”  Oh, the dreaded phone screen!  It’s great news that they’re calling, but it’s been a few weeks since you applied, and you’ve been caught completely off guard.  So, now what?

Make sure you are ready before automatically saying yes.  Check your physical space.  Are you in a private, distraction-free area where you can focus without feeling rushed or being interrupted?  Is your calendar clear for the next 30 minutes?  Do you have a good cell phone signal?  Most importantly, do you feel prepared for this call?  If you answer no to any of these questions, it’s probably best to schedule the call for another time.

If you think it’s best to reschedule the call, keep in mind that the recruiter calling is also reaching out to other candidates for phone screens as well.  They’re interested in moving forward to fill this position, so try to make yourself available for a time either the same day or within the 48 hours, so you don’t get passed by.

Why Phone Screens?

Phone screens are becoming more typical as one of the first steps in the hiring process.  Phone screens happen after you’ve applied for the position and made it through the Applicant Tracking System (ATS) which ranks your resume based on keywords.  Usually, an internal recruiter or HR partner will go through the resumes and identify 10-15 promising candidates for the position.  This list of candidates becomes the phone screen pool.  From there, the recruiter or HR partner connects with the hiring manager to review the candidates and notes from the screen, and they select the interview pool.

What will they ask?

Once you’ve applied to a position, it will help to start thinking about your answers to the questions below.  I recommend using a spreadsheet to track your application status and capture notes on the positions to help keep track of the job search.  Store this spreadsheet somewhere you can access it quickly.

  • Why are you interested in the job/the company etc.?

    If it’s been a while since you’ve applied for the position, you might not recall the specifics of the job they’re calling about and answering this question could be a challenge.  Since job postings come and go, be sure to save a copy of the position description while you’re applying.  Tell the person if you’ve got a strong personal connection with the mission of the organization too.  Passion isn’t a skill that can be taught and can trump experience in two similar candidates.

  • Walk me through your Resume / Tell me about yourself.

    The infamous elevator pitch.  Focus on three main categories related to this position: education, experience, and training (if relevant). At this point in the process, try to be concise, and highlight why your background aligns to this role in 90 seconds or less. Check tips on the most common traditional interview questions for more suggestions on how to answer this one.

  • What are your salary expectations?

    The number one reason recruiters are asking this question is to make sure you are in alignment.  If the position budget is only for $50k, but you’re looking for a job that pays $100k, you’re probably not going to accept the role, and going through the interview process will be a waste of time for all involved.  Alternatively, if you’re looking for a salary that’s far under the budget, recruiters and hiring managers may worry that you’re underqualified for the position.  There’s a lot of advice out there telling people to give vague non-answers to this question and honestly, I’m not a fan of that method.  I prefer my clients to provide a range, typically within $20k, based on research and their targeted salary.   It’s okay to mention that you’re flexible and that meaningful work is the highest priority, as long as you provide that range.

  • Why are you looking for a new position?

    Please don’t speak ill of your current employer.  An interview or phone screen is not the place to air your dirty laundry or talk about the toxicity of your current work culture.  Talk about your career ambitions or goals or why the company you’re talking to is so awesome.  Maybe you’re looking for more development or an opportunity to try something different.  Whatever it is, be sure to keep it positive.

  • phone screen interviewWhat is your experience in X?

    Here they’re trying to gauge technical skills and expertise.  Traditionally, it’s always a safe bet to talk about how much experience you have with a specific technical ability by mentioning training, projects, and other hands-on experience.  For areas where your work experience might be light, consider bringing in volunteer or other community involvement as well.  Additionally, storytelling is compelling.  If possible, work in a brief anecdote to show them how you used the skill they’re looking for.

  • Timeline questions

    How soon could you start if you were offered a position or When can you come in for an interview?  Recruiters know that you’ll typically need to give two weeks’ notice to your current employer, so this is trying to gauge your availability.  Do you have any planned time away for conferences or vacation?  Are there any big projects that you feel obligated to see through with your current employer?  Be sure to provide a realistic timeline.  Focus on the next month but save that family reunion that’s three months away until you get to the offer stage.  Chances are, if they’re ready to make an offer, the hiring manager will be more likely to work out an arrangement for your planned vacation.

  • Do you have any questions for me?

    Now it’s your opportunity to ask questions about the position, the process and almost anything else you’d like to cover.  Be sure to have at least a couple of questions prepared.  Having questions shows the company that you’re interested in the position and the company.  A few of my favorite questions for a phone screen are:  What are the next steps in the process?  What do you love about working at <company name>? 

If you’re still nervous about the phone screen and interviewing in general, we can help you prepare with one on one interview coaching.  We focus our services on traditional and behavioral interview coaching.  We can make sure you’re prepared and help you find the confidence to excel.  Email us at for more information.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.