Informational interviews can be a treasure trove of useful tips that help you get a great job, or they can be a terrible waste of your time (and your interviewees’ time as well). The difference between a great result and a disappointing one all rests with a simple question. It’s almost never asked.

That question is: “Who is the best person you’ve had in this position?”

Of course, if you are seeking an internship, this question will translate into: “Who is the best person you’ve had in your internship program?”

Yes, it’s that simple. If you want to be the best, then you need a definition of what is the best. The answer is not something you can mindread, deduce, or learn any other way than directly asking this one simple question. Of course, the answer is likely to be different for every company.

This is a question you’ll want to ask in each and every interview, even when you are interviewing more than one person in the same company. What specifically are you asking the interviewee to reveal? You want to know what traits, skills, habits, mindset, and interaction style did this ideal intern or employee possess?

You may need to ask follow-up questions to get the full picture of what the best really means. The answer might be, “Well, our best intern was Jack. He was a really quick learner. He picked up on our systems really fast.”

If you reflect on that answer, you’ll realize that no one hires an intern to just learn. Typically, an intern also needs to produce value for the employer. So, you could follow up by asking, “Once he learned the systems, what did he do?”

Now, you’ll hear some specifics about the internship that might not be posted in the job listing. You may hear some of the traits that are truly valued by that employer. For example, you might hear, “Jack was able to gain the trust of senior leadership. He was so dependable that our CEO let Jack participate in product development meetings and coordinate the meetings because he had learned how to use our project management software. He was able to track projects from early-stage ideation to launch. Everyone liked him and appreciated his work ethic. Of course, all that made him an ideal full-time hire when he graduated.”

From that conversation, you’ll know that being trustworthy, congenial, and hardworking were just as important as being able to learn the company’s systems. Now you know what you’ll need to show when you are interviewed for that position!

How do you get the job interview? After you’ve asked other questions to truly understand the company and bond with the interviewee, you may say, “I think I am quite a bit like Jack. Can you tell me who I should call to set up an interview for an internship?”

Next Steps

  1. Use LinkedIn or your personal connections to set up informational interviews.
  2. For each interview, study up on the company and the individual you’ll be meeting with.
  3. Create a list of questions that go beyond what you learned from your research.
  4. Make sure to ask, “Who is the best person you’ve had in this position?”
  5. Once you’ve asked follow-up questions, ask how you can set up a job interview with the person in charge of hiring.