Mastering the Phone Screen

The phone screen is the first real chance you'll have to make a connection with someone at your prospective employer. Most screens are conducted by a startup recruiter and are between 30-60 minutes.

If the startup is on the smaller side, your screener could also be the hiring manager for the team you're applying to. You should know exactly who you're interviewing with before the call.

If you are having a call with the hiring manager who works in the function you're applying to then you should be prepared for some more role-specific questions.

In general, the phone screen is the company's opportunity to verify that you are who appear to be on paper and to set expectations about the role with the interviewee. The company will also probably use the time to sell you on why the company is a great place to work.

The phone screen generally has the following three components:

What's your story?

Most phone screens start with the interviewer asking some variation of the question, "what's your story?" The interviewer is looking for you to summarize your relevant professional and academic experience as well as how you ended up at this company interviewing.

Start with your academic experience (more important for recent grads with limited experience), then move on to your most relevant or recent professional experience.

"I study Computer Science at UCSB and will be graduating this coming summer 2019. I interned last summer at DropBox as a Software Engineering Intern where I developed..."

This should take no more than 2-3 minutes, highlighting the most impactful professional contributions you've made.

Why this role?

Answering this question can be a no-brainer for a candidate who is applying for a job that aligns nicely with their degree. In fact, a Computer Science major candidate probably wouldn't even be asked this question if applying for a Software Development Engineer role.

If you are applying for a position with less well-defined prerequisite experience then you need to have a compelling reason why you're interested in this particular function.

"Marketing sounds really cool, I love social media" is not a good explanation of why you're going to be a good fit for a Social Media Marketer role. Ideally you have direct internship experience you can point to, but if not, you should at least have an example of an extracurricular activity that makes you qualified.

For example, "I manage the social media accounts for a student organization I belong to. My strategy in this role has been..."

If you don't have any quasi-formal experience with the function then you should be able to reference relevant classwork or a personal project. You need to demonstrate that you have thought critically about the function, what its aims are, and how your skills align with the role responsibilities.

Why this company?

Companies really care that you as an applicant are bought in on their mission, culture, and business model. Here's Justin Rosenstein, co-founder of Asana, talking about how he works to build a productive, mission-driven culture at Asana.

Ok, back to work. When it comes to the company, most phone screen interviewers will be looking for you to prove the following:

1. You have a genuine interest in the company's mission
Every good company has a mission statement that serves as the company's north star, it is the main guiding principle helping them navigate business obstacles while keeping an eye on the big picture. They take these missions seriously and if you want to join the team, you should too.

Let's look at an example, here's Google's mission statement:

“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

That's an ambitious mission statement. Google intends to organize all of the world's information and make it accessible and useful to everyone. In an ever changing world, that's a nearly endless pursuit, and that's exactly the point. For an ambitious mission statement, there is never really a "mission accomplished" moment, that's the direction they'll be headed as long as it still makes sense to do so.

You should be able to see yourself working towards a company's mission if you want to work there. During a phone screen, you'll need to articulate exactly why a company's mission is important to you.

2. You are aligned with the company's culture
Companies are made up of a team of people with complementary skills and shared values.

One of the most important things your phone screener will be trying to determine is if you possess the values that reflect the company culture. In most startups, the CEO has a certain set of values that are propagated through the ranks with each new hire.

For example, in my first company our CEO was a hyper-competitive former athlete and wrestling coach and he looked to hire "smart athletes". This didn't necessarily mean that hires needed to be athletic, but they needed to have a strong affinity for teamwork and a healthy competitive attitude. He looked for this when hiring his first cohort of employees and each successive round of hiring brought more smart athletes -- the company culture was born.

You should try to get a very clear impression of the company culture during the phone screen and honestly evaluate if it resonates with who you are. If your interviewer can’t clearly explain the company culture or it sounds at odds with your personality, then you should think twice about that company.

Your role at a startup will almost certainly change over time and there will be opportunities to try new functions but company culture is fairly constant.

Joining a team where you can’t imagine easily fitting in with your teammates is setting yourself up for failure.

3. You understand what the company does
Companies want to know that you’ve done your homework.

You should understand a company’s product and business model going into the phone screen. You may be asked for product feedback during your phone screen and you will want to put your feedback in terms of making an impact on their business.

For example, “on your website I noticed that getting to your customer lead form requires clicking through five pages to get to, have you done any research on how making the call-to-action more accessible improves the visit to lead conversion rate?”.

This demonstrates that you’ve looked critically at their product and you understand what their goals are.

If you can create a compelling answer for those three questions, you have a good shot at making it past the phone screen. Good luck!