The job search can be grueling and seem to last forever, and it’s especially difficult if you have your sights set on a specific field, career or even company. You’ve connected with the right people on LinkedIn, polished your resume, did your research about the company, and kept up any news concerning the industry, but your dream job still doesn’t have the opening you need. That’s where the informational interview comes into play.

What exactly is an informational interview?

An informational interview is an informal conversation with a professional about a specific career, company or industry, and is one of the most strategic yet least utilized component of a job search. It essentially isn’t even an interview at all; it’s simply a conversation to learn more and get the inside scoop on what it’s like to work in your area of interest. By doing this, your goal is not to get a job, but instead your objective is to grow your network, gain knowledge about your dream job, and maybe even get an early “in” at a company.

Why is an informational interview important?

An informational interview is not necessary to get a job, but often leads to a job in one way or another. The beauty of the informational interview lies in the sense that you essentially have nothing to lose, so there is less emotion involved than a normal interview. The benefits can range anywhere from simply practicing and getting comfortable in an interview scenario to landing you your dream job, so there is no sense in not trying. A conversation with someone in your desired field can help you get your foot in the door faster than the average application process, help you understand and decide if you truly want to work in this field, open up the door to jobs that haven’t been advertised, or simply get your name out in the organization. Reaching out to a contact asking for a simple conversation can show your true interest in their company or industry so much more than waiting for a job opening and applying. Even if you don’t end up with a job there down the road, it’s always good to have connections and to get your name out there with a positive connotation.

How to utilize the informational interview

To initiate the informational interview, you need to begin by looking at your network. Who do you know in that field? While you may not come up with anyone right away, you may just need to dig deeper into your network (this is where LinkedIn can be very helpful). Consider checking out your university’s alumni LinkedIn page, and see if anyone fits the criteria you’re looking for. Shoot them a message, even if you don’t know them. Alumni are often excited to help out recent graduates or current students of their Alma Mater, and the worst that can happen is they politely say “no.” Parents of friends, old teachers, and even current co-workers could all have good connections, so make sure to spend time really digging deep into your network to find the right person.

Once you know who you hope to have an informational interview with, you need to make sure you send them the right message. Begin by telling them who you are and how you found them, whether it was through an alumni network, mutual friend or co-worker. Continue by telling them what your goal is for the message: simply to have the opportunity to talk to them (or someone they know) about a specific career or field, and make sure it’s clear that you are not asking them for a job interview.

Surprisingly, many professionals will agree to an informal interview with a connection they have and if you’re able to get one, you need to make sure you’re prepared. Do your research on who you will be talking to and the company beforehand so you can dig deeper than having basic company goals and policies explained. Don’t forget that you are the one who requested the conversation, so that means you need to show up with questions to ask and topics to discuss. Just showing up and expecting the other person to dictate the conversation can come off as ignorant, inconsiderate, or as a waste of their time. Use this to your advantage to ask the questions you really want to know; “What’s it really like to work for the organization?” “What are the daily tasks associated with their job?” “Is it enjoyable?” These questions, along with specific questions that may have been raised during your research are good things to keep in mind. Besides the actual conversation, every aspect of how you present yourself before and after should reflect qualities of an interview. Dress as professional as you would for an interview, act on your best behavior, and send a thank you note afterwards (Need help crafting that thank you note? Look no further).  The thank you note is ESPECIALLY important after an informational interview, because unlike a true interview, the interviewer has nothing to gain from this conversation; he or she generously gave time of their busy day to have a conversation with you about what they do.  Finally, ask your interviewer if you can keep in touch with them. This can range anywhere from just connecting on LinkedIn to keeping them up-to-date on your job search and how their advice has helped you along.

When utilized correctly, the informational interview can be your most powerful job search tool. It could lead you to a job in  the company you spoke with, a similar company in the same field, get you the connection you need, or even be the deciding factor on what career path you choose to take. If nothing else, it is great interview practice and experience you can certainly bring up when interviewing for another job. With informational interviewing, going for your dream career can seem less like a dream and more like reality.