Do Informational Interviews Have a Place in Business English Programs?

Speaking skills – especially in stressful situations – matter.

Most quality Business English and VESL (Vocational English as a Second Language) programs provide extensive training and practice  in both short and long job interviews. Job interviews are stressful – especially for English language learners.  In fact, many adult, community college, and university ESL programs also include mock job interviews in the curriculum so ESL students can learn how to better answer simple and difficult questions. After all, many career experts recommend native speakers practice and practice again for these high-stakes interviews. It behooves English language learners to practice, practice, and practice some more for job interviews.

During these difficult economic times, however,  Business English trainers, advanced ESL (English as a Second Language), teachers and VESL (Vocational English as a Second Language) job coordinators should focus on an even wider range of interviewing skills. Many people have to interview co-workers, customers, strangers, and even more senior professionals at work. Speaking skills – in particular interview skills – matter.

Informational interviews – where future professionals ask questions to working professionals that hold a desirable position – achieves this goal – and a few more.   Informational interviews deserve far more attention in English language programs, but especially in Business English programs and VESL classes since informational interviews provide practical opportunities to develop business contacts and remain a savvy  job hunting tactic.

A common practice in the United States in many white-collar professions, informational interviews allow students (or individuals seeking a career change) to meet more successful and senior professionals in a field. From scheduling an appointment and preparing questions to  collecting information on common business practices, this professional exercise tests the fluency and language skills.  Informational interviews also expand their personal network of valuable business contacts. Sometimes these 20-30 minute interviews, often at offices, offer surprising insights into the typical work experiences and best workplace practices. Topics can range from the biographic to industry trends.  Best of all, informational interviews can also lead to job leads, internships, and even new jobs.

This real world assignment can work with high-intermediate and advanced Business English clients. In fact, asking clients or students to find, research, and conduct an informational interview requires a certain level of fluency and confidence – outside the classroom. This challenging, authentic class assignment requires English language learners to perform a vital workplace skill, respond in real time to a potential supervisor, and ask appropriate questions.

What are appropriate questions? Here are a few classic informational interview questions:

  • How did you first enter the field? Why?
  • How has the industry changed since you began your career?
  • Can you describe a typical day at work?
  • What are some trends that you are watching?
  • What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?
  • What question should I have asked that I didn’t ask today?

These simple questions often provide illuminating glimpses into the professional lives of successful professionals.

I recommend requiring a “trip report” or  a presentation to show the results of the informational interview with fellow Business English students,. This reflective exercise requires students to concisely summarize their interview.  Learning how to conduct an informational interview is a crucial skill that they can use over and over again during their business careers. Many graduate programs strongly recommend (and sometime mandate) their students conduct regular informational interviews.

From my perspective,  adding  information interviews to Business English classes and VESL programs seems extraordinarily sensible.  It also qualifies as an effective use of precious instructional time. Practical and popular, this multidimensional assignment consistently engages students and provides surprising insights in a university setting. I’ve been requiring informational interviews for several years in my university courses for both native and non-native English speakers. Students consistently rate the informational interview highest among the course assignments – and often praise it on course evaluations.

Therefore, I’m quite confident that quality Business English and VESL programs can clearly benefit from adding this real-world, authentic task to their curriculum too.

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8 comments

  1. Yes, they’re very appropriate. Students need real world settings. They’ll help the students practice much needed skills as well.

  2. ESL students also normally need help writing their resumes as quite often in their countries of origin different/more information is required than in the USA.

  3. Sharon – Thank you. We seem to share the same educational philosophy and an appreciation for using authentic tasks and materials in our ESL classrooms.

  4. Eva – Good point! Before I started teaching English language learners, I naively assumed that resumes were the same across the globe. As you know from personal experience, resumes can widely differ across cultures and countries. Further, fashions and styles change too so I always have students “search and share” for information on writing resumes and conducting job interviews. Their homework assignments keep me on me up to date.
    BTW, here are two excellent links about job interviews:
    http://www.time.com/time/video/player/0,32068,46937715001_1933401,00.html

    http://www.forbes.com/2011/03/04/job-interview-mistakes-advice-forbes-woman-leadership-career_slide.html

    Using authentic materials from Time magazine and Forbes magazine helps maintain student interest too. Thank you for stopping by the irregular blog and sharing your experiences and insights.

    Shalom,

    Eric

  5. We agree. Creating authentic, workplace assignments adds value and realism to Business English and VESL (Vocational English as a Second Language) programs. I’ve been surprised, however, by how few programs incorporate informational interviews in their curriculum. Hopefully, more quality programs will add them in 2012.

  6. Thank you for dropping by.

  7. Great Information I’m happy to read and following same. Thank You

  8. Agree with you, Job interviews are always stressful for English language learners. The only way to overcome this challenge is to practice this skill over and over again.

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