Sort, Prioritize, Hire: The Importance of Pre-screen Questions

Andy Adams is a Sr. Account Executive with CareerPlug, whose background includes extensive recruiting experience.  He has spent time in the trenches as an agency contract recruiter, as well as a direct hire recruiter.  Once a month, we have asked him to share his insights, tips, and advice on a particular recruiting topic.

It may seem like common sense and fairly straight forward, but one of the most valuable tools in the job application process are pre-screen questions and assessments.  However, it is not as simple as it seems, as there has been plenty of research done to show how these things can negatively affect candidate flow.  You will lose quality candidates if you have too many questions or the wrong questions; some questions can even be illegal and land you in hot water.

From experience, I have learned that pre-screening candidates can help a recruiter or hiring manager prioritize their hiring efforts, be more efficient in getting candidates through the recruiting funnel, and ultimately get their positions filled.  It can also help candidates prioritize their time in determining whether or not a role is right for them.  Here are some tips, ideas, and even some examples from my experience in how these tools can be leveraged to help you make your hiring process easier.


Candidate Prioritization

By using pre-screen questions or assessments, you can quickly and easily prioritize the order of importance you need to place on each of your job applicants.  One thing that I would recommend is having your first question be a “knock out” question.  I do not mean you should make the question so difficult that it will “knock out” candidates; I mean it should be a question that if the desired answer is not given, you are going to pass on the candidate.  For example, you can ask, “How many years of software development experience do you have?”  If you are targeting 5+ years, you can very easily tell whether or not you are going to move forward with a candidate.

If candidates pass your knock out question, you can then ask a few more questions specific to the role and rank candidates based on their responses.  By ranking candidates in this fashion, you very easily choose your top 3-5 candidates in an un-biased fashion.  I found this particularly helpful for positions where I knew I would receive a lot of applicants.  In this scenario, you can get specific with a couple of the screening questions to separate your top candidates from the rest.  A sales position is a perfect example.  Typically, these types of postings receive a ton of applicants, so by asking about specific industry experience or experience with a certain CRM tool, you can identify the best fit for you.


Once your candidates are prioritized, you can focus on initially reviewing 3-5 resumes per role, instead of potentially going through hundreds.  Think about the time savings there.  Once you have reviewed the candidates, you can begin scheduling interviews.  It is really that simple.  You increase your efficiency, by decreasing the amount of busy work you have to do.  The result here is getting more candidates through the recruiting funnel, recruiters increasing fill ratio, and hiring managers getting teams staffed up and projects on track.

busy work

The Java Developer

Early on in my recruiting career, I was tasked with identifying candidates for a Java Developer role.  So, I got my post together and got it out on the job boards…sans screening questions.  This was the very position that I learned how important those questions are.

Candidates came flowing in.  This was at a time when the market was flush with candidates, so I had my hands full.  No screening questions meant checking through every resume for the right amount of years of experience, the right tools, and even the right programming language (you would not believe how many .Net candidates applied).  One candidate in particular really threw a wrench in my process.  When I clicked to open the resume for a Java Developer applicant, I was greeted with “Over three years of Java development experience during my time as a barista at Starbucks.  I have excellent customer service, etc…..”.  My first thought was “Sorry buddy, wrong kind of Java.”  But then I found it humorous and shared with some of my colleagues.

All told, this probably cost me a couple of hours of productivity.  Between e-mails to my co-workers, people stopping by my desk to talk about this outlier of a candidate, etc., I lost a lot of time that could have been used toward effectively finding an actual Java developer.  If I had simply used a few pre-screen questions, I would have known to not open the resume, send the candidate a polite note saying we were moving forward with other candidates, and effectively used my time towards filling that and other jobs.

How Many is Too Many?

When it comes to screening questions, you want to make sure that you are filtering candidates, but that you are not ostracizing good candidates because the screening is so cumbersome.  Indeed shows that the sweet spot for screening is 5-10 questions.

indeed prescreen

In my opinion, using 5-10 questions helps to keep quality candidates engaged and interested and keep some candidates that aren’t qualified out.  It is just enough to get unqualified candidates to realize they do not have the skills, yet not so much that good candidates get fed up with it.  A good tip from Nathan Vance is to go out and apply to your own job postings.  If you can make it through to the end, good for you, he says.  By taking that, sometimes painful, look in from a candidate’s perspective, you are able to understand what it is like for them and how you can improve it.  Wait until you are more engaged with a candidate to put them through a battery of questions…after an initial call you may not be interested in them.  Or, in a harsh reality, they may not be interested in you and you saved your time having to review a ton of questions.

Asking Legal Questions

This should go without saying, but if you’re not sure if something is a legal way to ask a question or it toes the line…don’t ask it.  Anything that can be perceived as discriminatory shouldn’t be asked.  Employers are required treat prospective employees equally, regardless of age, race, religion, and a number of other things that fall under protected classes.  Screening questions should be around skills, technologies, and experiences related to the job.  Period.

Screening questions can help you hire smarter, more efficiently, and help increase your fill ratio.  They can also mire your hiring process by turning candidates off to your opportunity and company and opening yourself up to exposure from a lawsuit if done incorrectly.  In the end, be smart about the questions, be legal, and be concise and you should find yourself filling more roles more efficiently.

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