Talent Acquisition

How to Screen Applicants

By Mike Baumgarten

Last updated: Mar 8, 2023

Your recruitment efforts have paid off — but how do you find the best candidates among your applicants? The answer: applicant screening. Screening applicants helps you identify the most qualified candidates for the role you want to fill. The applicant screening process involves multiple steps to help you determine whether or not you should move forward with a candidate.

In this article, we’ll take you through these steps. We’ll cover:

  • What is applicant screening?
  • How to prepare for screening applicants
  • How to screen applicants

Note: If you haven’t read our 10-step recruitment guide you can get a complete overview of the entire recruitment process here.

Let’s jump into it.

What is applicant screening?

Applicant screening is the process of reviewing candidate information prior to conducting an in-depth candidate interview.

Screening applicants includes, but isn’t limited to:

  • Reviewing resumes and applications,
  • Conducting phone or video interviews, and
  • Performing reference and background checks.

Evaluating candidates in this way gives you a good idea of their qualifications, experience level, and competencies. The process enables you to weed out candidates who won’t meet your minimum requirements, or who may not be a good fit for your company culture.

This makes it easier to identify applicants who’d be a good match for the role and decide which of them you want to learn more about. This saves you time and resources that would otherwise have been spent interviewing unqualified candidates.

How to prepare for screening applicants

Before you start screening applicants, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure an effective screening process.

You should:

  • Know what to look for. Prepare for screening by revisiting your job qualifications. Which qualifications are “must-haves,” and which are “nice-to-haves”? Make sure you have these fresh in mind when you start screening applicants.
  • Align internally. If you have several people on your team screening candidates, it’s a good idea to align your internal workflows to make sure you’re all working towards the same goal. If you’re using an applicant tracking system (ATS), make sure you’re all using it the same way.
  • Be mindful of unconscious bias. We all tend to favor people who have interests or backgrounds similar to our own. Be careful of favoring or disqualifying candidates based on personal bias.
  • Provide a good candidate experience. Regardless of whether a candidate is hired or not, making a good impression and providing a good experience is important. Be clear and transparent, send follow-up emails, and give candidates feedback when possible.

These tips can help you avoid common pitfalls in the screening process and ensure that you screen candidates effectively and fairly.

Feeling prepared? Good! Let’s dive into how to screen applicants.

How to screen applicants

The applicant screening process can vary depending on your org and the role you’re hiring for. However, the process typically includes the following steps:

  1. Resume and application review
  2. Phone screen
  3. Video interview
  4. Skill and personality assessments
  5. Assignment or test project
  6. Reference and background checks

1. Resume and application review

Your applicant screening process starts with reviewing resumes and applications. This is an important first step, as it gives you an immediate overview of a candidate’s qualifications, experience level, and competencies.

When reviewing resumes, look for keywords, abbreviations, and synonyms for the job requirements of the role you want to fill. For example, if you’re looking for a data analyst, look for keywords surrounding programming, coding languages, and data visualization.

You should also consider the following:

  • Resume length. How much work experience does the applicant have? Are they skilled at succinctly summarizing that experience?
  • Grammar, spelling, and vocabulary. Is the applicant willing to go the extra mile to conduct a spelling and grammar check? This is particularly important if you’re hiring for a role in communication or copywriting.
  • Design. What does the resume design tell you about the applicant? If you’re hiring for a creative role, you can often learn a lot about an applicant’s soft skills and personality traits through the design of their resume.

The resume should give you a good idea of whether or not the applicant meets your requirements — but more on this later.

If you’ve asked applicants to provide cover letters, now is the time to review them. A cover letter allows applicants to tell you more about themselves. The cover letter usually goes into more detail about the applicant’s motivations, strengths, and future goals, all of which are important elements to consider when screening candidates.

Consider using AI to screen resumes

Manually reviewing every resume takes time. If you want to save time and resources while still getting a good sense of the applicant pool, you can consider using artificial intelligence (AI) to help you scan resumes for specific keywords and job titles.

AI software for resume screening often includes tools for identifying key skills and qualifications, reading and understanding natural language, and comparing candidates side by side.

Examples of AI tools for resume screening include:

Remember, however, that AI software is not perfect. It’s a helpful tool, but it may provide false positives or negatives, and it can’t replace human review. For that reason, we always recommend manually reviewing resumes to ensure a fair screening process.

2. Phone screen

No matter how good an applicant’s resume is, you can’t learn everything about them in writing. A phone interview — typically called a “phone screen” — is a great way to bridge the gap between the online and offline sides of the recruitment process.

A phone screen usually lasts 15-30 minutes and should mainly function as an introduction. Common topics to touch on during a phone screen include:

  • Employment history,
  • Skills and qualifications,
  • Role and company description,
  • Salary expectations,
  • Candidate’s job search, and
  • Any next steps after the interview.

Whether you want to standardize your questions or you prefer conducting a more personalized phone screen is up to you. Just remember to leave time for the candidate to ask questions about your org and the role they’re interviewing for.

Need inspiration for what questions to ask? Check out our article on how to conduct a phone screen here.

Tip: Listen more than you talk. The primary goal of the interview is to learn more about the applicant through their responses. Briefly describe your org and the position you’re hiring for, but spend the majority of the interview letting the applicant talk.

3. Video interview

Putting a face to the name is an important step in the applicant screening process. A video interview usually takes more effort than a phone screen (for both you and the applicant), but it also gives you a better idea of who the applicant is and how well they might fit into your org.

There are two ways to do video interviews:

  1. The traditional interview
  2. The one-way interview

In a traditional video interview, you and the candidate meet in a video call. This allows you to put a face to the candidate and vice versa. You can ask standardized questions or more personalized questions based on the candidate’s individual profile. The traditional video interview should give you a good sense of whether the candidate’s personality is a good fit for your org — almost as good as seeing them face to face.

A one-way interview, sometimes called an asynchronous interview, is a different type of video interview where only one person — the candidate — is present and talking. A one-way interview is conducted based on predetermined interview questions, which are presented in text or pre-recorded video form. The candidate records themselves answering the questions, and the video is then uploaded and sent to your hiring team.

The one-way interview gives you an idea of what the candidate is like in person, and it will likely help you answer a lot of questions you may have about the candidate. However, if you have the time and resources to conduct a traditional video interview, we recommend that you stick to that format — not just for your own sake.

You want to provide a good candidate experience regardless of whether or not the candidate is hired. In the interview, you’re the face of your org. If you’re not present, the candidate won’t get the chance to ask questions or gauge if your org is the best fit for them. So meet them face to face — it’s better for both of you.

Note: You don’t have to wait for the interview to show candidates who you are. With The Org, candidates can put faces to the names of you and your team long before they meet them. Set up your company page and let The Org help you provide the best possible candidate experience.

4. Skill and personality assessments

Part of the applicant screening process is making sure that applicants possess the skills and traits they list in their resumes. A great way to check applicant skills is via skill and personality assessments.

The most common types of tests are:

  • Aptitude tests, which can help you assess skills and abilities relevant to the job. For example, if you’re hiring for a role that requires a sharp command of the English language, The English Quiz can help you assess the candidate’s language skills.
  • Personality tests, which can help show a candidate’s character strengths and behavioral traits. An example of such a test is The Caliper Profile, which can help you measure a candidate’s personality characteristics and individual motivations to predict on-the-job behaviors and potential.

When working with these tests, It’s a good idea to think of them as high-school exams. For example, some students are great at math. However, when it comes to solving equations in front of an examiner, they get stressed and make mistakes they normally wouldn't. For some candidates, personality and aptitude tests can have the same effect.

The results you get from these tests can help you gauge if a candidate is proficient in the right skills and possesses the right personality traits to succeed in the role. But don’t consider them the be-all and end-all of your applicant screening process — there’s more to every candidate than these tests can tell.

5. Assignment or test project

Nothing shows how a candidate takes on everyday tasks quite like giving them an everyday task to solve. Giving candidates the opportunity to complete an assignment or test project allows you to put their skills to the test — and it also gives them the opportunity to prove that they possess the skills they listed on their resume.

For example, if you’re hiring for a copywriter position, you can challenge candidates to write a blog post on a topic relevant to your org.

When you’ve received the completed assignment, ask yourself the following:

  • How well did the candidate complete the task?
  • Was the candidate able to meet the deadline for the assignment?
  • Did the candidate face any difficulties during the task? If yes, how did they react to them?
  • Is the candidate the best match for the role?

When giving assignments and test projects, keep in mind that these tasks require time and effort. Candidates are busy, too, so save the resource-heavy steps for a later stage in the applicant screening process. This could, for example, be after a second interview where you’ve gathered enough information to seriously consider the candidate for the role.

6. Reference and background checks

Before you make the final decision, it’s a good idea to conduct a reference and background check to uncover any issues that haven’t come up during the applicant screening process.

A reference check is a great way to get to know your candidate from another perspective. Candidates typically list previous coworkers or managers as references. Ask questions to learn more about what kind of coworker the candidate is and how well they handled previous job responsibilities relevant to the position you’re hiring for.

As for background checks, they can highlight any potential red flags before you consider a candidate for the role. You can order background checks for:

  • Criminal history
  • Driving records
  • Credit reports
  • Verications reports — e.g. identity or education verification

To remain in compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), remember to inform each candidate via email of the areas you’re checking. Attach a consent form for them to sign electronically that confirms their consent to proceed with the background check.

Key takeaways

Applicant screening gives you a good idea of candidates’ qualifications, experience level, and competencies. It helps you weed out candidates who won’t meet your job requirements, or who may not be a good fit for your company culture.

Before you start the screening process, revisit your job requirements and make sure that you and your team are aligned. Be mindful of unconscious bias, and make sure you provide a good candidate experience.

Here’s one key takeaway for every step in the applicant screening process:

  1. Resume and application review: When reviewing resumes, look for keywords, abbreviations, and synonyms for the job requirements of the role you want to fill. You can use AI tools to help you with this — but they can’t replace manual reviews.
  2. Phone screen: When conducting a phone screen, ask questions, but listen more than you talk — this can help you learn more about the applicant through their responses.
  3. Video interview: To provide the best candidate experience, stick with traditional video interviews over one-way interviews — this lets the candidate get to know you, too.
  4. Skill and personality assessments: Personality and aptitude tests are useful tools to gauge the candidate’s skills and personality traits, but they’re not the be all and end all of the screening process.
  5. Assignment or test project: An assignment or test project is a great way to test a candidate’s potential to succeed in the role. But keep in mind that these tasks take time — and candidates are busy, too.
  6. Reference and background checks: Reference checks can give you a new perspective on a candidate. Background checks can help you catch any red flags — just remember to inform candidates that you’re conducting them.

Now that you know how to screen applicants, we want to take a moment to revisit one of the most important steps in the applicant screening process: the phone screen. Let’s move on to the next step in our 10-step guide: phone interview questions.

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