Prescreening Candidates: What you need to know

Prescreening is the process of evaluating the quality of a candidate before interviewing them. The process starts by evaluating the candidates' application, then moves on to their cover letter, and resume. If the candidate passes these prescreening tests you'll conduct phone calls, video interviews, and finally an in-person interview. The screening process can save you time, money, resources, and a lot of headaches.

Why PreScreen Applicants

In-person interviews take a lot of time. It requires a commitment from your team as well as from the applicant. If rushed, the candidate could come in for an interview when they have no chance of getting the job. In order to maintain a positive employer brand, it's important to give candidates a positive experience even if you don't end up hiring them. The purpose of pre-screening applicants is to eliminate candidates from the hiring pool in order to find the very best. Pre-screening candidates before in-person interviews will contribute to your recruiting strategy as a whole making you more efficient at hiring.A quick phone call can reveal pertinent information that might not be possible to gather from reading resumes and cover letters alone. People lie on resumes, it happens. A quick phone screening allows you to identify the difference between an expert and an imposter before having them come in for an in-person interview. A phone screen is also an opportunity to ask more questions about experience, motivations, and skills. It allows you to evaluate their professionalism as well. The screening process also allows you a chance to build rapport with the candidate and pitch them on the benefits of the position. If you've read our article on evaluating resumes you'll know that you sometimes end up with a pile of "maybe" resumes. Screening allows you to eliminate the maybes or put them into the qualified pile of resumes.

How To PreScreen Candidates

Depending on how many applicants you receive you may want to evaluate candidates in a number of ways. The process typically involves evaluating the application, resume, and cover letter. If the candidate passes this test other steps can be taken to ensure they're a good fit.

  • Check Your ATS - Verify that the candidate isn't already in your applicant tracking system. If they are, update the existing record rather than creating a new one. If they previously failed interviews this could be enough to stop here.
  • Cover Letters - Requiring a cover letter allows you to weed out the lazy, disinterested, and otherwise unqualified candidates. If they fail to attach a cover letter or if the cover letter is too generic, they're not for you.
  • Resume Screening - A quick review of the resume should allow you to eliminate a good portion of the candidates.
  • Phone Interviews - Phone interviews are the staple of the pre-screening process. Conducting a quick phone call should help you identify the most qualified candidates and eliminate the unqualified.
  • Video Interviews - You should be able to get everything from a phone interview but if you're hiring for a remote position you may want to verify that the individual is capable of setting up or joining a video conference call.
  • One-Way Video Interviews - One-way video is not the best option because it doesn't allow for dialogue between you and the candidate. It does allow you to see and hear the candidates delivery and professionalism which could be important. If you get a high volume of candidates this may be the route you want to take as it can save you a lot of time. This also eliminates candidates that either lack the motivation to create a video or lack the confidence to create one. Depending on the role you're hiring for those may be valid reasons to use one-way video interviews.
  • Reference Checking - Once you've prescreened the candidate, checking references comes next to verify their work history.
  • Skill Tests - If certain skills are vital to their success in the role, conducting a skills test comes next.
  • Temp Hire - If you're still not sure or want a period of time to evaluate their performance, hiring the candidate as a temp is another good option.

Preparing For Phone Screening

Phone or video screening calls should take about 15-30 minutes. Calculate the maximum time you could potentially spend screening and dedicate that much time to the task. Create a plan starting with the questions you'll want to ask an applicant. Involve your team when developing the screening questions. We recommend including your HR team, the hiring manager, and members of the team who will be working closely with the new hire. Make sure to keep your list of questions brief. This is just to verify that you want to bring them in for a formal interview. For each candidate create a list of notes and specific questions you weren't able to answer from looking at their resume. We recommend asking about 3-5 questions. Don't be afraid to ask tough questions. Near the end of the call give the candidate an opportunity to ask questions. If they don't ask any questions, it indicates a lack of interest in the position. To get a good idea of what to ask here are some sample questions:

  • "Give me an example of when you did xyz in your past role"
  • "Tell me a bit about how your major applies to this role"
  • "When working with abc technology what did you find most challanging?"
  • "What makes you a good fit for this position?"
  • "Can you share an experience in which you used xyz strategy to solve a problem?"
  • "What knowledge areas are your strongest? What would you like to learn more about?"
  • "Are there any other skills or knowledge that might be useful for this position that aren’t on your resume?"
  • "Why are you searching for a new position?"
  • "Describe your work style"
  • "Which leadership skills are your strongest? Which are your weakest?"
  • "What are your shortterm & longterm career goals?"
  • "How can you apply your skills and knowledge to this role?"
  • "What would you like to get out of this job?"
  • "What are the top three responsibilities in your current/last job?"
  • "Can you provide a sample of your work?"
  • "If hired, when can you start?"
  • "Do you have any questions for me?"

Schedule a time for your screening call and set clear expectations. Communicate to the candidate that the call is introductory in nature and that you'll have a few questions for them. Most importantly, be prepared. Remember that this isn't just your first impression of them. Based on how you conduct yourself on this call you can build the candidates confidence or deplete it.

How To Conduct The Screening

Start by introducing yourself and giving the candidate a chance to introduce themselves. You can learn a lot by allowing a candidate to speak freely. Introduce the company and the position. They should know all this but it's important to be clear. Discuss the selling points of your company and the job throughout the call rather than everything up front. This makes the "sales pitch" seem more organic and less forced. Also, try to avoid long monologues, the candidate should do most of the talking.Follow this step by asking your questions and taking notes. This should be relatively brief. Remember you're trying to keep the conversation to 15 minutes if possible. End the call by setting clear expectations. Provide information on the next step. Schedule a follow-up message either via email, phone, or video chat. If the call is going well and you feel like they're a great candidate, feel free to take a little extra time selling the company/position. If you've already built a great employer brand, you may only need to promote the position.If possible we recommend using a video chat service like Google Hangouts or Skype rather than audio only. This will allow you to have a more organic conversation.

What To Look For

When conducting phone screenings or reviewing resumes and cover-letters it's important to identify specific details such as past employment experience and skills relevant to the position. Hopefully, you've written a great job description which should clearly inform candidates of the requirements. Identify where the candidate lives. Unless you're willing to pay for relocation or you're hiring for a remote position, the candidates' location can make a difference. If the candidate has an extremely long commute or would have to relocate for the position you may want to come back to the candidate after evaluating other options. Set aside their resume for closer inspection and plan for another call after you have a chance to screen other qualified candidates.

Candidate Testing

If the position you're hiring for requires a highly technical skillset such as a software developer you may want to conduct a test prior to a formal interview. This type of test is best prepared by the manager that will be working directly with the new hire. Other types of tests aren't often necessary but can sometimes be important if your organization has identified the need. Personality tests can be good to use if your company has an unusual or atypical culture. Companies involved in sensitive matters may also want to conduct personality tests to identify red flags.


You may choose to complete other steps to verify a candidates work history, education, criminal background, etc. before bringing them in for an interview. However, you may want to wait until after you interview in person. This is especially true if you have a large volume of applicants to evaluate. When performing background checks for criminal history it's important to be aware of the guidelines set forth by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC provides a framework for legally evaluating criminal records when making an employment decision. Ensure that you follow these and any city/state rules regarding assessing candidates with criminal history if you choose to perform a background check.


Once you've identified applicants who meet the criteria for a qualified candidate, schedule an interview and continue with the hiring process. If you run into any issue along the way or if you'd like to expedite the process by testing out qualified candidates on a temporary contract basis, give us a shout. We'd love to have the opportunity to work with you.

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