Dealing with the response

If you have advertised your vacancy effectively, then you should receive a suitable number of applications on or before the closing date you set. Your role now is to decide which applicants to invite for interview, and which to reject.

How many to shortlist?

The response you get to a recruitment advertisement will vary dramatically according to these, and many more factors:

  • Nature of role
  • Seniority of role
  • Perceived popularity of job
  • The organisation
  • The salary and benefits offered
  • Time of year

Put in simple terms, you are likely to receive a bigger response if you are recruiting for a sales assistant than if you are looking for a nuclear physicist. However, whatever the size of response that you get, you will still need to identify which applications are worth considering and which are not. So your first job is to reduce the number of applications that you have received to a manageable size for interview.

The optimum number of candidates to interview depends on a number of factors:

  • The number of vacancies you are trying to fill
  • The nature and size of the organisation you work for
  • The number of colleagues involved in the interview process
  • The urgency of the vacancy

For a small organisation looking to appoint a new salesperson, shortlisting 6-8 candidates for interview is probably about right. For a large organisation recruiting 25 new call centre staff, interviewing 100 candidates might not be enough. How many is right for you? If you plan to conduct the interviews alone, you really must aim to reduce the list to a maximum of 10 candidates.

You may already have a feel for the number of candidates that you plan to interview. So your job now is to compile a suitable and fair shortlist.

How to shortlist?

Certain experienced shortlisters will read every application in full before beginning to shortlist.  There is a good argument for this, and we will look at several methods that organisations adopt to make the shortlisting process simple and effective. However, if you have only received a few applications, this quick three step shortlisting method may work for you:

Step 1: Reject obviously unsuitable candidates

This can be controversial. Usually, you will receive a few applications that are clearly unsuitable. If you have requested a handwritten application, and someone has applied in type, then there is a case for rejecting them without further consideration.  After all, it may be a vacancy for which attention to detail is important, and they have clearly failed to follow a simple instruction.  You may also have received one or two ‘gimmicky’ applications. These should also be rejected. We discuss how to identify these a little later.

Step 2: Review the person specification

Compare each application with the person specification that you created at the start of the recruitment process.  You can legitimately reject those candidates who do not meet all of the essential requirements specified in the person specification.

Step 3: Inclusion

The first two steps are a little negative. You are rejecting candidates who are not suitable for the position. You may find that the pile of applications remaining is sufficiently small to interview them all. If you still have a sizeable number of applications, you need to take step 3. This involves establishing a point scoring system for each part of the application.  A simple system might look something like this:

Relevant work experience (Max 25 points)
Desirable skills and qualifications (Max 25 points)
Specific achievements (Max 10 points)
Presentation of application (Max 10 points)
(Total Max 70 points)

The idea is to give every applicant a score against each of these criteria.  If several people are involved in the shortlisting process, each one provides a separate and confidential score. Add up the total points scored for each candidate. If you plan to interview ten candidates, you then shortlist those with the ten highest scores.

Apart from being a methodical and systematic method of shortlisting, it may also provide supporting evidence in the unlikely event you are challenged on grounds of racial, gender or age discrimination.

Shortlisting matrix

In the three step approach above, we considered a simple point scoring method for shortlisting a number of candidates for interview.  A more sophisticated method involves looking in more detail at each of the requirements listed in the person specification.  List the requirements of the role, in order of importance, down the left column of a sheet of A4.

1. Essential experience/qualifications/skills first
2. Desirable experience/qualifications/skills second

Using a copy of this page for each applicant, consider whether or not he or she meets each requirement as follows:

Yes (meets requirement)
No (does not meet requirement)
Partial (partially meets requirement)
Unknown (not possible to determine from application whether meets requirement or not)

When you have reviewed all the applications, you can count the number of positive matches, and shortlist in this way.  Don’t forget that positive matches against the essential requirements of the role are more important than those against the desirable requirements.

Screening out unsuitable candidates

Whether you have received a large response to your recruitment drive or not, filtering out the unsuitable candidates is usually easier than identifying the best ones to interview.

Assuming you have gone to the trouble of compiling a person specification, you already know the essential and desirable attributes, skills and qualifications that you are looking for. So the first step when screening out unsuitable candidates is to reject any candidate that does not meet every essential requirement.

For example:

If you are looking for a Fork Lift Truck Operator, you may well receive an application from someone who does not have the necessary licence, even though they are very keen and willing to learn. The appropriate licence was an essential requirement of the role, and so this candidate should be filtered out without further consideration.


For some reason, you will always receive one or two applications from candidates determined to stand out from the rest at any cost.  Instead of achieving this by good presentation, or relevant experience, they do it with ‘gimmicks’.  Believe it or not, here are a few of the methods I have seen used personally:

  • Applications presented on paper with stars and glitter
  • Photographs of the applicants in a state of partial undress
  • Application forms completed in verse
  • Supporting letters of endorsement from the parents of applicants
  • Begging requests for interviews
  • Applications supported by primary school reports from when the candidates were children

In all but a very few situations, gimmicky applications should be rejected. These candidates are not taking the role, or your organisation, seriously. Humour has its place, but to take a chance with a job application demonstrates a clear lack of judgement on the part of the applicant.

Dealing with a large or small response

If your recruitment drive has been effective so far, you should find that you receive applications only from suitably qualified candidates. Shortlisting can be much harder when the recruitment drive has been less effective, resulting in either too many or too few applications.

If you have received too few applications, then you need to ask the following questions:

  • Did you advertise the vacancy effectively and in the right media?
  • Are the required skills for the role particularly hard to come by?
  • Are you offering adequate remuneration?

If the problem relates to where or how you advertised the vacancy, you may simply have to compose an alternatively worded advertisement and re-advertise the position. If you think that the problem lies in the scarcity of candidates with the skills you require, you should consider alternative recruitment sources such as headhunters or search consultants. Perhaps you have just been too demanding with the minimum level of skills and qualifications you are looking for? If so, you may need to re-advertise.

Receiving too many applications can be just as hard to deal with as too few. When faced with hundreds of applications to consider, how can you be sure that you are giving every applicant equal consideration? In many organisations, it just is not possible. But you have to ensure that your selection process is both fair and not discriminatory. So you must apply the same discipline and rigour for a hundred applications as you would for six.

The three-step quick shortlisting method described earlier will help you to filter out the obviously unsuitable candidates, giving you more time to consider the rest. Do not be tempted to reduce your list further by selecting on the basis of the best academic results. There are two reasons for this:

1. Academic performance may not be relevant to the applicant’s ability to do the job.
2. Appointing overqualified people to vacancies can lead to poor performance, boredom, and high staff turnover.

So stick to the original selection criteria, referring to the person specification, and concentrate on each applicant’s match against the essential and desirable skills and qualifications.

You may want to enlist the help of colleagues. They could filter out those applications where the candidate falls short of the essential requirements of the role. This first trawl should then enable you to spend more time on the better suited candidates.

Acknowledging applications

In my experience, many organisations do not take the trouble to acknowledge applications for vacancies. They write to invite shortlisted candidates for interview, and when the successful candidate has been appointed they write to all the other applicants to reject them.

Just put yourself in the position of the applicant for a minute. For this illustration, we will call our candidate Jane. She probably spent at least half a day completing her application form, presenting it neatly and posting it to you. She sent it to you one Monday morning, shortly before the closing date that was specified in the advertisement. Meanwhile John, the manager who was recruiting:

  • Waited until the closing date (1 week)
  • Considered all the applications he received (1 week)
  • Wrote to shortlisted candidates inviting them to interview (1 week)
  • Interviewed the candidates (1 week)
  • Conducted second interviews (1 week)
  • Appointed a candidate and followed up references (3 days)
  • Wrote to reject unsuccessful candidates (1 week)

As one of the unsuccessful candidates, Jane had to wait over six weeks before she heard from John about her application. What’s more, this was just one of four jobs that Jane had applied for!

So, make sure that you follow a golden rule – Acknowledge each application, as soon after it is received as possible:

1. Date stamp each application as it arrives.
2. Set up a standard letter or acknowledgement.
3. At the end of each week, at the latest, despatch a letter of acknowledgement to every applicant.

Assessing a CV

We have already considered the benefits of using application forms for potential candidates to complete when applying for a vacancy in your organisation. Nevertheless, many organisations still request that, initially, applicants submit their curriculum vitae (CV), along with a covering letter. So what should you look for when you are reading through your applications? What can you ‘read between the lines’? How will you select for interview from a pile of several hundred CVs?

The CV and covering letter provide you with a snapshot of an applicant. They must grab your attention and compete with all the other applications. They must make you want to interview them to find out more. A CV should cover, simply and effectively, the following information:

  • A candidate’s qualifications, and how they are relevant to the position you are recruiting for
  • A candidate’s experience, along with its relevance to your vacancy
  • A candidate’s skills, as well as how they would be useful to your organisation
  • A candidate’s achievements to date, both personal and in the workplace

Be realistic about what to expect. You want a CV to grab your attention, but only for the right reasons. Go back to the job description and person specification, and assess how each CV and covering letter address the needs of both the role, and the person required to perform it.

Reading between the lines

Gaps in a candidate’s employment history may be for entirely legitimate reasons. However, you should look out for attempts to cover up employment history gaps in a candidate’s CV. The most obvious way that a candidate might attempt this is by being vague about specific dates of employment. For example:

Watsons Piping Ltd Field sales operative 2001– 2005
BGH Engineering Ltd Field sales operative 2005– 2007
Hallimores Ltd Sales team leader 2008– 2013

At a first reading, you might reasonably assume that this applicant has had a solid employment history in sales for almost ten years. Not necessarily. Suppose the applicant left Watsons in January 2005, and did not join BGH until December? They could have been out of work for almost a full year. You shouldn’t dismiss this candidate automatically, particularly if their qualifications and experience match your requirements, but you should certainly make a note to find out more.

Other signs to look out for

A career gap is just one of the signs you are looking for when assessing a CV. How stable does the applicant’s career path appear to be? Would you say that there has been a logical progression between jobs, or has the applicant swapped careers on more than one occasion?

If use of English is important to the vacancy you are trying to fill, take a look at how the CV is written. These days, more than one spelling mistake would indicate clumsiness, or lack of care. After all, every word processor these days comes with a spell checker. How appropriate is the language used in the CV? Has the applicant listed relevant experience and qualifications only? A long-winded, poorly phrased CV might indicate that the applicant either does not have the relevant experience, or that he finds it hard to get to the point. What about presentation? Again, even with a low specification word processor, someone with little design flair can easily create a simple, clearly laid out document. If the CV in front of you is poorly presented, you might conclude that the applicant is prone to rushing things, or of not demonstrating care. Be patient when working through a pile of applications. Any one of these signs, in isolation, might not be critical. But be on your guard nonetheless. A CV that is poorly laid out, with spelling mistakes and career gaps, is probably best rejected.

As you read through each CV, jot down questions that you will want to ask of the applicant if they are selected for interview. You could also record one or two key facts so that you can quickly remind yourself about each applicant. Above all, remember that a CV is only a two dimensional representation of a candidate. It is extremely hard to get an accurate picture of a candidate from a CV and covering letter alone.

Covering letter

A covering letter gives you the opportunity to see whether the applicant is able to follow a simple set of instructions. Look at the covering letter and ask yourself the following questions:

1. Has the applicant spelt correctly your name, the name of your organisation, and the full address where the application was sent?
2. Did the applicant quote correctly the right reference (where applicable)?
3. Does the covering letter refer specifically to the job they are applying for, or does it read like a mass produced letter that could be used to apply for any vacancy in any organisation?
4. If you requested a handwritten letter, did the applicant supply one, or did they type it? It may sound harsh, but this is a classic example of where an applicant has failed to follow a simple instruction.
5. Does the covering letter make you want to meet the applicant? Does any of the applicant’s personality come across in the letter?
6. Does the covering letter enhance their CV, or does it merely repeat or paraphrase sections from it?

The answers to these questions should indicate to you whether to reject the application, or whether to retain it for further consideration. At this stage, you are not necessarily trying to produce a final shortlist, but you are trying to filter out unsuitable applications as early in the recruitment process as possible.

Inviting to interview

The way that you invite candidates to interview partly depends on the interview method that you choose. You may, for example, conduct first interviews on the telephone. If you decide to conduct face to face interviews, it is customary to write to shortlisted candidates in the first instance. The wording of the letter should be simple and reasonably brief.

In addition to a map, and any publicity material you have, you should make sure that your shortlisted candidates get sight of a job description and person specification, if they have not seen them already.

You may find that one or two of your shortlisted candidates turn down the offer of an interview. They may have been offered alternative employment since their application, or they may simply have changed their minds about working for your organisation. If this happens, move on to your reserve list and invite an alternative candidate for interview.

Rejecting unsuitable candidates

The delicate process of rejecting candidates is considered in the selecting an application section. In brief, it is essential that you write to candidates that you do not plan to employ as soon as you are able.

Dealing with the response: Checklist

  • How many candidates do you propose to shortlist for interview?
  • Can you remember the three-step process to shortlisting?
  • Would a shortlisting matrix help you to compile a suitable shortlist?
  • Can you screen out unsuitable candidates quickly and effectively?
  • Would you spot a ‘gimmicky’ application?
  • Are you equipped to handle a larger than expected response?
  • Would you know what to do if you received too few applications?
  • Have you remembered to acknowledge all applications, as soon as you receive them?
  • Could you assess a candidate’s CV effectively?
  • Would you know how to ‘read between the lines’ in an application?
  • Do you know how and when to invite shortlisted candidates for interview?
  • Are you ready to reject unsuitable candidates?