How Employers Decide Whether to Interview You

By Alison Green, Contributor Sept. 18, 2017, at 10:10 a.m.

Ever wonder what hiring managers are thinking as they read over your resume, and how they choose whom to interview and whom to reject?

This early screening is generally pretty straightforward on the employer side of the process. Here’s a look at what most hiring managers are thinking about as they read through your resume and cover letter, and how they decide whom to invite to interview.

How closely do you match the must-have and nice-to-have qualifications for the job? Every job has certain “must-have” qualifications – core requirements for skills or experience that you must have. Most also have “nice-to-have” qualifications that the hiring manager would like to find, but which are more flexible than the must-haves. The first thing most hiring managers will look for when reviewing your resume is how well you match up with each of those lists. If you’re missing a must-have, you’re probably not moving forward in the process. If you’re missing some of the nice-to-haves, you still might move forward – but that will depend on the rest of the candidate pool.

What’s your work history like? If your resume is full of short stays at past employers – a year here, 18 months there, eight months over there – most hiring managers will be concerned that you won’t stay long with them either. One short stay on its own isn’t concerning, nor are quick departures because of layoffs or a move to another city. But if your work history is spotty overall, employers are likely to worry that you’re a flight risk.

On the opposite end of this spectrum, if you’ve stayed at your current company for 20 years, in some fields employers may worry about whether you’ll be able to adapt to a new culture and way of doing things. Most won’t reject you outright for it, but it’s something they’ll usually note as a potential concern and balance it against other factors.

Did you follow directions? You’d think this would be an easy box to check off, but a surprising number of candidates don’t follow application instructions. If you didn’t include a cover letter when one was requested, mailed in your application when you were directed to submit it electronically or otherwise disregarded clear instructions, you’ll lose major points with most employers.

Does your resume make it easy to find relevant information quickly? Hiring managers are busy and when they’re screening resumes, they generally just skim rather than read every word. A concise, well-organized resume of one to two pages, focusing on a clear chronological job history presented in easy-to-skim bullet points will grab more attention than a lengthier document with dense paragraphs of text, or one where it’s hard to figure out what the candidate did where and when.

What can they learn about you from your cover letter? As a candidate, you’re more than just your work history – you have a personality, motivations and habits, as well. Otherwise, we’d hire people based on resumes alone and not bother to interview them. Your cover letter is where you can start to flesh out who you are, beyond the work history on your resume. When done effectively, your cover letter sends important signals about how you communicate, why you’re interested in the job and ways that you might excel at the job that aren’t immediately evident from your resume. It can also provide important context, such as why you’re applying for a job you seem overqualified for or the fact that you’ll be moving to the employer’s city next month. Speaking of which …

Are you local? Some employers are happy to consider candidates from any location. Others prefer local candidates, and still others won’t even consider long-distance candidates. Most often it comes down to how strong the local candidate pool is; for a hard-to-fill job, employers are often more open to talking with candidates from out of town. For a less-skilled, easier-to-fill job, they may choose not to deal with the potential inconveniences of distant candidates, such as needing more notice to schedule interviews and paying interview travel costs (and sometimes relocation costs).

[See: 14 Best Jobs for Work-Life Balance.]

Were you recommended by someone they trust? If a mutual contact put in a good word for you, most hiring managers will give your application extra attention. A recommendation from a trusted source can carry enough weight to get you an interview (or at least a second look) when your application on its own might not have stood out from the competition otherwise. The closer the relationship – and the more the hiring manager trusts the contact’s judgment and understanding of what she’s seeking in candidates – the likelier this is to pay off for you.

What’s the rest of the candidate pool like? This is often a much bigger factor than candidates realize. You could be an excellent candidate for the job, even a line-for-line match with the job description, but ultimately your chances of getting interviewed depend on the quality of the other candidates. As the strength of the overall candidate pool increases, the bar for getting interviewed gets higher and higher. That’s one of the reasons you can feel like you’d be perfect for a job and still not get invited to interview – there may be other perfect candidates in the pool, too.

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