BY ERIN EWART
In my career as a recruiter I’ve done hundreds of screening interviews. I think these first-round interviews are one of the most important parts of the job search process, and also one of the most challenging.
Why are first interviews so important? In a typical recruitment process, organizations select about 5-10 candidates to screen and 3-5 for in-depth interviews. With the average job receiving 100+ applications (and some many more than that), that means you have at best a 5-10% chance of being selected for an initial interview, so it’s important to make the most of the opportunity. These odds will likely increase if you’ve played your cards right by networking with people at the organization and getting referred internally, but even with internal advocates you still won’t make it any farther in the process without acing the screening interview.
Why are they so challenging? First interviews are like a first date: exciting but potentially awkward. You don’t know each other yet, so you’re trying to make a good impression while also learning enough about the other person (or organization in this case), to see if they’re a good fit for you. These interviews are often fairly short, so you have to get your key points across in a limited time and you may not have a chance to ask many questions. They are typically done over the phone (or increasingly now, over video calls), making it harder to read body language and develop rapport.
Because these interviews are typically conducted by a recruiter who doesn’t work directly on the team you’d be joining, it’s important to put yourself in their shoes and consider what they need to know about you in order to recommend that you advance in the process.
Here are a few insights to share from my experience as a recruiter to help ace your initial screening interview:
1. We do A LOT of these interviews: Recruiters often batch phone interviews, so by the time they are talking with you, it may be their fourth or fifth conversation in a row. Try to amp up your enthusiasm and energy, which will help them remember you and come away with a positive impression, even if you’re one of many conversations they have that day. And remember: recruiters are people too, and they get tired and have bad days just like everyone else – which has nothing to do with you! Just focus on doing your best to convey your interest and qualifications for the role.
2. We really want to like you: When a recruiter gets on the phone with you, they want you to be the rock star candidate they’ve been looking for. Seriously – they want you to succeed! That makes their job so much easier. But you have to give them solid evidence in this short conversation that proves you’re a great fit for the role and gives them confidence to move you forward. Remember: they have to sell you internally to the hiring manager and other key people on the team. Help them be your advocate by anticipating what they need to know and proactively sharing that information. The questions you ask them are another way they will evaluate your level of interest in the role, so make sure to prepare several of those as well.
3. There are three main questions we’re trying to answer: In an initial interview, a recruiter wants to know (1) do you have the experience and skills to succeed in the job, (2) are you a good fit with the organization’s culture and mission, and (3) are there any logistical issues such as relocation or salary requirements that would be difficult to overcome? These conversations are called “screens” for a reason: a recruiter usually won’t delve too far into your technical skills, as that’s more appropriate for the hiring manager and team to evaluate. Be prepared to talk about why you are excited about and a good fit for both the role and the organization, and to provide examples of how you’ve demonstrated the top skills in the job description. And have a salary range in mind in case that question comes up. It’s completely acceptable to ask first what their budget is for the role, but you don’t want to be caught off guard by this question.
4. We need the details: one of the most frustrating aspects of interviewing is when candidates don’t go into detail about past experiences. There isn’t a lot of time in a screening interview, and when a recruiter has to spend it digging for specifics and asking a lot of follow up questions (or listening to a long, rambling example), it limits the other questions they can ask. When they ask about a time you’ve done something in the past, it’s because they anticipate you’ll have to solve that kind of problem in this job and they want to know how you’ve done it before. They need specifics: how did you approach the problem? What was your thought process? What steps did you take and what challenges did you encounter? What ultimately happened, and what did you learn? Many candidates gloss over these details, but they are the most important parts of the story! Use the STAR framework to organize your examples and practice in advance with a friend or using these online resources so you’ll feel confident delivering concise, detailed examples of your past accomplishments.
5. We appreciate your follow up: you may hear different opinions on this one, but for positions in the social sector, sending a thoughtful follow up note within 24 hours matters. Remember, the recruiter needs to decide whether to recommend you, and getting a thoughtful follow up note puts one more check in their “yes” column. It takes just a few minutes and gives you the chance to reiterate your enthusiasm, reinforce why you’re a good fit for the role, and address anything you may have forgotten to bring up in the conversation. It can definitely be a differentiator, especially if they were on the fence after your conversation.
Remember: the purpose of a screening interview is to vet you as a candidate so that you can move forward to have more in-depth conversations about the role. By anticipating what a recruiter needs to know and preparing for these conversations, you will increase your odds of success and keep your momentum going. Good luck!