Practical Tips for Shortlisting High-Volume Job Applicants

Employment Today – August 2011

A blend of economic conditions and the ease with which applicants can submit applications through online recruitment sites suggests that HR and recruiting line managers face the prospect of high volumes of applicants for many roles for the foreseeable future.

Creating a credible shortlist, without letting good potential slip through the net is a tedious process, so it seems timely to share the positive points of good practice experienced when screening over five thousand applicants for four hundred graduate jobs in seven capitals across the European Union in just three months:

Quickly Identify the Genuine Candidates from the Masses

When a first cut of the CV pile, typically based on essential selection criteria of minimal educational, training and professional memberships, still leave a high number of applicants in the ‘yes’ pile, then bringing a secondary CV screen based on the competencies essential to the role readily cuts through the rest.

In the graduate campaign outlined above, the first cut halved the applicant pool to two and a half thousand.  The competency based second cut left us with a thousand graduates to run through interviews and assessment centres, which may sound like a lot, but with four hundred roles to fill and an appropriately scaled team of assessors, this became manageable.

So, how could a similar approach improve the effectiveness of candidate screening for you?

Firstly, by making the completion of the competency section of the application mandatory, all of the time wasting applicants who simply attach a generic CV and cover letter to dozens of Seek or Trade-Me advertisement a day and hit ‘send’ are screened out immediately, leaving you the time to give applicants who want to work for your organisation rather than any organisation the attention they deserve.

Secondly, applicants have the opportunity to outline qualitative transferable skills essential to the role that could readily go unnoticed in just a CV and cover letter.  This also provides interviewers with either a base upon which to expand the collection of relevant information at interview, or to tease out the breadth of experience by exploring different examples of the same competency; once at application and again at interview.


To keep the process manageable and fair, successfully building this step into an application process would usually include:

  • Identifying three to four core competencies from the ‘essentials’ on the position description
  • Phrasing a question to cover those competencies, and limiting the candidate response to 150 to 200 words to ensure short-listers don’t jump out of the frying pan and into the fire in the time spent on this stage of employee screening
  • Determining a numbered assessment of the value of each response; a -1 to 3 scale that ranges from negative evidence to exceeding the competency is a typical approach
  • Deciding on a ‘cut-off score’ from the competencies that will rule candidates in or out of the process; then sticking to it!
  • Ensuring the advertisement makes it explicit that completing the competency assessment is mandatory and incomplete applications will not progress through the selection process
  • Providing a quick guide for applicants to follow on how best to describe competencies and pitfalls to avoid, such as generalisations rather than specific experiences
  • Adding a simple form to the advertisement for candidates to complete, including the word limit to keep them concise

Taking this approach outside of the high volume graduate recruitment setting and into the wider recruitment marketplace has brought significant benefits where the vacant role has a title that tends to invite applications from a very broad base of applicants.  Office and Administration Managers, for example, attract applications from people with very different depths of experience, and this step quickly sifts out those who won’t cut it, allowing recruiters to concentrate on the most suitable candidates.   It’s like having the 80/20 rule the right way around.

If you are looking to spend more time on quality candidates rather than quantity, give us a call on 06 833 6465