Inside A Recruiter’s Head: The Screening Process Broken Down From Posting To Interview


In a previous life before my job at TalentEgg, I was a recruiter.

I was primarily responsible for staffing the company sales team in Alberta. So from my desk in downtown Toronto, I worked away each week putting up job postings, calling employment centres, and sifting through lists and lists of resumes.

It was a really fast-paced job that taught me a lot about how applications from students and grads translated when a recruiter read through them. And believe me, I read a lot of them (and cringed a bit at similar mistakes I had made in previous years). But I realized something really important – students and grads couldn’t know exactly what I was looking for in their resume because they had never experienced the recruitment process from my point of view before.

Here’s the truth: every recruiter has a different style, and they’ll be screening based on different things. But here’s a list of my personal screening rules – hopefully it will help you get into the recruiter mindset!

What came first – the resume or the cover letter?

It all depends on the position that I’m hiring for. If communication skills or a magnetic personality is the core of the job, then I’d open the cover letter first. I’d generally look for the following things:

I get it. You’re applying for fifty jobs a day, and you don’t have time to write a letter from scratch each time. Believe me, I’ve been there. But if you don’t take the time to write 3 sentences about why the company you’re writing to is the best fit for you, then I will have trouble believing the following paragraph that says you’re willing to go the extra mile.

If you’re applying for a more technical position, then I go straight to the resume. After all, if the position requires a certain skill-set, then it’s more likely to be listed in that document. Here are some general things I look for:

When I say absolute requirements, there is a bit of wiggle room there. I know what the absolute requirements are (we wouldn’t want to hire an engineer without the educational background, for example). But there may be requirements listed on the posting that I have some wiggle room for. If you have the training, but only a 1 year internship under your belt when we ask for 3 years experience, and your entire application is solid, you may be worth looking into.

That being said, if your application does not follow the instructions (let’s say I requested you include your availability to start), and you don’t include that, it tells me that you did not read the posting carefully, and I’ll likely dismiss your application. I know it sounds harsh, but if you can’t follow clearly outlined instructions during the application stage, I don’t want to have to babysit you through the interview stage just in case you might be a great candidate.

Now, it doesn’t matter what type of role you’re applying for… I will read both the resume and cover letter. But the one I read first is your first impression. And any mistakes you make will likely overshadow any accomplishments you make in the second document I read.

The process of elimination

Something you have to know about me: I don’t believe in “the one”. And no, I’m not talking about dating.

A lot of recruiters are in the same boat as me. We’re not going to hold back on eliminating a resume based on a tiny error – that rarely happens (in fact, I think I can count how many times I’ve done that on one hand).

Why? Because we know that this generation is insanely talented and overqualified. There’s a ton of potential just waiting to be tapped. And if we miss one, chances are another person will fill the role just as well.

We receive a ton of applications. When we select the top fifty candidates, who have all graduated from university/college, have great cover letters, and could potentially be the person we’re looking for, we can’t interview them all (unless, of course, it’s a large company with an extensive recruiting department).

So I pull out my notebook and I start ranking. I’ll divide candidates into 3 ranks, maybe more. I’ll have to be nitpicky – here are some of the things I look for to decide my rankings:

And so on.

I try not to interview more than 5 people for a position. If those 5 absolutely don’t work out, I can move on to the next rank. Unfortunately, what that means for students and grads is that I’m looking for reasons to disqualify them. It sounds heartless. So what can you do?

Don’t give the recruiter the option.

Try the following:

The face-to-face engagement

Since I primarily recruited for Alberta, a lot of my engagements with my candidates were over video chat. This was my favourite part of being a recruiter… talking to a human being (even if it’s over a computer) is a lot more fun that reading text on a page.

Of those top picks selected for an interview, I’d be looking out for the following:

Most of these are pretty self-explanatory. I’m pretty sure any student or grad could list off consistency and preparedness off the top of their heads. But the most important elements, in my opinion, are the last two.

When I evaluate personality, I’m not looking for that persona you slap on your face right before the interview. Yes, it’s important to come across as professional, but speaking in a radio voice and lobster-clawing a handshake isn’t what I’m looking for in most scenarios. I spend a huge portion of the interview trying to get the candidate to relax – not because I’m trying to trip them up, but because I want to get a glimpse of how they’ll act in a day to day basis. That’s much more valuable information to me than how you try to impress me with showmanship.

If you’re applying for a data-entry job where interacting with clients isn’t as important, I won’t be disappointed if you don’t come in with a fast-paced “Corny Collins” attitude. However, I will be looking for signs that you are detail-oriented, and that you can provide proper analysis. Think about the qualities that make a person in the role you’re applying for great. How can you translate those qualities into an interview scenario?

Finally, your definition of success will be a huge factor. If I’m working at a small start-up company that is just getting established, and you tell me you want to have my manager job in a year, then I’ll probably tell you that this is probably not the right fit. However, maybe that response might elicit a different reaction from an employer that’s looking for people to climb the ranks quickly. Is your success defined by what other people think of you, or your own personal gains? There isn’t a standard right or wrong answer… your answer’s suitability will depend on what company you’re applying for.

Hopefully this article has helped you get an idea of what I look for as a recruiter. There’s a lot to gain from getting into a professional’s head (network, network, network!) so I highly suggest asking about the recruitment strategies of other professionals in the industry. It’s a great way to not only find out how to get a better callback rate during your job hunt, but also to assess what company will be the right fit for you!

What tips and tricks have helped you survive recruitment season? Share your stories in the comments below!