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Recruiting & Hiring Employee Experience

10 Unique Pre-Screening Questions to Ask Candidates

August 24, 2023
14 min read

Performance Management, Supercharged


This article on unique candidate screening questions was originally published in June 2019. It has since been updated as of August 2023. 

We know you’ve seen the plethora of blogs, whitepapers, articles, and ebooks full of advice about the best interview questions to ask when screening candidates. There are “how-to guides,” “dos and don’ts,” and “best practice” resources saturating the internet. Those resources can make the interview process seem simple, but in reality, even seasoned recruiters and HR pros sometimes struggle to screen candidates. 

While there’s no guaranteed formula to make interviewing totally effortless, you can always try new strategies and ask different pre-screening interview questions to fine-tune the process. Refining your recruiting candidate's interview screening questions — the initial questions used to quickly narrow down applicants —  will help recruiters and hiring teams identify standout candidates much earlier in the interview process.

The right candidate screening questions help recruiters identify strong applicants prior to a face-to-face interview with the hiring manager or team. This ensures that your hiring managers spend time and effort interviewing only the most qualified candidates. Hiring teams can also use these pre-screening interview questions to dig a little deeper and learn more about their candidates’ backgrounds, strengths, and accomplishments in initial interviews.

Help your #recruiting team find top talent fast with these 10 #candidatescreening questions from @ClearCompany:

What is a Pre-Screening Interview?

Pre-screening interviews are conversations between recruiters and potential candidates that take place prior to official interviews. Recruiters ask general questions about the candidate’s experience, skills, qualifications, and goals, as well as talk to them about the role responsibilities and their salary expectations, to determine if they could be a good fit for the role. They might also conduct simple assignments or behavioral or skills assessments. 

Pre-screening interviews save hiring teams time by ensuring that the candidates who proceed to the interview stage are great matches for the role. They’re also good for candidates, who might find that the job isn’t for them after learning more from your recruiters. 

How to Conduct a Pre-Screening Interview: Tips for Recruiters and Hiring Teams

Pre-screening interviews are informal, usually conducted on the phone and sometimes via video chat or online surveys. Recruiters aren’t just assessing for experience and skills during screenings; they’re evaluating candidates’ personalities and attitudes, too. For fair, effective candidate screenings, ask all candidates for a role the same set of questions, and keep it to just a handful of the most important.

Remember, the goal isn’t to dig deep into their experience and skills but to see how candidates compare to their resumes — and the rest of your applicant pool — and decide if they should move forward in the hiring process. 

General Screening Questions to Ask Potential Candidates

Try these 10 pre-screening questions to quickly determine if candidates are a good fit: 

  1. What drew you to this role?
  2. Why are you looking for a new position?
  3. What do you know about our company? 
  4. Describe your professional strengths in three words. 
  5. Do you prefer working independently or with a team?
  6. Where do you see yourself in five years?
  7. Do you have experience using [software tool necessary for the role]?
  8. What are your salary expectations?
  9. What are your preferred work hours or hours of availability? (if applicable)
  10. When would you be available to start this role?

10 In-Depth Examples of Screening Questions (and Why They Work)

Try incorporating these ten effective screening questions into the early interview process (such as over a phone interview). Candidates’ answers can help you identify the best person for the job.

1. What do you like most about your current position?

Asking this positive interview question right off the bat is a great way to get potential employees to open up and talk about their strengths and interests. Based on their answer, you’ll learn some useful information upfront, like where the candidate’s strengths lie, responsibilities that they’ll be excited to take on, and what they value in company culture.

You can also spot some red flags by asking this question. Answers that exclusively focus on office perks or fail to mention any job duties could indicate difficulty with self-motivation or time management. Whether it brings up warning signs or shows a positive attitude, asking candidates about their “favorites” is a good indicator of their outlook on work.

Take it to the next level: “How did your last job fail to meet your expectations?”

As an interviewer and potential manager, it’s important to understand what motivates candidates and what might make them lose interest in their work. Look out for statements that seem defensive or blame-heavy. A candidate who answers with some self-awareness is likely a strong hire.

2. Why are you a good fit for this position?

This interview screening question tells you more about why they applied for the position and is a good indicator of if they’re truly a good fit or if they’re just looking to get out of their current position fast. It will also tell you a few basic things about the candidate:

  • Do they have the skills necessary to do the job?
  • Did they prepare for the interview by reviewing the job description and matching their skills with the job duties?
  • Does their interest in the position have to do with the position’s responsibilities, the company, or some other factor?

Let’s make it more specific: “Why do you think you’re a good fit for this company?”

Asking this question will tell you if the candidate researched your company beforehand. Candidates who have researched the company ahead of time will be prepared with specific answers rather than general statements, showing a little more initiative than the average applicant. It will also tell you what the candidate knows about your company outside of its online presence — maybe their colleague used to work at your company and enjoyed it, or maybe they admire your company’s marketing campaigns.

These interview screening questions can give you a sense of whether applicants have appropriate expectations for the position and tell you about their level of initiative. If you’re hiring for a brand-new role and the candidate expresses excitement about taking ownership of the position, that’s a sign you’re on the same page. Candidates might also have a passion for your company values or a desire to be part of an organization with a strong company culture. These interview screening questions give you more insight into candidate expectations and can even offer an outside perspective of company culture.

Another tip: Compare these responses to their answer to the first question on this list. The goal is to spot similarities between their skills and expectations and the open position.

3. Which accomplishments are you most proud of?

Here is where you can find out what your potential candidate values most in their career and deepen your understanding of what they bring to the table. It also gives you a sense of the level of responsibility they’ve had previously. Listen for specific examples of projects they’ve worked on, and pay attention to why they were most proud of that particular accomplishment. Maybe the project had stellar results, or they gained a new skill as a result of their involvement. Whatever their answer, you can learn a little more about what motivates the candidate and if their skills align with what your organization needs.

An even better question: “The team you’re working on will be completing this project by the end of the year. How do you see yourself becoming involved?”

This question gives potential employees the chance to connect their talent and experience to actual responsibilities within your organization. It also tells you more about their real skills — are they leaning heavily on past achievements and a polished resume, or can they quickly apply their skills to a challenge? A strong candidate will provide thoughtful answers and give examples of similar work they’ve completed in the past.

4. What is your ideal work environment?

When screening candidates, asking about their ideal work environment can tell you quite a bit about more than just whether they prefer working in a busy, collaborative office or remotely from home. Their answer also indicates their preference for individual vs. group work; frequent check-ins vs. occasional meetings; and big-picture vs. detail-oriented work.

This interview screening question also gives potential employees an opportunity to talk about company culture and values that are important to them. It helps recruiters gauge not only how the candidate would fit in with the overall company culture but also how they can add to it. Do you feel they share your company’s values and bring a fresh perspective you’re missing?  That candidate could be the perfect fit. On the other hand, if the candidate’s work environment and culture expectations don’t align with your company and its values, it’s unlikely they’ll be a good fit.

Take it one step further: “Everyone has unique strengths. On your would-be team, we have an abundance of [insert team dynamic or strength here]. What could your skills add to that environment?”

With an abundance of assessments and personality tests, most candidates will at least have some concept of their strengths. Whether it’s DiSC or an app-based assessment, candidates who are interested in professional development will have an idea of their work style. Their answer will speak to interpersonal skills and self-awareness and tell recruiters about how the candidate sees themselves. Do their strengths and work styles comfortably balance out the current team, or would they clash and have difficulty settling into the role?

5. How would your past experience help you excel in this position?

Asking this question when screening candidates tells you about their employment history in more detail than you get from a resume, and you’ll likely hear the candidate talk about the job they enjoyed the most. An ideal candidate can draw connections between what they’ve learned from their previous employment and how they can apply those lessons in a new position. If they reference specifics from the job posting, that shows the interviewer they are prepared for the interview and have a genuine interest in the position.

An even better alternative: “What’s the most important lesson you learned from your previous positions?”

Every candidate will have lessons learned in their back pocket. Whether from failure or success, they should have some career-defining experiences from which to draw. If the experiences they mention are positive, they can provide insight into their values and what drives them. If the experiences presented are negative, it is an indication of their level of resiliency. Listen for clues that the candidate used those lessons to shape their decision-making going forward.

6. Who would you consider a role model, and why?

Learning about what types of people inspire your candidates gives leaders a unique insight into the kinds of things they value. Whether it’s a thought leader in their profession, author, artist, mentor, or family member, those who inspire us have traits we strive to emulate. Listen for the characteristics the candidate mentions to get an idea of what their own expectations might be for themselves.

Turn it up a notch: “Tell me about a lesson you learned from a colleague you didn’t enjoy working with.”

Like it or not, most of us will have unpleasant experiences with a colleague at some point in our careers. A candidate with a willingness to learn from those experiences is one who is professional, resilient, and positive, valuable qualities in a leader. Their characterization of the colleague can also be telling. A red flag to look out for is a candidate who makes personal attacks or who takes little responsibility and blames others.

7. What do you do best?

This candidate interview screening question is a more realistic version of the ever-popular question, “What’s your superpower?” When you ask candidates what they do best, it gives them license to talk about the skills of which they’re most proud, whether personal or professional. You might find they bring up a quality that is valuable in the workplace, and you can ask them to talk more about that trait and how it benefits their work. Screening candidates with this question will also help you quickly determine if the potential employee will be able to use their favorite skills often enough to stay engaged in their work. If the job doesn’t entail exercising their best skills on a daily basis, they might be a better fit for another position.

The data supports a strengths-based approach to management. When leaders allow their employees to focus on refining their strengths, employees show signs of higher productivity and engagement. But the benefits don’t stop there. Strengths-based management makes people feel motivated and satisfied with their work, increasing employee retention.

Go deeper: “What, if anything, do you struggle with at work?”

Just like working alongside a difficult coworker, powering through tasks that are a necessary evil of your profession makes for a more well-rounded and seasoned professional. If candidates are honest about what bothers them about sales (expense reports) or what they dislike about project management (writing briefs), you’ll be more aware of areas they may need extra assistance or supervision and determine if that would prevent them from succeeding in the position. Overall, a better understanding of strengths and weaknesses and how they could be an asset or an obstacle allows you to make an informed decision when screening candidates.

8. What keeps you motivated to come to work every day?

The candidate’s answer to this interview question can help you gain some personal insight into what keeps them excited and drives them to set and meet their goals. Managers who make the effort to get to know their employees and what they’re passionate about can better keep them engaged and help them succeed by achieving those career development goals so they can become top performers at work.

Use these 10 #candidatescreening questions from @ClearCompany to help your HR and #recruiting teams spot strong applicants and spend more time interviewing top talent. Read more on our blog:

Mark Murphy, The New York Times bestselling author and founder of the leadership training and employee engagement survey firm, Leadership IQ, reports five major motivators that drive people’s actions at work: 

  • Achievement
  • Power
  • Affiliation
  • Security
  • Adventure

If you are hiring for a brand-new position and you aren’t sure how the new role will fit within the team, a candidate motivated by security wouldn’t be a great fit. A candidate motivated by adventure would likely be much more successful in a brand-new role. Some candidates are driven by the desire to move into a leadership role, to help develop others in the same profession, or to become an expert in their field. The ability to self-motivate and to find something that pushes them forward is an important quality to have in your team members. When screening candidates, those who are excited about their answer to this question are likely to have found a reliable source of self-motivation that keeps them excited and engaged at work.

Make it even better: “How do you communicate best, and how do you prefer to receive feedback?”

There are few things more valuable than hearing first-hand how a potential employee prefers to communicate and receive feedback, especially if communication and feedback can help motivate them. There are many different communication styles, and talking about them up-front ensures that managers can effectively provide feedback, offer learning opportunities, and give motivating praise. Recruiters and hiring teams can pose this question more specifically to prompt candidates’ answers: for example, ask about a time they got employee feedback they particularly appreciated based on the way it was delivered, or ask about a job training that stuck due to a particular training style they found effective.

9. What are your professional goals?

When screening candidates, their professional goals tell you a lot about how much — or how little — they tend to think about the future. It’s also a broader look at what they hope to accomplish long-term compared to the standard question hiring managers tend to use, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” It can also encourage candidates to share even bigger goals, like their dream job or even retirement plans, that help you learn a little bit more about what makes them tick.

Did you know?

92% of employees surveyed said they were more engaged at work when their employer offered learning opportunities.

This screening interview question can help recruiters and hiring managers identify challenges the potential employee might face in the role. It can also help them spot opportunities — for example, a candidate whose goal is to earn a skills certification might be held back by time or budget constraints. That presents an opportunity for your company to allow the candidate to use their time at work to earn the certification and pay the required fees. With that investment, your organization could add a skilled, certified employee to its workforce and further the employee’s professional development goals. Investing in employees’ growth also supports employee engagement: 92% of employees surveyed said learning opportunities made them feel more engaged.

Dig a little deeper: “Do you feel there is anything holding you back from achieving your professional goals?”

10. Tell me about a time when you overcame a challenge at work.

Asking candidates about challenges they've faced tells you more about their self-awareness, resilience, and problem-solving skills. Behavioral candidate screening interview questions like these are tougher to answer but give hiring teams a much deeper read on how a person works beyond the cut-and-dried information provided on their resume. It’s important that candidates can identify challenges so they can better anticipate them in the future. Having overcome a challenge speaks to their ability to deal with hard situations and figure out how to get through them.

Let’s get specific: “Tell me about a time you had a colleague’s back.”

This question can tell you a lot about how candidates view their coworkers and themselves in relation to the team. Are they the type to take responsibility for a mistake? To recognize a colleague’s hard work on a project? Or do they see their coworkers as competition or opposition? A candidate’s answer can tell you a lot about what they’ll contribute to the team dynamic and their collaboration style.

These candidate interview screening questions are effective because they are more open-ended — whatever candidates choose to talk about can give you a lot of insight into how they work with others, how they see themselves, and their expectations at work. A more refined hiring process ensures that teams interview and recruit more A-players by enabling them to identify top applicants, expedite interviews, and make offers before the competition. Questions that elicit a personal, thought-provoking response will bring your interviewing process to a new level of efficiency.

Get recruiting tips and best practices, including candidate screening, candidate experience, and applicant tracking systems:

You don’t need a dedicated sourcing team to get ahead of the competition when it comes to recruiting top talent. With the support of an award-winning Applicant Tracking System, you can easily screen applicants, automate tedious tasks, and create a strong candidate management strategy, giving your recruiters and hiring teams the freedom to spend more time interacting with the most qualified candidates.

To see how ClearCompany can help you create a strong recruitment strategy, reach out to our experts and sign up for a free demo today.

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