Interview questions and structured interviewing
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Preventing Resume Overload with Questionnaires

Peter Donohue

Do you receive too many applicants for your open position? Using a
questionnaire to prescreen applicants may be a cost effective solution that
lets you easily sort through all the applicants to find the best ones. And
questionnaires are not as hard as you may think to use.


The job market has changed markedly from the boom times of the late
90s. We have gone from not being able to find enough live bodies (let
alone qualified bodies) for open positions, to receiving hundreds of
applicants for job postings. This has brought about a major challenge for
hiring managers – sorting through all of these applicants to determine who
is worth interviewing.

Solutions to managing resume overload generally involve throwing
resources at the problem. You can hire a recruiter to do the job for you, or
install some form or Applicant Tracking System to help automate it. But if
you can’t justify installing a system, and don’t want to pay for a Recruiter,
you end up dealing with the resume overload by hand.

The questionnaire solution:

But there is a relatively easy way to manage resume overload, and that is
to use an automated prescreening system. One method is to use a
questionnaire that the applicant would fill in when they apply for the
position. Alice Snell of iLogos Research reported “A simple online
questionnaire makes it easier than ever before to obtain skill sets from
applicants. The recruiters can tailor the online questionnaires to detect the
required skills, to meet the exact needs of a company, position, or

When to use a questionnaire:

A questionnaire could save time if you expect to receive many (e.g. 50 or
more) applicants and the position has specific skill, experience, or
licensing/certification requirements.

So, you would probably not benefit from using a questionnaire to find a
CEO, because you likely wouldn’t get that many applicants. Nor would you
benefit when filling an entry-level position where you are willing to train the
person hired, as there may not be any skill or experience requirements to
screen on.

Where to put the questionnaire:

Now that you have decided that a questionnaire would help you, you need
the questions to be in a place where applicants can access them, and
have the data crunched to sort the applicants for you. The Internet fits this
bill well.

The basic requirements for an Internet-based questionnaire are:

1. access to a web site where you post the questionnaire

2. determining the questions you want to ask

3. programming skills to create the questionnaire (basic HTML forms)

4. programming skills to create a program to process the applicant’s data
(often done with PHP or CGI), so you can differentiate between those who
meet your requirements and those who do not

Your company probably already has a web site, so one possibility is to
post the questionnaire there.


Connects seamlessly with your company’s web site, so has the
same look and feel
Using resources (web site) you already have
You only need to set up one questionnaire, which could be used no
matter where you post your opening and provides you with all the
applicant responses in the same format


You have to create the questions
You need to find the resources to do the web programming to
create the questionnaire and the processing program
Some job boards make it challenging to have applicants apply by
clicking the link to your questionnaire (they want the applicants to go
through their system)

Understandably, companies often are not able to set up a questionnaire
on their own web page. Thankfully, there are easy ways around this.

Some job boards now offer the ability to develop and use questionnaires.
For example, both and have some
questionnaire functionality available within their systems, and it is likely
that more job boards will add this functionality to their system in the future.


You don’t need web programming skills
It generally doesn’t cost anything more than the cost of posting the


Not all job boards have questionnaires
You usually have to develop the questions yourself
The questionnaire is only used by applicants who apply through that
job board
You would have to set up a questionnaire for each job board you
Responses from different job boards will show up in different formats

Another option would be to have an outside company develop and host
the questionnaire. There are companies that specialize in developing and
hosting applicant prescreening questionnaires.


You don’t need web programming skills
The questions can be developed for you
You only need to set up one questionnaire, which could be used no
matter where you post your opening and provides you with all the
applicant responses in the same format


You pay for the service
Some job boards make it challenging to have applicants apply by
clicking the link to your questionnaire (they want the applicants to go
through their system)

How many questions should you ask:

It is tempting to try to make a questionnaire that will ask everything needed
to find the one best applicant. This is not something we recommend.

Research has shown that job applicants are willing to fill out forms when
applying for a position, but that willingness decreases as the amount of
time it takes to fill in the form increases. 2 If it takes too long to fill in, you
will start losing applicants.

Also, a questionnaire that covers everything will be very complex, and
would take a lot of time for you to create. Yet, each additional question you
use has decreasing benefits. This is shown in the results of one prescreen
we did for a web programmer position.

Hiring Company’s
% who didn’t meet
this requirement
Need to relocate
Local only
2+ yrs
Need a Visa
Not willing to sponsor

Using the most effective question (need to relocate) only, 39% of
applicants who did not meet this requirement were screened out.
Using both this and the second most effective question
(programming experience) brought us to 49%. Adding the third, we
increase to 54%. And the fourth question did not screen any
additional applicants out, as all who needed Visas also needed to
relocate. As you can see, each additional question is adding a
smaller amount to the effectiveness.

We have found that a questionnaire containing just a few questions
can draw out enough information to really help you make a decision.
This keeps the questionnaire short enough that applicants will be
willing to answer the questions, and also minimizes the amount of
time it would take you to develop the questions.

What questions to ask:

One of the challenges with setting up a questionnaire is creating the
questions. In actuality, if you prescreen by asking just a few key
questions, choosing the right questions is not that hard. You can
cover most of what you need to know with three questions:

1. their education/degree - this could ask for general education level
(BS, MS, etc.) or differentiate between different degrees (BSEE,
BSCS, etc.).


2. their experience in the position – this question is aimed at
drawing out their experience in handling the duties required for the


3. their experience in the industry – this question should be aimed at
drawing out their experience working with the technology and
markets the open position would be in. Be careful not to make this
too specific – if you ask for specific market experience which can
only be obtained by working at your company or your one
competitor, posting the position on job boards likely will not get you
many qualified applicants.


In many positions, you would use all three of these questions. For
some types of positions, you only need one or two. For example, if
you are hiring a person for an enterprise software product marketing
position, experience in the industry and position are important, but
perhaps not the applicant’s education. A biotech research position
usually requires that the applicant have an MD or PhD, but there
generally is leeway on the actual experience in the industry and

You may also want to consider screening with both minimum and
maximum requirements. In the web programmer example, screening
for applicants with at least 2 years experience in programming only
screened out 17%. But the hiring firm was not filling a senior level
position. 39% of applicants had 5+ years of experience, and some
10+ years. They decided to also screen out the highly experienced,
as they were concerned that they would either demand too high a
salary or not stick with the company once the economy improved.

Along with the three basic questions, you may want to consider
asking a few more questions which you would use to red-flag
applicants who don’t meet the requirement:

Specific licensing, certification, or similar requirement. Some specific
examples are “What is your 100-ton Masters License Massachusetts
state crane operator’s license status?” or “Do you have your CPA?”
If you are not willing to pay the additional costs of relocating a new
hire, you could ask whether the applicant needs to relocate to take the
If you are not willing to sponsor a Visa for a new hire, you could ask
their work authorization status.


Preventing Lying:

If applicants think it will help them get a job, they may answer your
questions with what they think you want as the answer, not with what
is actually true about them. If they do this, it would reduce the value of
the questionnaire, so you should take a couple of simple steps to
reduce the likelihood of this happening.

One step would be to inform the applicants that the answers to these
questions should be treated like the information on their resume, and
a reminder given that any false statements would be enough to reject
the applicant.

We have also found it effective to ask both “how long have you” done
something, which they answer by picking a year range, and then
“describe in detail” which they answer with an open ended


Where an applicant may chose a number greater than their true
experience if you only ask for their experience, they are less likely to
lie when they also have to describe in detail what they did. An
additional benefit is that this open-ended description provides
additional details that help you understand the applicant’s skills and
experiences as they relate to your requirements.


Many job openings receive too many applicants, causing challenges
for those who have to sort through all these resumes. Using a
questionnaire is a simple way to pre-screen the applicants who
apply to your open position and help prevent resume overload.


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