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"Thank you for your recent Job Culture post - it was a confidence booster as I went into an interview yesterday. I was able to pull up the email as I got my hair cut for the afternoon interview."

Dear Career Tips: Screening Applications

From Career Tips, 2019 Volume 2, February 2019

Often when I apply to senior level IT positions, the company or organization posting the position asks me to complete a series of lengthy essay questions on the position or my management style. These take time to formulate a correct response. As an example:

What KPIs do you use to measure the effectiveness of the IT function? How are these KPIs quantified? What standards are they based on? How do you report on deviation from these KPIs?

The total number of essay questions like this have varied from 12 to 18. They state that all questions must be answered, and skipping questions will force the application to be treated as incomplete and not considered.

How much time should one devote to these? I once took over 4 hours to answer such questions only to never hear from the hiring firm again. Could firms be posting fake jobs just to collect answers on management issues from senior executive candidates?

A friend has been presented with several of these essay lists over time. He has saved them on his PC along with his answers so that for a new one he can cut and paste. Is this a solution? It’s a lot to ask a candidate to answer 12 to 18 questions in the detail the hiring firm seems to want.

Dear Questioned Out:
This strikes me as an extreme screening tool
– I also know someone who applied for a position at a company that did something similar, that required 4 hours to complete. And that was just to get the chance to have a screening call with the HR rep.

The good news would be that there is a percentage of applicants who will not take the time to fill out the application, so that your odds of getting through the screening to an actual interview are higher. The bad news is that the percentage getting past any screening in general is so low, that this still is a crap shoot.

As to whether some companies might be using this to conduct a survey / competitive intelligence, absolutely. Though I suspect the majority are simply doing this because some group has sold them on how much better a screening this will provide them. And there certainly is some truth to that. On the other hand, they miss out on excellent candidates who just aren’t willing to invest that much time in something with such an uncertain outcome. The best candidates can afford to be selective.

My personal approach would be to look for a quid pro quo. In other words, I would look for a contact / conversation that gives me some assurance that if I make such a time and labor-intensive application, I will actually get the chance to interview. Or tell them that I will be happy to answer such questions at the interview. Otherwise, I would use that time to set up and have actual face to face meetings with people who can help me in my search.

As to your friend’s approach, bravo. Any questions I deem worth investing the time to construct a good answer, are also worth saving in a file for the future.
For example, the questions you presented above might even come up in an interview. That would make it worthwhile to give them some careful thought, including the accomplishment stories I would use to back up each question. I can then file those questions and answers away for the future, even if I decide the particular application isn’t worth pursuing.

If I do decide this particular application is worth the time investment, then I’m not going to shortchange my answers to save time. I’m going to put in the time and effort to construct my strongest possible answers to each question. For me, it’s binary – either ignore the application completely, or go whole hog in an attempt to give me the best possible shot.

Follow-Up From Questioned Out

I wanted to let you know how it all unfolded after I took the time to answer all 12 of their detailed, essay questions.

About three weeks later I got an email from HR. The President and CEO wanted a ½ hour phone interview. I checked his LinkedIn profile. He was legitimate.

The President started off by saying the résumé they received from me was very impressive. It was clear I was a “heavy weight” candidate. Then, things started going downhill. He asked if I had strong programming skills in the Salesforce application. The questionnaire I submitted did not pose any questions on programming, or my approach at application development or even Salesforce. He concluded his remarks by describing my background as a “cannon” when they were really looking for a “peashooter”.

Overall, I was a little disappointed in the outcome. Couldn’t they tell from my résumé that I was not a programmer? Their 12 essay questions were all high level managerial in scope, no mentioning of programming experience or approaches. It led be to believe that someone else must have suggested to them to forward these questions as apart of the application process. There was absolutely no match-up between the essay questions and the experience required to answer them, and his desire for a programmer who could support their existing Salesforce application, a “lighter weight” person. I really viewed it as a waste of my time.

I did conclude politely with him that should he ever need a consultant or someone who could offer an unbiased, third-party opinion on a technology contract or project to please give me a call. He said he would. Who knows?

Your take on this?

My Take

You are right to be disappointed. The CEO’s reaction supports the conclusion that the questionnaire was simply a general screening tool that someone has decided will give them better candidates. As you can see, it had little to do with the actual job qualifications the CEO sought. It would have been interesting to see his reaction if you had asked something like:

“I’m confused. It doesn’t seem like what you are looking for is a match to the questions and qualifications indicated in the job application. Have I missed something?”

Did you ask what problem they were trying to solve via Salesforce? If you were able to change the discussion from very specific qualifications to the underlying challenges they face, and how those are affecting the operation, you might have been able to turn the conversation in a more productive direction.

It likely wouldn’t have changed his mind about that specific hole he was trying to fill, but might have created the opening for the real problem for which they might hire you as a consultant, or for a more appropriate position.

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