Pre-Employment Screening Questions | ExactHire

5 Tips For Writing Effective Pre-Employment Screening Questions

Executing a strong pre-employment screening strategy can save your company a lot of money and time. And while a sound, legally defensible process for conducting background checks and reference checks should be a part of any screening protocol, many companies forget the first, most affordable step: Use pre-employment screening questions on your job application.

Answers to screening questions automatically tell you whether job candidates meet your minimum basic qualifications. And thankfully, talent acquisition software makes it easy to attach these important questions to your application, while also allowing you to filter results so that you’re only viewing the candidates that make the grade. But before you can reap the benefits of smart screening questions, you have to write them effectively.

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Below, I offer five tips to improve your online screening questions and qualify job candidates.

1 – Make sure to ask the “deal breaker” questions

The goal of the screening question section of your employment application is to uncover as much information as possible about whether the candidate meets minimum basic qualifications…and, doing so in as few questions as possible. Basically, cut to the chase and skip the “no duh” questions.

For example, do not ask questions such as “are you a motivated person?” Most individuals with any kind of self-preservation instinct will say “yes” because they want the job. You’re no better off in the pre-screening process by having that answer.

Instead, focus on what you really need to know such as whether one: can work overtime; has a certain critical license/certification; has enough years of experience to excel in the position, etc.

2 – Be specific about how you word screening questions

As you consider your deal breaker questions, make sure you strategically word them so that candidates can’t sneak by with easy answers. A classic example is asking about one’s proficiency with a software application.

Instead of: “Describe your proficiency level with Microsoft Excel. Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced?

Ask it this way: “Have you ever created a VLOOKUP in Microsoft Excel?”

Big difference, huh? Now obviously your reworded question will suit the needs of your own specific position, but this approach will certainly help separate the unqualified applicants from your preferred candidates. And the goal of any exceptional automated pre-employment screening process should be to encourage unqualified applicants to self-select out of consideration as early in the game as possible.

3 – Make sure each question is relevant to the job

With the ability to score and flag applicants based on their answers to screening questions in an applicant tracking system, it’s easy to see how an HR or recruiting manager might get carried away in creating a question list. Remember, you’re goal is to get the most benefit out of the fewest questions. Find out where the line is for your organization in terms of creating enough of a speed bump that you aren’t overwhelmed with unqualified applicants vs. not making your application so long that you have a high abandonment rate.

On your short list, however, should only be questions that are obviously relevant to the position at hand, and to your organization as a whole. Make sure that each question asked has a direct correlation to either an essential job requirement stated on the job description; or, to a critical competency necessary for success at your company in general ( i.e. no “if you were a dessert, what dessert would you be and why?” questions). Don’t laugh…I have been asked that on an application before.

4 – Don’t be ambiguous about time spans in multiple choice questions

Many job applications include questions that ask applicants about the number of years of experience they have in a certain area or with a particular job skill. I’ve seen a fair amount of multiple choice questions that provide answer options that overlap one another. For example:

How many years of experience do you have in the banking industry?
a) No experience
b) 1 year or less
c) 1-2 years
d) 2 – 5 years
e) 5+ years

If you have 2 years of experience…it’s not exactly clear which one to pick is it?

5 – Use multiple choice questions to get applicant responses on key questions

At ExactHire, we see a lot of employment application questions as we customize and build applicant tracking system portals for our clients. We always encourage clients to provide multiple choice answers for questions related to experience, software application experience, and especially, income.

Here’s why…a client will want to try and pin down an exact income target for an applicant and will make it a required text box field so that the applicant must provide some kind of response. The result more often than not is that the applicant will put “Negotiable.” That kind of answer doesn’t help you pre-screen one bit. Instead, tie a series of income ranges as answers to the multiple choice question. Then, use flagging filters in the ATS to screen out applicants that don’t fit your budget based on their income preference; and, use scoring filters to rank order the applicants that will give you the best value for your human capital investment.


Creating different sets of pre-employment screening questions for all of your positions is a cost-effective strategy. It allows you to instead allocate money to more in-depth tools used on highly qualified candidates later in the hiring process–such as employee assessments, reference checks and background checks.

ExactHire can help you with all of your pre-employment screening needs. Visit our resources page for additional information, or request a free trial of our applicant tracking software and/or reference checking software today.

SMB Pre-Employment Screening Guide Ebook

Image credit: What? by Veronique Debord (contact)

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