How to Shortlist Candidates for Interviews (With Criteria Examples)

Male recruiter in a blue suit holding a magnifying glass up to an icon of a candidate's application. Shortlist candidates concept.

As a recruiter, it’s in your best interest to do everything you can to make your hiring process faster and more efficient. Optimizing your hiring workflows helps you stay organized and increases your chances of hiring successfully. 

A shortlist is a tool that can help you zero in on the best candidates and maximize the likelihood that they’ll end up on your team. Here’s a full explainer on shortlisting and how to do it effectively. 

What Is a Shortlist?

A shortlist is a narrowed-down list of candidates who have passed a certain threshold in the screening process and who an employer wants to prioritize in their search moving forward. Candidates who are on a shortlist typically undergo further screening, which may include one or more interviews, pre-employment assessments, sample assignments, and background/reference checks. 

Shortlists help employers streamline the hiring process by focusing on a smaller pool of candidates who closely meet the requirements of a position. 

The Importance of Shortlisting Candidates

Organize candidates

Job openings often result in a pile of applications that are far too large to speak with each and every candidate individually. A shortlist helps make a high volume of applicants more manageable, enabling recruiters to stay in close contact with the best candidates and maintain an awareness of where they are in the hiring process. 

Prioritize top talent

The best talent is hired quickly. If you don’t want to lose out on your top choice, it’s essential to prioritize them in your search and move their application along efficiently. 

Reduce time to fill

A shortlist adds urgency to your hiring process by keeping the best-fitting candidates at the top of your mind. This helps cut down your time to fill, reducing the cost and labor associated with hiring and avoiding lost productivity that can result from vacancies sitting open for extended periods. 

How to Shortlist Candidates for Interviews 

Follow these tips for productive shortlisting.

1. Make a list of baseline criteria

Defining your hiring qualifications is an essential part of writing effective job descriptions, so hopefully, you’ve done this already. But if you haven’t, specify the minimum criteria a candidate must meet to perform the job duties. 

This might include education requirements like an associate’s degree, minimum years of experience, or technical credentials like a specific certification. These baseline criteria should be objective qualities that are directly tied to job performance, rather than a “gut feeling,” a sense of similarity to other team members, the hiring manager’s personal opinion, or other subjective factors. 

Using objective criteria promotes hiring accuracy and keeps you from unfairly discriminating against any candidates. 

2. Identify nice-to-haves

Next, make a list of the characteristics that would make a qualified candidate more appealing but that aren’t absolutely necessary. This could be things like a more advanced degree, more specialized training, prior leadership experience, membership in professional organizations, etc. 

This will leave you with solid shortlisting criteria to guide your search. Here’s what that might look like for an example role:

Network Administrator

Minimum Requirements

  • Bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field  
  • Three years of experience in network administration or a similar role
  • Knowledge of Cisco and Linux networking platforms

Preferred Qualifications

  • Cisco CCNA certification
  • Experience with customer-facing interactions
  • Experience maintaining and updating security permissions

3. Assess your bandwidth

How many candidates should you put on your shortlist? That depends on how many you can realistically consider very closely. How many applicants are you expecting in total? How many of those are from sources that already come with some level of vetting, like referrals? How much time each week can you commit to screening and interviews? 

These factors will help you determine how many candidates you want to shortlist. A good rule of thumb is to shortlist 10% of total applicants, which may vary depending on your needs and talent pool. If you have 100 applicants, shortlisting 8 to 12 of them is a feasible goal. A smaller percentage may be more realistic if you have several hundred applicants. 

Your own recruiting metrics can also be a good source of information on how many candidates to shortlist. If you’ve had to interview about five people to find your top choice in the past, you know you should have at least five candidates on your shortlist. 

Being pragmatic about your recruiting bandwidth will help keep your search manageable and avoid recruiting overload. 

4. Select top applicants

Now that you know how many candidates you’re looking for, you can begin to narrow the playing field. First, go through and screen candidates who meet your minimum requirements. After this step, you’ll likely still be left with a big pile of applications. If this is the case, do another round of screening for your nice-to-haves. This will shrink your talent pool to a strong group of applicants who meet the job requirements and who can add additional value in different ways. 

An applicant tracking system, or ATS, can be a great asset in screening candidates for a shortlist. It can automate the process of ruling applicants in or out based on your minimum requirements by leveraging AI to offer intelligent insights on which remaining candidates are most likely to be the strongest fit.

5. Review more diverse candidates

Sometimes, you’ll get an application that doesn’t check any of the usual boxes for your role but that piques your interest for other reasons. Maybe it’s someone with an interesting background who’s switching fields or reentering the workforce after a long time away. 

Though these candidates might not meet your laundry list of requirements, they can still be worth interviewing. Adding a handful of nontraditional applicants to your shortlist can bring more diversity to your talent pool and help you connect with uniquely qualified candidates who aren’t as likely to receive multiple competing offers. 

6. Add additional criteria if needed

Add additional screening criteria if you need to shrink your talent pool further. For some employers, this means creating a shortlist after an initial round of interviews. Others require candidates to earn a specific score on a skills assessment or complete a practice assignment before being added to the shortlist. 

7. Create your shortlist and schedule interviews

Completing the steps above should result in a strong, multifaceted pool of applicants who are primed for the interview stage. Once you have this list, don’t wait. Move forward to schedule interviews and assess shortlist candidates as quickly as possible. Every additional day in the hiring process increases the likelihood that a candidate will drop out of consideration because they’ve received another offer, lost interest, or changed their mind for some other reason. 

Use our guide to interview scoring sheets to establish a set of highly focused interview questions and assess candidates fairly. 

Additional Tips for Effective Shortlisting

Your shortlist is an internal hiring tool, but that doesn’t mean you should keep your progress on it private. Provide a positive candidate experience by keeping all applicants informed of how your hiring process is going and where they stand in the running. Not only does ongoing communication build trust, but helps maintain strong interest in your company as candidates await news of your decision. 

If you’ve decided not to shortlist a candidate, this is also something to let them know. In this post, we share how to write an application rejection email.

Hiring is a challenge, but effective shortlisting makes the task less daunting for both recruiters and applicants by ensuring only those candidates with the correct skills and qualifications move forward in the selection process. 

Pete Newsome

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the President of 4 Corner Resources, the staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. 4 Corner is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance, and the top-rated staffing company in Central Florida. Recent awards and recognition include being named to Forbes’ Best Recruiting Firms in America, The Seminole 100, and The Golden 100. Pete also founded zengig, to offer comprehensive career advice, tools, and resources for students and professionals. He hosts two podcasts, Hire Calling and Finding Career Zen, and is blazing new trails in recruitment marketing with the latest artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn