Pre-Screening Interview Questions to Ask Candidates

Young female hiring manager wearing suit working in contemporary glass office talking to candidate on the phone conducting a pre screen interview using laptop working in big modern work space

Making a single hire takes more than a month, on average. Unfortunately, much of that time is spent speaking with candidates who don’t meet the minimum requirements for the position. Not only is this frustrating for hiring managers, but it takes up time that could have been devoted to speaking with qualified candidates and carefully assessing them to find the best one. Asking the right pre-screening interview questions is one way to screen out unqualified candidates and make better hires.

Here, we’ll outline the pre-screening interview process and share some of the best questions to use to ensure that only viable applicants make it through to the interview stage. 

What is a Pre-Screening Interview?

A pre-screening interview is a conversation that occurs before an official job interview. Recruiters and HR representatives use it to narrow down the pool of candidates for a position, eliminating those who don’t meet the minimum job requirements before passing qualified applicants on to the hiring manager. 

Pre-screening interviews consist of basic questions like ‘tell me about your background’ and ‘why are you interested in this position?’ It’s not a deep dive into a candidate’s past experience; rather, it’s a way to quickly identify whether they hold the skills necessary to do the job. This phase may also consist of skills assessments designed to verify an applicant’s technical capabilities. 

Pre-screening interviews protect hiring managers’ time since hiring is not their full-time job. They’re also overseeing their department’s operations, so they can’t spend all day talking to candidates only to discover that some of them can’t fulfill the basic job duties. 

Pre-interview conversations are useful for weeding out candidates who have embellished their resumes, making it seem as if they have more experience or responsibilities than they actually have. Talking live will often reveal this. 

Hiring managers aren’t the only ones who benefit from pre-screening interviews. They’re also an opportunity for candidates to learn more about a position and opt out if they decide it’s not for them. For example, a pre-interview conversation might clarify that the work isn’t what an applicant expected or that the schedule wouldn’t work for them. This is one more way pre-screening helps avoid wasted time. 

How to Conduct a Pre-Screening Interview

Most pre-screening interviews are done over the phone, but video conversations have become more common amid the increasing use of video conferencing platforms. Pre-recorded interviews and even written surveys are other options. 

A pre-screening interview shouldn’t take too much time on the part of the interviewer or the candidate; 15 minutes is a good benchmark. Limit the conversation to just a handful of questions designed to gather the most important information. Remember, the goal is not to learn everything there is to know about a candidate but rather to make a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ ruling about whether the applicant should move forward in the hiring process.

Related: Phone Interview Dos and Don’ts

Pre-Screening Interview Questions Examples

Work experience and responsibilities

The primary objective of a pre-screening interview is to get a feel for whether the candidate possesses the necessary skills for the job. This can be done by asking basic questions about their work experience and their responsibilities in their one to two most recent positions. 

Example questions:

  • Tell me about your current job.
  • What experience do you have with [job duty]?
  • Tell me about your skills in [technical skill area].
  • How will your skills benefit you in this position?
  • What types of responsibilities are you looking for in a new job?

Work environment

Work environment plays a big part in a candidate’s success at a new company. You want to learn whether their expectations are in line with what it’s actually like at the hiring organization and how adaptable they’ll be to a new environment. 

Example questions:

  • What type of work environment do you prefer?
  • What does your ideal work day look like?
  • What do you like/dislike about your current work environment?
  • How do you adapt to a new work environment?

Work style

Work style encompasses things like communication, teamwork, independence, and the ability to receive feedback, all of which are important elements of fit. Ask questions to get a general sense of whether the candidate’s style would allow them to thrive in the role. 

Example questions:

  • Describe your work style.
  • Tell me about your ideal boss.
  • What’s your communication style?
  • Do you prefer to work independently or as part of a team?
  • How do you prefer to receive feedback?
  • How do you deal with workplace conflict?

Time management

Time management is a crucial skill regardless of the position or industry. Can the candidate stay on task and get their work done on time?

Example questions:

  • Tell me about your time management skills.
  • How do you prioritize work when you have multiple important things to get done?
  • What kind of deadlines did you have in your previous position?
  • Have you ever missed a deadline? How did you handle it?

Salary expectations

This can be a sensitive topic, but it’s a necessary one to learn whether it makes sense to continue the conversation with a candidate. While you don’t need to nail down an exact figure, it’s important to ascertain whether the applicant’s expectations are on par with the salary band for the job. If their expectations are too low or too high, it could indicate a mismatch.

Example questions:

  • What are your salary expectations?
  • Are there certain benefits you’re looking for in your next position?

About the company

A good candidate will have done their homework to learn what the company does and the basics of the job. This topic can help you gauge a candidate’s level of interest in the position. It’s also a good idea to hand the microphone over to the candidate and give them a chance to ask their own questions.

Example questions:

  • Why do you want to work for our company?
  • Why are you leaving your current job?
  • What interested you about this position?
  • What role do you see yourself filling here?
  • What other types of jobs are you applying for?
  • What questions do you have for me?

Red Flags to Watch Out for During Pre-Screening Interviews

A pre-screening interview is mostly meant to gather information. However, it’s also a chance to have your antennae up for any red flags that could be grounds for tossing the application straight into the trash. 

Doesn’t ask any questions

If a candidate seems disinterested, distracted, or doesn’t have anything to ask at the end of the conversation, it could be a sign that this job is merely one of the dozens they applied for rather than one they really want. 

Only asks about pay and benefits

It’s natural for a candidate to want to ensure the position meets their salary requirements, but if this is the only thing they ask about, you probably want to look elsewhere. 

Is secretive about their background

If a candidate sidesteps questions about why they’re leaving their job or seems apprehensive about providing references, it causes them to dig a little deeper. There are valid reasons they may seem cautious–for example, they don’t want their boss to learn that they’re job searching–but they also might have been fired, had disciplinary issues, or have other things in their background they’re trying to conceal. 

When speaking with candidates, take thorough notes. Specifically, jot down any topics you want to cover further in a future interview. If you need more information from an applicant to give them the green light to move forward, this is a good opportunity to ask for it. Hence, you have all the necessary details to make an informed decision on their candidacy. 

Related: Guide for Evaluating Candidates in a Job Interview

Pete Newsome

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the president of 4 Corner Resources, the nationally acclaimed staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. His mission back then was the same as it is today: to do business in a personal way, while building an organization with boundless opportunities for ingenuity and advancement. When not managing 4 Corner’s growth or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his sales and business expertise though public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Hire Calling podcast.