Reviewing Resumes 101: How to Select the Best Candidates

Hiring manager reviewing a candidate's resume on a clipboard at her work desk.

Reviewing resumes is a part of the hiring process that can waste many hiring managers’ time. Maybe it only takes seconds to spot a bad candidate, but most resumes for average and above-average candidates won’t make it so obvious. It pays to improve your resume reviewing skills for both speed and precision. 

Being able to zero in on the best candidates–and do it quickly–will make the difference between quick and accurate hiring or slow and unreliable hiring. Whether you’re new to hiring or have been doing it for years, this guide will help you hone your resume screening abilities.

The Importance of Reviewing Resumes Accurately

A resume is just a piece of paper, and it’s impossible to get to know a candidate by this document alone fully. Even so, it’s the best resource hiring managers have to get a concise summary of a candidate’s abilities. Until the hiring world develops a better method, resumes are still our number one screening tool.

And, consider this: a resume shows you what a candidate wants you to see. In the early stages, we can only judge what they give us, and the content a candidate provides speaks volumes about their knowledge and level of professionalism. The top applicants will have done the best job they can put together in their resumes, which is why only the best ones deserve further attention.

Steps to Review Resumes When Hiring

1. Review the job description

You’re raring and ready to dive into the stack of resumes piling up in your inbox, but there’s one thing you should do before opening a single application: review the job description. Look over the primary criteria you outlined when posting the position so the job requirements are fresh in your mind. This is especially important if you’re interviewing for multiple similar roles simultaneously.

2. Screen out unqualified candidates

When reviewing resumes, most hiring managers find it’s much easier to say ‘no’ than to give a definitive ‘yes.’ So, start by weeding out clearly unqualified candidates. 

These people fail to meet the bare minimum job requirements, like having far too few years of experience or not holding a required credential. It also includes people who are blanket applying to dozens of jobs and don’t seem in any way suited for your position.

As you sort out the no’s, make two other piles: yes and maybe. You want to return to those two piles next for a closer look. 

3. Pinpoint keywords

The words that describe the most important skills and job duties should be like a magnet for your eyes. They’re also the same words you used in the job description, which is why reviewing them first is helpful.

Make a list of the top five to six keywords (and their synonyms) to consider when scanning resumes. This is an easy way to quickly jump to the most relevant parts of a candidate’s resume.

4. Look for customization

Look for resumes tailored to the position, pulling in keywords and phrases from the job description and citing experience highly relevant to the role. This shows that a candidate has taken the time to customize their resume just for this job, which indicates both their conscientiousness and level of interest. 

5. Identify career progression

A strong resume demonstrates career progression from one job or company to the next. You can spot this progression by referencing the job titles and dates of employment. For example, a senior marketing candidate might have spent a year as an account associate and then three years as an account executive before becoming an account director in their most recent promotion. 

Remember that career progression doesn’t always follow a clear and linear path. A strong candidate might have undergone a lateral move to a different company or backtracked a bit in seniority when changing fields. This isn’t necessarily cause for concern. You’re looking to see whether their moves make sense in the overall trajectory of their career or if they seem to have moved from job to job aimlessly without any discernible path. 

6. Avoid bias

If possible, use a program that blocks elements of a resume that can induce unintentional bias, like a candidate’s name or school. If you don’t have such a program, make it a habit to scan past this information and focus instead on technical qualifications. 

Related: Beware of These Subconscious Hiring Biases

7. Watch out for red flags

A resume doesn’t usually deserve to be tossed over a single typo or some wonky formatting. There are other red flags, however, that should give you serious pause. Things like multiple lengthy employment gaps or several glaring spelling errors probably don’t bode well for a candidate’s level of dedication or attention to detail. 

If a resume shows red flags but still reflects a strong candidate, at the very least, make a note of the items you discovered and be sure to ask about them during the interview.

Related: The Top 9 Resume Red Flags

8. Keep an open mind

It’s impractical to give lengthy consideration to each and every resume you receive. Some need to be thrown in the reject pile immediately out of necessity to reserve the bulk of your attention for the strongest candidates. 

But there are some reasons you should allow for a bit of wiggle room rather than maintaining totally inflexible hiring criteria, for example, considering candidates with a nontraditional background or making an allowance for a lesser degree if a candidate has specialized experience. 

How Long Should I Spend Reviewing Resumes?

While screening is the hiring activity that collectively takes the most time, this doesn’t mean you should spend much time on each resume. You should be able to scan a resume and categorize it as a yes, no, or maybe in under a minute. You can always come back for a more in-depth pass over the yes and maybe piles later. 

Should I Use an ATS to Review Resumes?

There are pros and cons to using an applicant tracking system, or ATS, to review resumes. While convenient, using an ATS can have downsides, like the fact that some resumes are accidentally screened out because of the file type or other factors that have nothing to do with the candidate’s skills.

Using an ATS to screen resumes is a good idea if you’re receiving several dozen applications for each open position and/or if you’re hiring for multiple positions every month. An ATS can save you time and reduce your cost-to-hire while streamlining the hiring process for both interviewers and candidates. 

Related: The Pros and Cons of Applicant Tracking Systems

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