The Screening Process: How Recruiters Choose Candidates Worth Pursuing


How Will You Stand Out from the Crowd?

Once a job application arrives at an employer’s office, the screening process can begin. As mentioned before, screening might be done by a single person, by a group of persons, or by a machine. You may not know which approach a company takes, unless you ask specifically about how screening is done in the department or division where an opening exists.

There may also be nuances between writing for a machine and writing for human. Lacking information specific to a particular type of screening software, job seekers must do their best to present their arguments in language that can be easily filtered by both human and machine.

Let’s imagine a “typical” screening process, discuss some possible stages in that process, and then imagine some strategies that might be useful for capturing and keeping the reader’s attention.

It’s probably impossible to give one explanation that will cleanly and accurately describe all the nuances to different stages of the job search process, but let’s try to describe some generalities.

I have been on many screening and selection committees during my career, and I’ve seen a few thousand résumés during that time. My explanation of the screening process is heavily drawn on my personal experience. In no way should it be construed that my experiences are somehow universal. However, I do believe that I can bring some insights about how résumé screeners and job search committees might conduct their screening processes.

A “Typical” Screening Process

In my experience, screening works like this:

  • Application packets arrive at the employer. This usually happens these days via e-mail or through a database-driven form that is part of an online application system.
  • Some companies may use software to scan your documents or keywords and phrases before a real person takes a look at. This is less common in small businesses, non-profit organizations, local governments, and academic institutions.
  • Other companies may allow a recruiter or members of a search committee to view a candidate’s materials as soon as they are available in the system, and to rank them.


Whether your résumé is screened by a person or by a computer, some sort of ranking system will likely be used to determine the degree of “fit” between the candidate and a fictional “ideal” candidate. Such a system relies heavily upon the use of scoring rubrics, which are much like the guides that a teacher might follow in grading a standardized test.

Ideally, the screeners use a scoring rubric to rate each candidate on their match to minimum and preferred qualifications. Ideally, those members of the committee follow those guidelines and come up with a list that accurately reflects the match between each candidate and the stated needs of the employer.

Ideally. Not always in practice. But ideally.

In the next post in this series, we’ll explore ways the screening process might break down, and what you might be able to do to minimize the possibility that you will be screened out of a process.

Is Working in Student Affairs a Career?

bigstock_Question_4434761Like most people who end up working in Student Affairs, I didn’t imagine my career when I was a child. I wasn’t even aware that Student Affairs was a career. And, once I chose it as a career, I realized that many people still think it isn’t one.

Texas A & M’s Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development has a great humor page, where I found the Top 10 reasons you became a Student Affairs professional, and I particularly connected with #3 . . .

“You enjoy the challenge of trying to tell people what you do for a living.”

The last time I think my parents really understood what I did for a living, I was a resident assistant. And for many of my friends and acquaintances, that is pretty much what they thought I did, up until I left my last formal position in Student Affairs (Assistant Director of Residence Life at Penn State University.) I was in college for a living, and I settled roommate problems and busted people for drinking. (Which many acquiantainces thought was irony in action, on both counts, but that is a story for another day.)

Academics and “serious” professionals don’t know what to make of us, either. For example, Wikipedia’s current entry for Student Affairs has a section on criticism of the field which reads, in part…

“The field of Student Affairs has been criticized for its emphasis on formal, professional training, calling into question whether the field is theoretical or practical. Complicating this criticism is the question of the role of student development theories in student affairs practice. It is claimed that student development theories are used to “proactively identify and address student needs, design programs, develop policies, and create healthy…environments that encourage positive growth in students.”

“Yet, often student affairs practices often bear little resemblance or connection to student development theories. As Paul Bloland (1979) wrote in an article in the NASPA Journal, “We have cultivated an expertise that was not requested, is not sought out, and for which there is little recognition or demand. Many entry-level and (many) seasoned professionals know little of student development theory and practice and, in fact, do not really need such expertise to meet the role expectations of their supervisors or, in too many instances, their institutions.”

Yet, for almost 20 years now, I have planned my life around the idea that Student Affairs is a career. In 2009, I left a stable job to venture out on my own, and establish a career coaching practice dedicated to helping others pursue their passions for working with students and find their own niche in Student Affairs. My perspective is that Student Affairs is actually a calling, within which you will find many career tracks. And it isn’t for everybody. I actually think it is the responsibility of those in the field to both recruit people with potential, and to “counsel out” out those who don’t have the passion and the fortitude to do the work. It’s no kindness to someone to show only the benefits, and none of the sacrifices, that go along with the profession.

In his song “Mr. Bad Example,” Warren Zevon recalled many career exploits of the song’s protagonist, and like those who work in Student Affairs, the protagonist clearly wore many hats, including the following…

“…worked in hair replacements, swindling the bald, where very few are chosen, and fewer still are called.”

The same could be said about Student Affairs. Very few are chosen, and fewer still are called. And I don’t think that a love of student development theory is required for success. I don’t care much about academics, or about student development theory, but I do know that Student Affairs is a calling, and that you can make a great career in it, if you are passionate about working with young people, and believe that helping people find their way is a worthy pursuit, you may be cut of the right material. But only if you have the strength of will and character to ignore the assaults on your dignity, your professional worth and your profession. They come with this line of work. The only thing that is truly important is that you know who you are and what you are about. If you are meant to serve students, you will. It’s just a matter of time. And in many cases, of strategy. If it’s meant to be, you will find your way. Just know, in the meantime, that many are in your corner, and have been in your place, before you. And we are here to help.

October is Careers in Student Affairs month. In honor of this, I am offering a coaching package for new professionals, to help them get off to a good start. It includes the following:

  • A professionally written resume, geared toward your preferred target positions ($85 value)
  • LinkedIn C0aching Package (1 hour LinkedIn training, plus profile optimization advice ($50 value)
  • Practice interview, by phone or Skype ($85 value)
  • One additional coaching session ($85 value)
  • Access to an online job search group, with activities, lessons, and a private discussion board): $50 value

Purchased separately, this package would be $355, but this deal gives you nearly 30% off! For only $250, you get all of the above, including 6 months of access to the group, and any additional workshops or activities added to the job search group.

I’m opening this deal up only to new professionals (either those finishing school and looking for their first job, or with less than 5 years of professional experience). Availability is limited, and this special will not be repeated.

Sign up now!

This offer is no longer available.

Job Search: Part Deux

Part One: Carpet Bombing

My first job search was spring 2008 when I was just about to graduate from the Student Affairs in Higher Education master’s program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  At that time I essentially carpet bombed the field with job applications; I did a national job search and applied to over 40 institutions.  It was too much to organize, it got to be too confusing keeping track of everything and everyone.

I managed to find the funding to attend The Placement Exchange in Boston and ACPA Placement in Atlanta.  In all I managed to have 20 conference interviews, for those keeping count, thats about a 50% success rate.  I was on my way to … disappointment.  I was sitting on cloud nine, I interviewed with almost half of the schools I applied at.  Well, those 20 interviews only resulted in two on-campus interviews: Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL and Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA.  In the end I was offered and I accepted an entry-level position at Point Park University.  Its ironic that I had to travel to Atlanta to interview with and accept a position from a school that was literally 5 miles from where I was living.

Now after a few years I decided that it was time to start looking for a new job.  It was February 2010 and I was in the midst of job searching and this was my second time going the the student affairs job placement process.  I knew I did not want to repeat my first experience, 40 applications, 20 interviews and 1 offer.  I decided that I was going to narrow my job search to only one region: New England.  I started looking at openings and thats when it hit me; I needed to update my resume and cover letter.  It had been a while since I had to use my resume so I wasn’t sure where I should start.

Enter Sean Cook

I had been participating in the #SAchat on Twitter and introduced myself to Sean Cook.  I learned that Sean had worked at Penn State and that he had just started his coaching business helping others with job searches, interview techniques, updating resumes and much more.  Sean started offering a free support group to job searchers.  In this group we were able to discuss a lot including expectations for placement conferences, interview dos and don’ts, resume tips and much more.  It was during this free group that I decided to retain Sean’s help one-on-one.  So I sent Sean a message and said I’ll pay you please help me!

At first I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Here’s this guy that says he knows what he’s doing and here I am looking for help.  Well it turns out that it was one of the best investments I made this year.  I first started by talking about what I was afraid of and what concerned me.  Then in our second session we jumped into interview techniques and reviewing my resume.  The best thing we did was a mock phone interview.  I’ve always felt I was a poor phone interviewer, Sean taught me several techniques to use during phone interviews. During this mock interview Sean asked some questions I have never heard before, some were really thought provoking and some were easy.  At the end we talked about my answers and he provided a great critique.  About a week later I was able to utilize the skills Sean taught me in an actual phone interview.  Armed with these new skills I went into the phone interview confident and at the end I knew I rocked it.

Job Search: Part Deux

The major difference between my first job search and my second was focus.  I was able to focus on the geographical area and with Sean’s help I learned to focus my energy on specific parts of the job search and not everything at once.  Throughout my ACPA Placement experience and throughout my on-campus interviews I knew I had Sean as a resource, someone I could call for support anytime I needed him.  My second job serach experience was so much better than my first.  I had less applications submitted, but a higher percentage of conference interviews and more on-campus interviews.  Clearly I had a better experience because halfway through one conference interview I was offered an on-campus interview!

One school I interviewed with was Western New England College (WNEC) in Springfield, MA.  I had two good conference interviews so i was confident going to my on-campus interview.  I arrived the night before my interview, I was picked up at the airport and dropped at the hotel by a WNEC Res Life staff member.  That evening I decided to take a taxi to campus to walk around and get a true feel.  I jumped in the cab and had a great conversation about the school and the area with the taxi driver.  When we arrived at the campus the first think I noticed was the trees and the buildings.  I noticed how quintessentially “New England” WNEC looked and felt.  As I walked around, I noticed students playing frisbee, tennis, catch and just hanging outside with friends.  Brick buildings, gazebos and lawns, these are things my previous campus didn’t have.  I knew that evening I wanted to work at WNEC.  I was so confident in myself that during my self-paced tour of WNEC I stopped in the bookstore and purchased a school pennant for my collection.

Ultimately I ended up being offered and accepting a job at WNEC.  While I did the heavy lifting, by doing the interviewing and applying, it was Sean who helped me build the confidence needed to be successful.

john mayo

John Mayo, Area Coordinator, Western New England College

John Mayo is the Area Coordinator for Traditional Housing at Western New England College. In addition to residence life, he has experience working in housing operations and student leadership development at very diverse campuses. Like many student affairs professionals, his family still doesn’t understand what he does, so he tells them that he teaches life skills to college students.

John holds a bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in art and military history from Bridgewater State College, a master’s degree in student affairs in higher education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and is working towards a second master’s degree in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University

Feel free to follow him on Twitter (@jmayojr) and check out his personal blog (

8 Weeks to August Program Closes Friday!

8 Weeks to August Coaching Program Information from Sean Cook on Vimeo.

(To watch on YouTube instead, click here.)

Higher Ed Career Coach Sean Cook delivers a brief introduction to his “8 Weeks to August” Career Coaching Program and his professional and personal motivations for offering it.

Registration for My “8 Weeks to August” program
closes today (Friday, June 10, 2010).

If you are still seeking a job in higher education,
you still have a chance to register at

I will not be extending the registration period past today (Friday). It will automatically close at midnight, or when the registration cap (20 participants) is reached.Why? Because I want to get started, and those who  have already registered probably would, too.

As mentioned in the video, please do not let financial concerns determine whether you join this program. If you want to be a part of this inaugural program, just sign up! If you can pay some part now, that’s cool. We’ll figure out the rest later. I’m also offering a money-back guarantee if the program doesn’t work for you, so the money part is neither here nor there to me. Let’s just make this an engaging, interactive, fun, informative and useful experience for all who participate. The rest will fall into place as it should.

So go ahead and register, and let’s get you back in the hunt, and on to a new job this fall!

Higher Ed Career Coach Sean Cook, pictured here in front of Tillman Hall, the "old main" buildilng at Clemson University, his alma mater.

Sean Cook, M.Ed., Certified Life Purpose & Career Coach, Publisher & Lead Writer

Sean Cook is a Life Purpose and Career Coach who specializes in working with job seekers in higher education. Prior to becoming a Certified Coach through the Life Purpose Institute, Cook earned his M.Ed. from Clemson University, and spent over 15 years working as a student affairs professional.

You can listen to Sean every Friday at 11 a.m. Eastern on His Higher Ed Career Coach Show on BlogTalkRadio.Com.

Today, we’ll be discussing more about the art and practice of the “elevator pitch,” as well as exploring essential interview skills for today’s job seekers. Listeners are also welcome to call in their questions and comments to (347) 989-0055, or by clicking on the Skype “click to talk” logo at the page for today’s episode.

#JobHunt No.11

Hey readers, it’s been awhile! My last #JobHunt entry was about re-entering the job search: handling the rejection of round one and keeping your spirits up for round two. I am happy to say that this is the last blog I will ever write that can be tagged with “#JobHunt,” as I have officially accepted my first full-time position!

I feel like I need to quote the Grateful Dead here – “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” What started last January with the first postings showing up on the OPE and TPE websites has finally ended in early June with a job offer and an acceptance.

And I couldn’t be happier. I found a position that, although it’s not in my top choice for geographic area, is probably a better fit for me than anything I applied for in round one. It just took me five months of interviews, rejections, campus visits, phone calls, parking lot pep talks, and intense one-on-one time with HigherEdJobs to realize what I was looking for and how to get it.

I found a position that is half Residence Life and half Student Activities, which is perfect for my already varied background in Student Affairs. I get to work with a variety of students in a lot of different ways. I’ve met some of my future coworkers, and that was a major part of my thought process when making the decision: Could I see myself hanging out with these people? That’s very important to me when I realize I’ll be moving over 1000 miles away from home.

My biggest piece of advice to those who will be job hunting next year: Use your resources! There are so many people in the field willing to help out, by looking over a resume, sharing a job posting, helping your formulate answers to common questions, and sending you funny text messages when you visit campuses to keep you calm. Not just professionals – some of your biggest support will come from other grad students who are also out searching. You’re all in the same boat, and it’s nice to know you’re not out in the job search sea alone! Plus, the thought of sharing a high-five when you all connect at a conference is a great motivator.

(And if you ever get the chance to blog about your experiences – whether for a website or just for yourself – do it! It’s a nice way to think through a lot of things related to the job search, without having to actually search.)

I talked a lot in my first entry about finding the perfect job, but that even working on a tropical island means having to deal with some jellyfish. I know there will probably be some jellyfish to deal with in my first year, but I’m looking forward to getting started in my new position. There’s a lot to learn, and I’m excited to take all my knowledge and experience from grad school and see how it works in the real world. It may not be a tropical paradise, but I’m looking forward to a lot of sunny days!

Though this is my last entry in the #JobHunt series, don’t rule out me returning now and then to blog about my first year as a professional in the field. I’m sure there are many more stories, revelations, and interesting tales to come. To everyone who has followed along my job search from the beginning – thank you! I really couldn’t have done it without all the kind words and supportive messages! Thank you!

Shannon Healy

Shannon Healy

Shannon Healy is a new student affairs professional.

(Editor’s note: I’d say more, but she forgot to tell me where! But you will definitely hear more from her in the future, as I do hope to have her blog about her first year as a professional. In the meantime, I am sure she’ll eventually tell her vast Twitter following. Or maybe she could just post a comment below.)