Getting hired: How to ace a screening interview

When you apply for a job that you know you're qualified for, it can be disheartening when you don't make it through the initial screening, whether it's done by a headhunter or an in-house recruiter. Knowing how the process works can help you get over this hurdle and in front of the hiring manager, where you can really wow her with your skills. Headhunters and recruiters fill different functions, though, so here are tips for each type.

The headhunter

When you're a mid- to high-level employee, headhunters often get involved. They usually specialize in a specific field and have a good knowledge of actual job requirements and people in the field. Always be nice to headhunters because they have contacts at multiple companies -- and you may run into them again.

One critical thing to know about headhunters is that they work on commission. If you don't get hired, they don't get paid. This means they're picky about who they present to the hiring managers in the first place because they don't want companies to think poorly of them. If a headhunter asks you for payment, hang up. That person is not legitimate.

  • Treat a headhunter like an expert in the field. She probably is.
  • Use vocabulary specific to your field.
  • Ask questions about culture and fit. Remember, she wants to present only candidates who want to take the final job.
  • An interview with a headhunter should be taken as seriously as one with a hiring manager. Many headhunters work nationally, so you may never see her face to face. If it's a Skype interview, dress like you would for a formal business meeting.
  • If she determines you're not a fit for this job, express interest in working with her in the future. Headhunters do business with many companies.
  • If you determine you're not a fit for the job, refer someone else who is, if you can. A good headhunter can help you get multiple jobs over a career, so stay on her good side.

The in-house experienced recruiter

Like the headhunter, these people are knowledgeable in their particular field. Unlike the headhunter, they get paid a salary, so whether you land the job doesn't make a direct difference to their paycheck. (They're evaluated on time to fill a position, so they do want to hire someone, but it's not as life-and-death as it is with the headhunter.)

  • Temper your field-specific vocabulary. She may well know it, but it's hard to tell at the outset. Better safe than sorry. Stay away from acronyms, for instance.
  • Don't call or email or make any contact repeatedly. You don't need to remind the recruiter that you'd really like the job; she already knows. If you haven't heard back, it's because she's not ready to talk to you, or she isn't interested in talking to you. It's not that she's forgotten about you.
  • Remember the jobs you've applied for. The Undercover Recruiter advises that you write them down and keep the list handy. That way, when a recruiter calls you, you don't have to rack your brain trying to remember what job she's calling you about.
  • Keep everything professional. If you meet face-to-face, your clothing needs to be impeccable -- make sure your socks match and your shoe are shined. A recruiter often cares more about your wardrobe than the hiring manager will.
  • Plan your answers to hard questions in advance. Know what to say about why you were fired, or why you've been unemployed or why you're applying for a new job when you've been in your current one for just three months.

The in-house inexperienced recruiter

This person looks and acts a lot like the experienced version, but she doesn't have a clue about the positions she's hiring for. She's looking at a checklist.

You can usually spot these recruiters because they tend to go over things in the job description. "Can you do this program?" or "Have you ever done X?" rather than talk in-depth about the job. In addition to the points mentioned for an experienced recruiter, you'll need to think about the following:

  • Answer the questions, even when the information requested is written right there on your resume.
  • If you're asked about Program X, don't just say, "No, I haven't done that." Say, "I have worked with Program Y which is very similar to Program X. It will be no problem for me to learn Program X." Otherwise, she'll just mark a "no" on her checklist and go on.
  • Don't ask detailed questions about the job, but do ask about the general company environment.
  • Don't push back too much on salary or other personal information. She's got a box that needs to be filled in, and you won't go forward without that information.
  • Always be positive. Don't express any doubts about working for the company, even if you have them. Save those questions for the hiring manager.
  • For face-to-face meetings, focus on appearance, talking smoothly and being polite. It's what she's looking for.

Getting past this first step can often be the most difficult part of landing the job, but these tips will boost your chances of getting to see the hiring manager.