how to hire entry-level employees

A reader writes:

I hire and manage a number of entry level nonprofit employees (permanent full-time staff as well as AmeriCorps members and college interns). When I hire these folks, it’s often pretty tough to identify the best candidates — so many of them don’t really know how to give me the information I need to evaluate their abilities. The best person I’ve ever hired in this kind of position had a resume so bad… well, let’s just say that I did a Google image search for “bad resume examples” and couldn’t find a resume as badly put together as hers. (Why did I hire her? We had an incredibly short turnaround time to make a decision – one week from posting the job to signing a contract — so I read every resume super carefully.)

Any advice on how to see the superstar-in-the-making when she’s hidden by the uninspiring cover letter, light-on-the-details resume, and jangly interview nerves that often come along with someone new on the professional scene?

I feel your pain! But there are a few things you can do to get beneath the surface of the inexperienced presentation to see what substance is really there:

1. Look for candidates who have a track record of achievement. Since these are entry-level candidates, look at what they’ve done in school, hobbies, extracurriculars, and internships. Look for the people who have a track record of taking something from A to B, where B is greater than A. That’s the kind of track record you want on your team.

2. Ask a ton of probing questions. Figure out what the must-have skills and qualities are that you need in the role, and come up with questions designed to ferret out whether a candidate has them or not. For instance, if you need someone who’s highly organized and able to stay calm in a crisis, ask candidates to tell you about a time when they had to use those skills. Then ask a ton of follow-ups: “What did you do next? How did you handle X? Why did you decide to do it that way? What was the hardest part? I imagine Y must have been a challenge; how did you handle it? Walk me through how you made a decision about Z.” The idea is that you want to get beneath the surface and into the nitty-gritty of how the candidate thinks and operates — and how she really did think and operate in a specific past situation, not how she thinks she might handle a hypothetical future situations (which are a lot easier for candidates to bluff their way through).

3. See candidates in action. Not even the most thorough interview can substitute for actually seeing candidates doing the work. (A colleague of mine compares this to being a football coach holding tryouts. You wouldn’t ask a player whether he could make a tackle, you’d ask to see him do it. The same is true here.) Have your top candidates do an exercise that will simulate some of the most critical work they’d be doing on the job. For instance, if you need someone who can write persuasively under pressure, give each candidate a set of talking points and 30 minutes to draft a memo. The results of exercises like this can give you a huge amount of insight, often strongly differentiating one candidate from another.


{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. Ellen M.*

    Great advice from Alison and I also like what Anita wrote about talking to professors about applicants’ performance as students. I tell students all the time, “If you hand in assignments late, ask for incompletes repeatedly and in general try to scam your professors, they will likely not be willing to be a positive reference for you down the road.”

  2. COT*

    Great advice–thanks for the ideas! I hire entry-level volunteers and interns. To help me distinguish the mediocre from the merely inexperienced (without having to interview everyone), I use a written application. That way I can directly ask what I want to know rather than hoping that they’ll know how to cover that ground in a cover letter. Because I know that they might not have a ton of directly relevant experience (and that’s okay) I probe at motivation, future goals, and past experience with things like diverse populations. I look for people who are passionate and eager to do the work and move forward in the field.

    An application also lets me assess their writing skills outside of the generic cover letter that someone else probably edited for them (as do a few emails back and forth).

    And like you said, references really help. I know that I got jobs early in my career not because I had experience, but because my references convinced the hiring manager that they couldn’t pass me up. Professors and the like are pretty good at identifying up-and-coming talent and should be able to enthusiastically express the promise your applicant holds.

  3. Sarah G*

    Your answer to this rocks; it is by far the best of the bunch. The others make a couple good points, but I think your advice is by far the most spot-on and useful.

  4. Steve G*

    Come on guys, where are all of the comments! I need my contraversy after a 13 hour day preventing blackouts in 95 degree weather in NYC!

    1. khilde*

      You should be sleeping!! ha ha. But seriously for the controversy, we’re going to need a somewhat weird question about personal habits to come through. Or one about entitled young people. Those always seem to do the trick.

  5. Beth*

    My favourite technique is actually scaring people slightly – I’m very frank about how our entry-level personnel performs menial tasks and has to perform them well to advance to higher responsibilities. I keep a good eye on the candidate and if they follow my train of thought and don’t flinch, they generally work out.

  6. Laura*

    When I read the poster’s question, I was most shocked by the fact that she had such poor pickings of candidates. I especially liked one of the other pieces of advice that focused on how to get better candidates. I don’t think entry-level candidates should ever be excused for bad resumes, etc. Maybe their career center sucks, but if they are resourceful (something I would want to see), they would google for advice and land on this blog.

    1. Natasha*

      But short of having someone write everything for them, not everyone is going to be stellar at creative writing (cover letters) or at knowing what each hiring manager wants to see in a resume. Particularly when first starting out.

    2. Student*

      I know this can be shocking, but not everyone has access to the web all the time.

      There are still plenty of poor people who don’t get internet access at home, or get very spotty internet connectivity. It’s a lot harder to search Google for resume tips when you have to go down to the library and wait for a public terminal to free up to do that.

      Rural communities also sometimes have bad (or no) internet connections because it’s not profitable for the service providers to run nice infrastructure to them.

      Those people still need jobs and can be hard workers. Some of them have very little access to folks with professional jobs with proper resume experience. I certainly had no one to ask about resumes in my own circle of family and friends when I first graduated high school.

      1. Mike C.*

        Thanks for this comment, it’s easy to forget that not everyone else has the same chances and opportunities that we personally possess.

    3. Victoria (The OP)*

      Oh dear. Looks like I gave the wrong impression with my question. I absolutely don’t have poor pickings of candidates (I’m in the midst of a hiring process right now and I’m totally blown away by the quality of our candidate pool).

      My goal is to hire the best person for the job, someone who is going to be a superstar for us. I know (from experience) that the superstar might be hidden beneath a crappy resume. If that person is out there, I want to find her; I don’t want to write her off because she got bad advice about how to write a cover letter.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I think this is uniquely true when you’re hiring entry-level candidates, who simply have little or no experience in the hiring process. Once you’re hiring more experienced people, not knowing how to present themselves well is more likely to point to overall weaknesses as a candidate — but for entry-level people, they so often just don’t have the work/life experience to figure it out.

        1. Victoria*

          Good reminder! I almost exclusively hire entry-level folks, so that’s where all of my experience is.

    4. Anonymous*

      There are also those who have simply been stuck in bad, dead-end jobs, where they are not in a postion to advance/get extra training, just due to how their organization is structured or due to bad management.

      Does that mean they are poor candidates? I think not.

  7. Suzanne*

    I must say I find it quite disconcerting to hear the OP say she (he?) hired someone with an epically lousy resume. After all the discussions about what should and should not go into a resume and dire warnings to proof for any tiny mistake, this just proves to me that it really is a crap shoot at best. I’ve seen some of the resumes of candidates where I work, and usually wonder how in the world many of them ever made it past the screening process, but there they are, lined up and ready for the group interview.

    1. Jamie*

      I don’t think it’s a crap shoot as much as improving your odds.

      She hired from a lousy resume because her circumstances dictated that she had to go through every resume carefully due to needing someone and not having any great ones coming through.

      Most people are applying for jobs with a less desperate need for an immediate placement, and with more and better competition in the resume department.

      When I recently reread the resume I used to get my current job I was so embarrassed as it was really awful. Like it should be on a website as a cautionary tale of what not to do ever awful. Why did I get an interview from that? Because there were only three other applicants for a position which requires an atypical mix of skills. So combination of urgent need and luck can override a bad resume – but such combos are rare.

      At the time they were hiring for my position they were also hiring for another position in the office which was far more traditional and they had over 200 resumes submitted for that one. No way would I have ever gotten a call if I had applied for the job with more competition.

      It just goes to show that people who are fortunate enough to have found Alison’s advice really do have a leg up on their competition…because there are a lot of potentially good employees out there competing for the fewer and fewer slots and some of them do have really crappy resumes.

    2. Victoria (The OP)*

      This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, since I’m in the middle of a hiring process right now.

      Sometimes, in the comments here (and in conversations with other managers), I get the impression that some folks treat hiring like an exercise in looking for reasons to reject someone. “If I got a resume with a typo I’d automatically throw it away!” or whatever. But my job is to hire a star for my organization, someone who is going to take her role and run with it, make more of it than we had planned. The fact of her typo (or crappy resume, or nervous interview, etc.) informs my understanding of her as a candidate, but it doesn’t make the decision for me.

      Your job as a candidate is to (try to) craft my understanding of you in such a way that I see you as a star. If you do that, it won’t guarantee that you get hired (it won’t even guarantee that you will be better off than someone who doesn’t do that – I’m also busy drawing my own understanding of you). It will make it easier for me to imagine you being successful in the role, and that’s a huge step up.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I hear that, but I do think it’s worth noting that those typos, etc. are often important signals. I’m not going to immediately trash a resume because it has one typo, but the bar just got a lot higher for that person. A lot higher. I used to try to overlook that kind of thing, but over time I realized that when I did, the issue (sloppinesss, lack of attention to detail, whatever) generally popped up in other places.

  8. Eleanor*

    “so many of them don’t really know how to give me the information I need to evaluate their abilities. ”
    As a recent graduate who has been scouring this site trying to become a more savvy applicant, I am just curious what this specifically pertains to. Do applicants mostly fall short in their resumes, cover letters, or interviews, or all of it together? How are you evaluating their abilities currently? I would love to hear if the writer or others have advice for us entry-level job seekers to more successfully give the desired information with our limited experience backgrounds.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      For me, it’s a couple of things:

      * Most have resumes that just tell me what their job descriptions were, not what they actually accomplished (which is what I want to know to determine what type of employee they’ve been).

      * Their cover letters basically just summarize their resumes, meaning that the letter is superfluous and gives me no additional information about their candidacy.

      * Interviews are usually better, but it’s really helpful for applicants to come prepared with examples of situations they’ve navigated in the past that relate to the job they’re applying for.

      1. Victoria (The OP)*


        This is especially true for entry-level folks, whose resumes are often very similar (a couple of retail jobs, a couple of internships if they went to college, a couple of volunteer efforts,etc.).

  9. Elizabeth West*

    I’m going on an interview next week for a clerical position in a field I’m new to. So I guess that sort of makes me entry-level, even though I have quite a bit of experience. This weekend is going to be spent preparing.

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