don’t ask how many other people are interviewing for the same job as you

I co-sign this recent comment from commenter Spiky Plant, strongly enough that I felt it should be its own post:

I’m always surprised by people who think they have new information when they know how many other people they’re up against. Or when people ask during a phone screen how many other candidates are screening (which I’ve had candidates ask me). It changes nothing for you. It’s information that you think is useful, but it doesn’t change your “odds” of getting the job, because hiring is not an odds game. You don’t have an equal shot with everyone else in the pool of getting the job; but you also don’t know your or anyone else’s odds. You have no idea how many of those are “courtesy interviews” because they’re a referral. You have no idea how many of them had a horrible cover letter and thus a lot more ground to cover. You don’t know if one has it in the bag but the interviewer has been told to bring in at least X people.

Don’t ask about how many people are being interviewed, and if you happen to find that info out, don’t give in to the temptation to think this is useful information! Put it out of your mind. It doesn’t matter even a tiny little bit. There are too many unknowns and variables.

Amen.

{ 168 comments… read them below }

  1. Jessica

    And I would add that it can mess with your mind and give you a false level of confidence or certainty… like I got when I heard there were only two people interviewing. Luckily, she mentioned it after the interview so I know it didn’t affect me during it, but then I got my hopes WAY too high. Only makes it more disappointing when you hear no.

  2. LMN

    What doesn’t change an applicant’s odds with regard to knowing how many other applicants are involved is that the odds would be the same with or without an applicant having that knowledge (unless the presence or absence of that knowledge changes applicants’ behavior).

    To act like the number of applicants/interviewees/etc. doesn’t affect the odds, however, doesn’t make sense. Of course that affects the odds. That’s pretty much what odds are–the number of possibilities that can occur. That’s not to say that all applicants have an equal chance, but a situation with unequal chances doesn’t mean that the situation isn’t “an odds game”; it just means that it’s not a random drawing from everyone who throws his or her name into the ring.

    It’s not weird for someone to want a ballpark understanding of those odds in an application process. The information is potentially useful, and even if it’s not, it can be used to inform expectations.

    1. Rex

      Yeah, I agree. Of course there are still lots of variables you can’t possibly know, but doesn’t “we’re interviewing 18 other people for this position” tell you something useful about the organization?

      1. LMN

        It tells you a lot of useful information. One basic issue would be to understand how much of an effort to make for a certain interview, especially for travel or if there is an either/or choice involved. Is it worth traveling across the country for a 1/10 shot? 1/100? 1/1000? Is it worth missing a show/ballgame/concert you really want to attend? Is it worth your time at all?

        I can understand why employers like to withhold information when it’s to their advantage (see also salary in job postings), but it’s not to the advantage of the applicants.

          1. Marcy Marketer

            I definitely think knowing the number of people interviewing (for a second or third round) tells you how serious the company is about hiring along with how experienced the company is about hiring. I’d be worried about the judgement of a company that brought in 20 people for a second interview.

            I don’t think it’s important to know the number of candidates for the first interview, but I think it’s extra important to ask this question if the company is asking you for free work or significant time investment. This is how I screen companies that might not be a good fit for me.

            1. Ruthan

              20 does seem like a lot, but if there were 2,000 applicants and 200 initial screens, it’s a lot more reasonable.

              If you make it to the round of 20, it’d also be weak evidence that you’re doing something right as regards positions like that one.

          2. Cat

            I’m not suggesting asking, because I don’t think it gives you enough info to be worth the optics (at least most of the time – maybe there’s some outlier situation, like where you’re funding your own travel), but I think that it can give you some information about your relative odds. If you’re one of two candidates that means you’ve survived more winnowing, most likely, than if you’re one in ten or one in 20. In none of those cases does that mean you’re likely to have a 50%, 10%, or 5% shot respectively, but in the first scenaior, the job is a more concrete possibility than in the latter two.

            1. LBK

              I think the problem here is that you’re not looking at the hiring process as one whole unit, though, you’re looking at it as multiple rounds. Your qualifications for the role remain the same throughout the process – your odds don’t really improve through each round of interviews because you’ll still be as qualified for the role as you were in the first interview as you are in the tenth, even if you’re now only up against 1 person instead of 30.

              You get a better view of what your odds have been as it progresses, but they don’t actually change.

                1. LBK

                  I think it’s all psychological at that point. Do it for your peace of mind, I guess, but remember that it doesn’t actually mean anything in terms of whether you’ll get the job or not. If you were the right person from the job at the start, you’re still the right person for the job by the end.

                2. Cat

                  Well, as I said, I wouldn’t ask because the optics seem to outweigh the useful information most of the time. But some of the examples given — where people are trying to decide whether to pay for their own travel — may make it worth it in certain cases.

          3. LMN

            No information will allow perfect assessment of the odds, but to pretend that information isn’t often worth having is silly. Anyone would have to size up what is and isn’t known about one’s chances, and that process will never be exact, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth using what one can to make a decent estimate.

          4. INTP

            It doesn’t tell you with precision, “You have exactly a 10% chance of getting this job.” However, knowing whether you’re one of 3 candidates or one of 30 candidates certainly does give you some information about how serious of a candidate you are and the chances that this interview will lead to a job. If you’re one of 3, you know you’re at least qualified and you have a real shot. If you’re one of 30, you might just be someone they’re interviewing out of curiosity but that they already know probably isn’t the one. It’s certainly enough information to help you decide whether an interview is worth taking time off or traveling for or help you prioritize if you can’t make every interview you’re invited on.

            1. LBK

              It gives you information, but not as much information as people think it does. That’s the point. Even if they’re interviewing 30 people, you could actually be part of an applicant pool that they plan to select from over the next 6 months for various roles. Or if there’s only 3 of you, they could actually decide to not fill the position at all because they don’t think any of you are qualified. There are too many variables to put as much stock in knowing the size of the candidate pool as you’re putting in it.

              Here’s what it should come down to: how interested are you in the job and how qualified do you think you are? If you’re very interested and very qualified, why wouldn’t you try to pursue it and prioritize it over others even if they’re interviewing 100 people?

              1. LMN

                That’s really not the point as it’s expressed in the original post. And “as people think it does” is a pretty empty phrase. There are several people in this very thread with perfectly good examples of when more information would have been useful, not to mention those who simply prefer to have it. And apparently some people think that information is way less useful than it actually is.

                To answer your question: Because my interest and qualifications aren’t the only issues; I’m being compared with some number of other people. Regardless of a few posts in this thread, emerging from a group of candidates is a competitive process, one that isn’t without cost. Doing interviews, submitting materials, traveling, etc. are all investments. Understanding odds is a helpful, though not airtight, part of navigating the process and making reasonable use of one’s finite time and resources.

                1. LBK

                  How is that not the exact point expressed in the original point? The examples given of when it would’ve been “useful” don’t ring true to me at all – in each case, the person is still assuming that each person in that pool had an equal chance at the job, which isn’t accurate. If they interviewed 50 people, that doesn’t mean all 50 of them are qualified. Maybe you’re actually only 1 of 10 even being considered for the job. Why does it matter? If you’re going to get it, you’re going to get it.

                  Maybe this is all reflective of my perspective on job hunting and career moves, which is that everything happens how and when it’s meant to. If I’m going to get the job, it’s more or less pre-determined from the beginning, ergo I find no use in trying to gauge my odds.

                2. LBK

                  And I can almost agree with the time argument…but I still think you should be going after the ones that you’re most interested in and think you’re most qualified for. Qualifications ARE really the only thing that matters, because that’s what determines if you make it to the next pool or not, and thus determines your “odds” (as you keep insisting). If you’re one of 2 people for a job you’re not that into, why would you prioritize that over one you would love to have where you’re one of 10? That’s playing your odds, but it’s a stupid move for your career.

                3. Cat

                  But LBK, while you could have a 2% chance of getting the job when you’re one of two candidates and a 50% chance of getting the job when you’re one of fifty candidates, the odds of those scenarios being true are much lower than the odds of you having a 50% chance when you’re one of two and a 2% chance when you’re one of fifty. So factoring that into your thoughts about the resources you expend on any given job is not insane even if it’s not precise either.

                4. LBK

                  I’ll concede that when it comes down to a resource issue and you have to make some kind of judgment about allocating a limited travel/vacation time budget, you have to try to make the cuts somewhere and somehow, even with potentially inaccurate information. Although I’d argue that probing more to gauge your fit/interest in the role and what they’re really looking for is a lot more valuable in making that calculation.

                5. NewishAnon

                  Cat, perhaps I am misunderstanding, but as I read it, the point LBK is trying to make is that even if you’re one of only two candidates, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a 50% change of getting the job. What it means is that you rose to the top of the application pile. If there were 100 applicants you are in the top 2%. But the other candidate in the top 2% still may be 75% more qualified than you are. In the hiring managers opinion, you may have a 25% chance of landing the job compared to the other candidate. So, knowing that there are only 2 people left doesn’t actually tell you anything meaningful about where you stand.

                6. NewishAnon

                  I guess I read your post a little backwards. But I actually don’t think the odds change no matter how many people are left. The only odds that actually change here are the odds that your opinion on the matter is correct. You might *feel* you have a better chance when you’re 1 of 2 than when you’re 1 of 10. If you’re 1 of 2 the chances of that feeling being correct are higher. But the chances of you getting the job have actually not changed.

                7. LBK

                  NewishAnon, exactly what I was trying to say. Your perception of the odds may get more accurate as the process moves along, but the odds themselves don’t change.

                8. NewishAnon

                  But my point is that the only knowledge change is the knowledge of exactly how many people are interviewing. You haven’t actually gained any knowledge about anything else. You could formulate an assumption about your odds at that point, sure. But it’s just that, an assumption. There is literally no way to tell if it’s an accurate assumption until you’ve been rejected or received an offer. I just don’t see how it’s useful knowledge.

                9. Cat

                  I disagree; you can’t verify anything, but you can better refine the probabilities you’re looking at. Like, I don’t want to oversell – as I’ve said, I wouldn’t ask unless there were some weird circumstances of the sort I haven’t encountered. But as an academic matter, I don’t think the information is meaningless in forming an assessment; it’s just that your assessment will continue to be incomplete.

              2. John

                And if there are only three people, it could mean they know who they want but are doing a pro forma due diligence round of interviewing so they can say they looked at multiple candidates. Who can say?

                Knowing often leads to incorrect conclusions.

                1. LMN

                  The idea that you don’t “necessarily” know for sure is fine, but to extrapolate from that premise that one shouldn’t still try to make an assessments of a situation is not a reasonable way to assess risk, which often involves having to concede that you don’t “necessarily” know what all the information means even though you still have to make a decision. Few real-life situations can be boiled down to the clear, if somewhat complex, odds involved in a poker game, but we do what we can with the information we have.

                  To answer your question, LBK (“Qualifications ARE really the only thing that matters, because that’s what determines if you make it to the next pool or not, and thus determines your “odds” (as you keep insisting). If you’re one of 2 people for a job you’re not that into, why would you prioritize that over one you would love to have where you’re one of 10? That’s playing your odds, but it’s a stupid move for your career.”), I would say, no, qualifications aren’t the only thing that matters when there are a finite number of spots and when many people may be equally, or nearly equally, qualified. “Luck,” for lack of a better term to describe the factors outside one’s control, definitely matters, and even if perfect information about those factors isn’t possible, that’s no argument not trying to improve one’s understanding of one’s standing.

                  Plus, people work in certain jobs for plenty of reasons, “love” being among them, but the number of factors and how individuals weigh them could very well dictate taking the first job in your hypothetical instead of the second. And extending your line of thinking would argue for never applying for a job one didn’t “love,” which almost no one would advocate, especially given this blog’s mantra that there’s no such thing as a “dream job.”

                2. LBK

                  Something being outside of your control and something being based on luck are completely different. And you’re getting hung up on my phrasing. I was only trying to say that focusing on a job that you’re less enthusiastic about just because you judge the odds of getting that job to be better doesn’t make sense. If you only have the time/money to do one interview, I don’t think it’s smart to interview for the job you think you have the best chance at getting (in an odds sense). I think it makes more sense to interview for whichever one you want more.

          5. Kelly O

            Exactly. It doesn’t help your “odds” in any way.

            If there are 100 people being interviewed, but you have the right qualifications, skills, and perhaps even something special that makes you stand out, then why not try?

            Maybe this is more a question of what it’s worth to the individual, how actively you’re pursuing new work, whether you’re presently out of work, and a lot of other factors that don’t have a thing to do with how many other candidates there are.

            The statistic only has the meaning you ascribe to it.

        1. PlainJane

          A slight variant: If you have to pay your own travel expenses for the interview–and those expenses aren’t trivial–then it seems reasonable to ask. I’d be a lot more willing to fork over $$ if I were one of two or three candidates than one of eight or nine.

    2. 42

      Yup yup yup. It would make a HUUUUGE difference to me and my psyche knowing if there were 10 others vs 3 others. Not even taking into account the points in the original post, but only because knowing would be meaningful to me in my own intangible way. I couldn’t even verbalize why.

      That said, I would never ASK for this info at all.

      1. AndersonDarling

        If I had taken time off to go to three interviews, and was asked to come in for a fourth, I might ask how may candidates were still being considered. It wouldn’t have to do with my chances, but if there were still 10 candidates I may drop out of the running. I wouldn’t want to invest the time into more interviews, and I would begin to doubt the efficiency of the company.
        But I wouldn’t ask after a phone screen, or even after an initial interview.

        1. NewishAnon

          Wouldn’t a better tactic in this case be to ask what the rest of the hiring process looks like rather than just dropping out because of how many candidates are left? The company may be planning to knock it down to two after that round and then make a final decision. I’d doesn’t necessarily follow that 10 candidates means several more interviews in the process. They could have 10 candidates left for a variety of reasons. Maybe they had a particularly strong candidate pool. Maybe they have several positions and are interviewing some candidates for more than one of them. Maybe there were some late entries that are at a different stage in the process than you are.

        2. Davey1983

          Dropping out at that point would be what economists refer to as a sunk costs fallacy. It doesn’t matter what you have spent (in this case time) before, it only matters if the payoff is worth more than what you have to put into it now. The time spent on the interviews is already ‘spent’, you can’t get it back, so it doesn’t matter.

          In this case, if a job was worth going to three interviews for, then it wouldn’t matter that you have already been to three interviews. Only the number of future interviews matter– if that is less then three, then you should go to the interviews.

    3. INTP

      I agree with this. Maybe four people versus eight people doesn’t make a big difference. However, I once had an all-day interview for a job where I found out later that they had brought in like 50 people for these all-day interviews over the course of a couple of months, just to “see who was out there,” including a coworker who had over 20x the length of experience as me. Basically, they were doing these lengthy interviews as indiscriminately as most companies do 30 minute phone interviews. I don’t know that I’d have taken a full unpaid day off if I knew that being invited for a full day interview didn’t mean I was a serious contender for the job.

      1. Damaska

        But knowing that they brought in 50 other people doesn’t necessarily give you that information. That’s the issue; it’s not that it can never possibly glean useful information, it’s that you have no way to judge if that info is indeed useful. There are almost always better ways to ask. If you’re not sure if you should take a full day to attend an interview, you should write to the hiring manager/your contact and say something like “I can only take a full day off to do an interview like this rarely; can you give me an idea of what your timeline for hiring is, and what the remaining steps of the process after this look like?” Their answer to that question is going to give you much more concrete information than simply knowing what the candidate pool looks like.

    4. LBK

      I don’t know what you consider “potentially useful,” though. It’s not like knowing the odds of a coin flip because there could be 5 other coins you don’t even know about, or they could ignore the coin and decide to roll a die instead, or it might actually be a weighted coin. Just knowing the number of people applying doesn’t notably increase your ability to gauge your chances at getting the job, and even if it did, that’s more for your peace of mind than anything else. You can’t change anything about how qualified you are for the role or not just based on how many other people are going for it; you either are or you aren’t.

      1. Moi

        It can provide you with information other than how likely you are to get the job, though. I’ve interviewed before with people who seemed scattered and rushed, but it was because the company had just expanded immensely and was looking to do a ton of hiring as quickly as possible.

        I knew that I was one of many people being brought in that month, and the weirdness I picked up on in the interview made sense because I had a sense of the numbers of applicants they were bringing in. If it had been a small, stagnant firm I’d have been worried that the people I met were just miserable and perpetually stressed out.

        1. LBK

          Couldn’t you also glean that by just asking them questions about the organization, which is something that would be normal and probably a really good idea to ask about anyway? I can’t imagine that immense expansion and fast hiring wouldn’t be subjects that would come up in the process anyway.

          1. Moi

            Yes, they openly told me that they were doing a lot of interviewing without my having to ask. I’m not sure I understand your point. The number of candidates being brought in for any position is one tiny piece of the puzzle you’re trying to put together to figure out if you want a job or not. No, it’s not the only piece I want, nor is it always a useful piece. But it behooves anyone looking for employment to seek out as many of those pieces as possible to make a more informed decision.

    5. jag

      LMN nailed it.

      “But knowing the number of candidates doesn’t tell you if you have a 1/10 shot–that’s the point.”

      If there are 20 other candidates getting interviewed it’s a reasonable assumption that you have better odds than if there are 5 other candidates being interviewed.

    6. Mariabelle01

      I get annoyed when we ask candidates if they have questions and this is what they ask. As everyone is saying, it doesn’t tell you much, it doesn’t tell you anything about the actual job, it doesn’t tell us anything that will help you get the job…

    1. Same here

      Exactly. Spiky Plant and Alison seem to assume that everyone who asks this is then madly configuring the resulting odds in their mind and making all kinds of assumptions, but actually, you might just hit a pause in the interview and fill the gap with a slightly meaningless but vaguely interesting question.

      Not that big a deal, I wouldn’t have thought.

  3. Adam

    I’m perfectly fine not knowing how many other candidates there are. I assume there’s plenty so as not to get my hopes up too high. To me job hunting already feels too much like a competition as it is (even though you shouldn’t view it that way) , and knowing for sure how many other “players” there are would make it feel like a reality TV game show.

    1. Jessica

      So true. I would rather not know because then I start picturing them as my competition instead of focusing on myself and my accomplishments. It’s distracting, for me at least.

      1. De Minimis

        You never know what can happen, either….I know of a case where they interviewed several, but already had a candidate more or less handpicked. But one other candidate did so well in the interview that they decided to find a way to hire both of them. I almost think it’s better not to know, in case it affects your attitude or interview performance.

  4. Gerald

    Some employers interview candidates with the intent to feel out the current market. Candidates use this question to gauge the level of seriousness to hire or to determine what stage of the interview process the applicant is at (round 1, round 2, final stage). If there are 10 candidates as oppose to 2, this indicates the interview process will likely stretch longer than being shortlisted with 1 other individual.

    1. Damaska

      But the better way to find any of that information is to ask directly. “Can you tell me how many steps are in the process/what the estimated timeline from now until the hire looks like?” There are too many other reasons to have any number of other candidates for just that piece of information to be useful. It’s almost always better to just ask what you want to know than to try to find tricky ways to figure out something like what you want to know (especially when the question is just as likely to give you bad information as it is to give you good).

  5. Allison

    I work on recruiting for some tough roles, and there are times when only one or two people are in process for a role. That doesn’t necessarily mean one of them is going to get the job! Both could end up getting rejected if the team doesn’t like either one. I realize some employers have the opposite problem, they’re inundated with perfectly qualified candidates and they can take their pick, and in those cases people understandably worry about standing out, but my point is that a low number of active candidates doesn’t always mean someone has a good shot at getting the job. Either you have what the hiring manager wants or you don’t.

    1. AnotherHRPro

      Exactly! When interviewing, you shouldn’t look at it like a competition or trying to “win” something. Both you and the employer are trying to find a match. You could be 1 out of 10 candidates, but you are the best qualified and best fit for the job and are a “shoe in”. You could be the only one being interviewed and not a good fit so the company will pass. Who else and how many are interviewing is completely irrelevant.

      1. ThursdaysGeek

        Except if you find out they are interviewing 50 people and it’s an all day interview that you’d have to take time off for (as INTP mentions above) — it’s not giving you information on how likely it is that you’ll get the job, but it is giving you information on how likely it is you’ll WANT a job at that company.

    2. BRR

      This happened with a position I had helped hire for. Four people made it to the phone screen. Two were brought in. Nobody was given an offer.

    3. Ask a Manager Post author

      I also work on hiring for a really tough role, and we just interview candidates on a rolling basis when someone seems like they could be strong. So in this context, there’s no real answer to how many candidates are you interviewing — it could end up being 15+ over the course of 5 months, or we could find the right person in the second week. We’re prepared for it to take months and talk to lots of people, so I always just say “we’re interviewing on a rolling basis and talking to a lot of people because it’s a tough role to fill.”

  6. Jennifer

    I dunno, I was up for a job once where they were interviewing 2 people, but they’d already designed the job for the other person :P

    I don’t know how much it would help either to know that information, especially if the answer is “a lot of people.”

  7. Andrew Whitworth

    I ask this question on interviews sometimes, but I don’t do it for this reason. I don’t care about the “odds” in any sense, because I know (from having recently spent some time on the other side of the table) that the majority of resumes you get are going to be from the unqualified or the under-qualified, who think they have a shot at prematurely moving up the ladder.

    BUT, that information, especially in the context of how the question is answered, can sometimes give you a little insight into the job market or the number of job-seekers active in the geographical area. Few qualified candidates might mean your bargaining posture will be better, for example. It can also give you a sense for how the company operates, because bringing candidates in to interview is expensive, and if they’re bringing in many candidates it could indicate trouble finding a good one or trouble identifying the good from among the bad. Bringing in few candidates to interview might mean they are being too selective, or it might mean a dearth of qualified candidates (which, if you already have a foot in the door, might help with your bargaining posture).

    Again, the question has nothing to do with “odds” in my mind, but it can help you glean a little bit of information about things and maybe also help you get a leg up when the offer comes in.

    1. John

      I would reconsider asking this in the future. Lots of hiring managers will consider this none of your business and it will rub them the wrong way. (I would never share anything beyond, “We’re speaking to a number of candidates,” because, while the process and timeline are fair game, the rest of the hiring process is confidential.)

      I would also tend to read into it that the candidate is worried about competition, which speaks to a lack of confidence in their fit for the job.

      1. LMN

        That asking for this information would rub a hiring manager the wrong way seems like a pretty clear indication that the information would be useful to the candidate. And of course applicants should be worried about competition; they’re competing. And so is the company doing the hiring.

        1. LBK

          A question rubbing someone the wrong way is absolutely not synonymous with that question gleaning useful information…I think if you think about this for half a second, you’d realize there are countless questions you could ask that would rub someone the wrong way because they’re weird, not because the interviewer doesn’t want to tell you the answer.

          1. LMN

            There are of course countless questions that are weird and prying and personal, but this is not one. This question is about the conditions of the job search, the specific interaction at stake between the candidate and employer.

            And that interaction does not put on the table all the information that is relevant to both parties. There are clear information asymmetries that cut both ways, and both parties are served by tipping the scales in their favor. Salary negotiation is an obvious one where both parties purposely–and reasonably–might withhold information, for example.

            The information about number of candidates/interviewees/etc. is clearly of interest and use to some people, who have stated perfectly clear reasons for why they want that information and what they would do or have done with it. At this point, we can take them at their word or not, but the idea that a candidate can put the information to some use seems to be pretty well settled. Those uses may not occur with perfect information, but no one on either side of a job search operates with perfect information.

            But for some reason, not only is this particular information not volunteered by the employer, some employers are cagey about providing it when asked or even offended. Maybe hiring managers are simply indulging a nonrational feeling about the question and holding it against the candidate who asks. That’s possible.

            Another possibility is that the employer is acting rationally (or thinks it is acting rationally) and that the information is useful to the employer, who doesn’t want to lose an advantage in having it. An advantage gained by the employer is a disadvantage to the candidate.

            Or perhaps some combination of both reasons is the answer here.

            I would think that reading this thread would force hiring managers to think about why exactly it’s annoying for a candidate to want this particular piece of information. I can’t definitively answer that question, but if a hiring manager really thinks the information is useless to a candidate, why not provide it, free of penalty, when asked? If not, what’s the rationale for withholding it?

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              But I’m not withholding it. I’m providing it when people ask. I don’t feel I lose anything by sharing it with them, so I continue to not understand your point there!

              But my point with the post is that I think people misunderstand the value of the info to them as applicants — giving it way more weight than they should.

              1. Chief Detail Officer

                In addition to how many candidates there are, here’s another piece of information that I considered irrelevant (it was one of the questions asked of the panelists in an event I was asked to speak):

                “Who are the largest employers of Chocolate Teapot makers in town?”

                My answer was simply that I had never bothered to learn that. You’re still just one person, and only need one offer. If there are 100 openings, and you don’t prepare well for the interview, the company may decide to continue searching. Conversely, if there’s just one slot, but you did your best to prepare, had answers ready for behavior questions, researched the company well to be able to answer with competence why you want to work there, and bring a strong track record of results to the table, it’s not super relevant to know if they have 2 or 1,000 candidates — your changes are still better than in the scenario with lots of openings…

              2. Hiring Mgr

                I’ve never asked this, but sometimes have been told. I think it can be useful, though I certainly wouldn’t put too much stock in the knowledge. It also wouldn’t bother me if a candidate would ask me this in an interview.

                Either way, I don’t quite understand the dire warnings NOT to ask, and I think giving the topic its own post tremendously over-inflates the negative consequences.

  8. insert pun here

    I’ve never asked for this information in an interview, and probably wouldn’t do so — the closest I’ve come is “when do you anticipate being done with interviews?” The last couple of jobs I’ve interviewed for, the hiring manager has flat-out told me how many candidates were left at each stage. I guess it’s good to know?

    In small/niche industries, knowing how many candidates are left can sometimes give you a good guess on who they are.

  9. PEBCAK

    I think this info could be useful if you were passively looking, and an interview would involve substantial travel or time off of work. Maybe you don’t want to take those steps unless the company is pretty serious about you.

  10. Marcy Marketer

    I don’t agree. I mean, I agree you shouldn’t ask this in the first round, but I do like to know how many people are in the second or third round, not because I think it helps my odds, but because it helps me get a sense of how far along in the decision process the interviewer is. I also feel like I learn a lot about an organization if, say, they ask twenty people into the third round for one open position.

    For example, I once was in the third round for an entry level position. I made it to the third round, and I had gone an hour and a half into the city for each of the first two rounds (that’s $60 in train tickets). For the third round, they wanted me to write several blog posts and upload them to their website. Before I could commit any more time to the organization, I needed to know (1) How many people were they asking for free work (ie how many people made it to the third round), and (2) What would the salary be for this position? I asked both questions and quickly realized this position was not the right fit for me and was able to save both of us some time.

    Since that experience, whenever I am told I “made it to the next round,” I always ask how many people are also moving forward.

    1. Dan

      I’m always fascinated by entry level jobs that require more than two rounds of interviews. Heck, I work in an analytics field, and my interviews are never more than one day. Usually half, and on rare occasions full. (That is, beyond an initial phone screen.) I *never* have to come to the main off more than once. And these are for jobs that pay almost six figures.

      These jobs in the $20-ish/hr range that have multiples on-site interviews for entry level always fascinate me. What, exactly are they trying to accomplish, and why can’t they do it in a day?

      1. Zahra

        Ah, but you don’t get an all-day interview, at least not in my corner of the world. You get a 60 to 90 minutes interview. That’s why you get a second round. It gives the interviewers a chance to think about the different candidates and weigh the pros and the cons of each.

        1. INTP

          Yeah, often you’re just meeting with 3-4 different people for 30 minutes to an hour each. You just have to do it in 3-4 separate days of interviews because it’s easier for them than having to all be available within the same 4 hour span.

      2. Marcy Marketer

        Isn’t it funny! I might not ask how many people are in the next round now that I’m a more experienced candidate going after more experienced roles, but going for entry level roles I would always recommend asking that question. There are *so many* companies out there that do this multiple round circus, inviting 30 people back and forth to the office. If they can’t narrow down after that, and if they have that much time to waste on an entry level position, then I don’t want to work there, that’s for sure!

        1. Dan

          It’s worth noting that in my field, out of town interviews, with the employer picking up the tab, is the norm. I think that does a lot for getting candidate pools to a reasonable level. And as others have noted, I probably spend as much time with interviews in one “interview” as others do over multiple rounds.

          But having 30 people walk in your front door? That’s asinine, even when they’re local. Five or six people make plenty of sense. Some people aren’t going to be interested after the first onsite interview, some will get offers sooner than you can make them, and your first choice may decline an offer from you. So you need backups.

          If you’re interviewing 30 people, you 1) Have no idea what you’re looking for, 2) Have no idea how to interview, or 3) Expect that a lot of people will flake out on you at some point in the process.

      3. LBK

        We cut entry level interviews down to one round here and got a slew of crappy hires, so now we’re back to one round with the manager and one round with the manager’s manager. But those are usually an hour each at the most, nowhere close to a half/full day.

      4. Student

        I worked as a sales clerk (near minimum wage, check-out counter) at a grocery store. The grocery store’s policy was that three interviews were required for any hire whatsoever.

        They didn’t have to be three separate visits, though, so interviews 2 and 3 happened in one visit. As long as person #2 thought you were reasonable, they’d send you right on to person 3 for the final confirm/deny.

        Honestly, that grocery store had pretty reasonable people to work with. It was a good entry-level job, in a relatively nice store that cared about employees more than I expected it to. As far as I was concerned, their process worked, even if it seemed a bit over-the-top for such a low-level position.

    2. Damaska

      But if you’re curious about the timeline, you should ask about the timeline. That’s not a problematic thing to ask at all. And yeah, I’d generally agree that bringing in 20 people to interview isn’t ideal, but it also doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a horrible process, either. Maybe the role (or the manager) is such that the manager just can’t get a good read on people from phone screens, and thus tends to invite more people to in-persons. Maybe there’s actually 5 open positions that are either the same or really similar. Maybe there’s only one open now, but they’re anticipating more openings in the very near future and don’t want to start back at square one.

      At the heart of it, yeah, perhaps you can glean something useful. But you could also be making assumptions about the data you have that are incorrect, because you asked for a very specific piece of information that may or may not have some correlation to the thing you really want to know. It’s completely your prerogative to take the data you have and make assumptions based on it (that’s what everyone is doing during an interview, after all), but with this question, it behooves you to be keenly aware that what you’re asking doesn’t perfectly correlate to what you want to know, and that there are probably better questions to ask to get at that information.

      1. Looking

        “you could also be making assumptions about the data you have that are incorrect, because you asked for a very specific piece of information that may or may not have some correlation to the thing you really want to know”

        Isn’t that the very heart and soul of interviewing that happens on both sides of the table? Uncertainty about how to interpret data is no reason to stop trying to gather it. We just hope to get better at gathering meaningful data and figuring out what the meaning really is.

        1. Damaska

          See the second paragraph of my comment. :) More to your point, though, there are definite costs to gathering data, and those costs have to be balanced with the usefulness of that data. In this case, you often have a limited amount of time to ask questions in an interview, so its better to ask questions that really get at what you need to know to figure out if this is the right position for you. You are also facing that fact that many interviewers are off-put by this question. The argument presented is that piece of data is of such questionable usefulness that it’s extremely ill-advised to incur the cost of gathering it.

          Data shouldn’t be about gathering everything and figuring out what it means. It should be about figuring out what we really want to know, and then determining how to gather data to give us those answers. Uncertainty about data (especially uncertainty that is impossible to alleviate; as in this case, where you just can’t know in any situation how to interpret it) is absolutely a reason to consider not taking the time and effort to gather it and think about it.

      2. Marcy Marketer

        It’s definitely about more than timeline, though. It’s about what kind of company/manager who is hiring. Just like they get to ask me questions to learn if I’m a good fit, I need to be able to ask questions about them to see if I want to work there. And in my experience, companies that bring 20 people in for a second round are not places I want to work. It indicates to me that they could be inconsiderate, indecisive, inexperienced, and potentially be hard to work with should I join their company.

        Also, I don’t count a phone screening as an interview. So for example, I anticipate a phone screen, and in person interview, and then a second interview, and then a third interview or project request with one to two weeks between each round (in my field). The first two steps are usually with the same person and the last two are usually with a team/remote.

        I always ask about the number of applicants when I’m told I “made it to the second round.” I really don’t think there’s anything weird about this question at all, and when I’m going on tens of interviews, really helps me weed out where I want to focus my time. I just think it’s super strange to put a blanket “don’t ask this question” post out there without qualifiers depending on industry or time into the process.

        Here’s another example… I went through four rounds of interviews for a major company with a role that could be a great career move. The first two were with the same manager (phone screen and in person). After the in person meeting I was asked to “redesign their website” using Prezi. I did. After that, I had a third remote meeting with a different team member. Finally, I was asked to come in person and present my redesign to a panel of four people. At that point, I asked how many people would be presenting. There’s no way I was going to invest more of my time with that company if there were going to be ten people presenting. It turns out I was offered the same position at a different company, which I accepted, so I never did the presentation; however, it’s just an example of how applicants need to do a cost/return analysis and number of people is just one of the data points that enter the equation.

    3. Anon-

      Isn’t it bad enough that they aske one person (you) for free work? If it had only been 2 people who had been asked for free work, rather than 4 or 5 or 10, would that have made it more acceptable? Regardless of whether it would or not, if the salary was too low the number of candidates is irrelevant. Or are are you saying that if the salary had been right you’d still be interested as long as they limited how many people they engaged in illegal and unethical behavior?

      1. Marcy Marketer

        I’m saying it’s just one of the data points that enter the equation of cost/benefit analysis for me. Asking both questions gave me a better understanding of their hiring process and the company and what they’d expect for someone in this role (in this case, compete with twenty people for a barely livable wage). Also, asking for free work is unfortunately the norm in my industry and part of the country. Alison has written about it before but before I put in the work, I always ask how many people will be submitting work. It helps me evaluate if it’s worth it. And yes, as so many people have said, ‘you can’t know if it’s worth it by how many people are submitting.’ To which I say, one data point.

        Or as Alison said above, one “blip” that alone might not mean nothing, but if it were one of multiple weird blips from the company, might mean it’s not a good fit for me.

  11. Andy

    I once asked that! I misspoke and meant to ask what their timeline was. When the question came out wrong I was mortified…why does my mouth betray me? I feed it so much good chocolate! Thankfully my interviewers knew what I was asking…and now they’re my co-workers and they remain awesome.

  12. Anonymous Ninja

    “why does my mouth betray me? I feed it so much good chocolate!”

    Best line ever! If you don’t mind Andy, I’d like to use this one.

  13. Sabrina

    I’ve been told to ask this question, and have asked it. I don’t ask for odds, but more out of curiosity, and to show interest.

    1. fposte

      I’m curious who’s advising that. It doesn’t particularly speak of interest to me as a hiring manager; interview enthusiasm does.

      1. Sabrina

        Honestly, now that I’m thinking about it, it was probably a source that shouldn’t be giving interviewing advice, like an old resume book or something. I don’t remember where I got that from.

      2. Arbynka

        Question. If a candidate does ask, would you ” count it againts her” ? Sorry can’t come up with better phrase. Maybe – how big of a deal is to you if a candidate ask this ?

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          If the candidate is otherwise strong, I’m not rejecting anyone over it. It’s just a mildly weird blip. But if it’s in the context of other mildly weird blips, that can be bad.

          1. Ann without an e

            What kind of interviewee questions do you consider to be a weird blip, a mildly weird blip and an absolute deal breaker? I know you have written about it extensively and I have been perusing your site but in the event I missed something I thought I would ask.

    2. Kelly O

      I’ve asked about next steps, and sometimes in the course of discussing those next steps I’ll get information about whether or not they’re still interviewing or where they are in the process of working through people.

  14. LiteralGirl

    The only time I found this helpful was when I was interviewing for my current position. There were a number of phone screens; after having conducted those the hiring manager decided to only do an in-person interview with me. I had been doing aspects of the job (filling in) for 6 months and they didn’t want to waste other people’s time if they would probably hire me. I did have to go through a formal interview, though.

  15. Liz

    I have never asked that question, but the information has been volunteered by the interviewer several times. I kind of like to know it. Not because it tells me anything about my odds or about the process, but more because it tells me something about me. When I hear they only invited 3 people for the final round and I’m one of them, I hear that I was a good judge of how well my skills and experience matched what they were looking for. That’s great when you don’t have a ton of experience, either in work history or in applying for jobs. Summary: the message I get is that I’m targeting the right level jobs.

    1. AndersonDarling

      If I was one of three candidates brought in for an interview, I would be sure that I had a great cover letter! If I didn’t get the job, then I would know that I shouldn’t mess with the CV.

  16. Gene

    You have no idea how many of those are “courtesy interviews” because they’re a referral.

    One of the nice things about local government hiring, we never do courtesy interviews; if you’re being interviewed, you have a shot at the job.

    1. doreen

      It really depends on what you mean by “courtesy interview” and a “shot at the job’ . In theory, everyone who gets interviewed at my state agency has “a shot at the job”. They all meet the required qualifications (including a high enough test score in many instances.) But the higher up the ladder you go, the smaller the applicant pool gets and the more well-known the candidates are to the interview panel, hiring manager and other candidates. Which is when it can be useful to know how many other people are interviewing (although I would never ask) – the last time I interviewed for a promotion , there were 8 applicants. Just by knowing where the position was located and who was interested in a promotion, I knew 1)who the other applicants were and 2) which of them had absolutely no chance of getting the job.

      1. Burlington

        But, your ability to glean information doesn’t guarantee that the information is useful. Knowing who the other applicants were (which is still not guaranteed), and which of them had no chance still doesn’t help you get the job.

        I think you’re still thinking in terms of odds; “If there are 8 candidates, but I know 3 of them don’t stand a chance, then my odds went up.” But they didn’t. The FEEL better, but they’re exactly the same as they always were. And because they’re not better, the information is giving you a false feeling of security/hope.

        1. doreen

          About the usefulness- it depends. Sometimes there are 8 candidates , I know three have no chance and I therefore only have to be better than the other 5 . That knowledge doesn’t really help me. Sometimes there are 5 candidates and I know they are all stronger candidates than I am, so I don’t even bother to apply and avoid wasting my time. Sometimes there are five candidates and I know I have the job as long as I don’t show up drunk for the interview- when that happens (and it has) , the interview is completely stress-free . Neither of those help me get the job- but it’s still useful.

          1. NewishAnon

            Well, in this example it’s not the knowledge of how many candidates there were that is useful. It’s the knowledge of *who* those candidates are. If somehow you know that there are 2 candidates who are stronger than you or 20 that are stronger than you, sure that can be useful information. But knowing that there are 2 candidates versus 20 candidates, all of whom may or may not be stronger than you, isn’t useful. You’d be eliminating yourself based on numbers alone, not on actual information about the candidates.

            And most people really have no idea whether other candidates are stronger than them or not at any point in the process before the very end. It’s even more rare to know before you even apply.

  17. Anonie

    My last interviewer told me she was interviewing 40 people one job! I didn’t ask she volunteered the information. The only thing it did was let me know I wasn’t going to get the job and I didn’t! The moment she said I was her second interview of 40 people, I knew in my heart that it wasn’t going to happen which made it very easy for me to walk away from the interview without the anxiety of waiting for a call back. More than anything I felt like my time was wasted. This person has a particular type of person she likes to hire as told to me by one of her staff and that is exactly what she did. She likes hiring lawyers even though the job has nothing to do with the law. That’s exactly what she did hire another lawyer. I would put money on it that at least 30 of the 40 applicants didn’t have a law degree yet she chose to bring people in who did not fit the profile of people she likes to hire. The ad also said nothing about having a law degree but everyone she hires have law degrees.

  18. Wacky Teapots

    My aunt just lost her job today. Via email, while sitting at her desk. A company bought hers out. Everyone had to reapply for their jobs. She’s over 60. Barely. The other oldest person in the department lost her job today too. I’m sure they will throw a couple of young ‘ens in the mix so they don’t get sued. People are FED UP with hiring practices and layoff practices in general. I only hope that the arrogance of young hr reps fade with time. Karma is a bitch, or so they say anyway.

    1. JB

      I agree that a lot of companies are astonishingly cold and thoughtless in how they layoff employees. but I’m not clear on how that relates to asking how many people are being interviewed?

      1. NewishAnon

        I was once laid off through a mass email to the whole company explaining it was my last day. This was a job that I had loved, for a company that I truly respected and felt pride in working for because they were doing good things. I lost all respect for them and still have a bitter taste about it to this day.

  19. HR Manager

    I agree – the # of interviewing candidates means nothing because it could be a picky manager who is not comfortable making a choice, regardless of quality of applicants (annoying!), it could be an EEO mandate (you have to interview X candidates and Y # of diverse candidates must be included — yes, this happens), or it could be just crappy interviewing practices at the company.

    The only odds that matter to any candidate is 50-50. You either get it or you don’t or you either move on and you don’t. That’s the same for every candidate, and the number of candidates they’re telling that to doesn’t change your own odds.

  20. Jake

    However it can provide insight into how the company operates. I’d never ask this particular question, but i know that if i found out they interviewed 25 people for one spot (in person) I’d stay asking more penatrating questions regarding other company procedures because I’d want to know that this wasn’t reflective of other business practices.

    Like i said, I’d never care enough to ask, but to say it can’t yield useful data is not accurate.

  21. Cupcake

    This strikes me as falling into the same area as asking about the pay scale/benefits in a first or second interview. It doesn’t make sense to not have a clear idea if the pay and benefits will be acceptable to you before you invest significant time of from your current job , however it is still universally perceived as poor form to ask too early in the interview process. However, knowing that there are 10 other applicants invited back for a third interview does give you an idea of whether this company respects their employee’s time, or if it is really worth your taking more vacation/PTO time off (maybe indicating to your current boss that you are looking) for another round.

    1. LMN

      It’s just another information asymmetry that carries an advantage for the employer, which is pretty clear from the responses in this thread. I even get the idea that an employer would want to withhold information that preserves this imbalance, but what I don’t get is why anyone is pretending it’s not an imbalance in the employer’s favor. Of course it is, and if it weren’t, no hiring manager would find these questions off putting or a “mildly weird blip.”

      1. AndersonDarling

        It is an imbalance, especially if the prospective employer asks how many other companies you are applying to.

      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        I don’t see how it particularly puts the employer at an advantage to withhold the info. I don’t feel like I’ve given up any kind of advantage when I share “we’re talking to five people” or whatever. How does that hurt me on the employer’s side?

      3. Damaska

        I also don’t see how this info is an advantage for an employer. And there are plenty of questions a candidate can ask that would be off-putting or a mildly weird blip that have nothing to do with information asymmetry. You could start asking me what states each of my employees went to college in… sure, I guess there’s some universe where you could glean SOMETHING from that, but it’s spectacularly unlikely, it’s a waste of your time to ask, and it’s of no consequence. It’s certainly not information that the employer is at advantage in withholding. And it’s something that would count against the candidate, because it shows that they’re not prioritizing asking me questions that actually matter, or that will impact either of our decisions.

    2. DJ

      My husband is currently looking for another job. In his last two phone interviews, the HR staff talked salary right off the bat, and it was quite refreshing. The one company’s maximum salary was less than he makes now, so he was able to withdraw before wasting any more of his (or their) time.

  22. Domi

    I think this is in part a reflection of the terrible math that exists in our society. Contestants on reality shows often say “I’m in the top ten! I have a one in ten chance of winning!” even though getting to the end isn’t random chance selection, its based on skill testing and the people they are up against. Gah!

  23. Anonymous Educator

    Another thing I didn’t see mentioned is that searches sometimes re-open. Maybe they start with 100 candidates whittled down to 3 finalists. They go through all 3 (including you) thoroughly and decide they didn’t find the caliber of applicant they needed. They wait a bit and then re-open the search for a second set of applicants.

  24. JMegan

    I think it’s moderately useful, in the sense that it’s helpful to know if there are “a few” people in the candidate pool, versus “quite a few” or “a whole lot.” It’s not a perfect mathematical calculation by any means, but it does give me a general sense of what I’m up against. And then you can weigh that information against how much you want or need the job – if I were moderately interested in a particular position, I might bail earlier in the process if I knew that there were ten or twenty other people also in the running, than if I knew there were only one or two others.

    It’s complicated, and of course there are potentially dozens of factors that you don’t know about, that affect your chances more than the number of other applicants. I fully agree that there’s no sense in trying to calculate any mathematical odds out of the number. But not everybody operates on mathematical values, and lots of people do find it helpful to get a feel for the big picture.

    1. JMegan

      My last paragraph above makes me think of Myers Briggs (which of course is an imperfect instrument in itself, but bear with me…)

      Specifically, the Sensitive/Intuitive scale – the S/N. The “S” people place a great value on numbers, and they generally make decisions based on facts. Whereas the “N” people tend to make decisions by interpretation and “gut feelings.”

      So I wonder if this is where the divide is in this conversation. I think we can agree that the number of applicants in a given pool does not correlate to the odds of any one person getting the job. Therefore, maybe the “S” people feel like the number is completely irrelevant, because they can’t make mathematical use of it. And maybe the “N” people, in the same circumstance, are looking beyond the absolute number to get a relative feel for the process.

  25. John

    Great post. And even if there are only a few of you it doesn’t mean they won’t decide to expand the pool because they don’t see what they’re looking for.

  26. Merry and Bright

    Also, some interviewers are much more generous than others in how many questions they let you ask at the end. So you could ask about the numbers and that’s your quota gone.

    1. Damaska

      Yes! There might be 2 minutes at the end of the interview for questions, and using it to ask this one is an absolute waste. There is a real opportunity cost to be considered.

  27. nicolefromqueens

    If I’m unemployed while my time isn’t so valuable and my standards are lower then yes, I can feel more comfortable without this info.

    But as I’m currently employed, I need to make a conservative budget of my time, and I also would like to use that info to speculate on how they’re operating at whatever stage. If they’re going to demand that I take unpaid time off for them, then I want as much info on them as I can get before I interview.

    This is especially if I am interviewing/screening at a few different places. Though I do think it would differ by industry, role, etc. I apply for mostly data entry and assistant roles.

    1. Kelly O

      I think, and I mean this in the kindest way possible, that you may be looking at it from the wrong perspective.

      Your post says “If they’re going to demand that I take unpaid time off for them” – well, they’re not demanding anything. They have an opening you may be interested in, and you choose to put your resume in consideration. It’s part of the pre-employment transaction. I mean, basically you provide your time and skills to an employer in exchange for reimbursement (salary, benefits, Wacky Tacky Tie Day) and when you explore other employers, that’s just part of the deal.

      And I get it, taking unpaid time is not pleasant at all. But if you’re interested in the job, and interested enough to interview, that’s just part of the process.

      I do administrative support, and when I’m employed, I am very careful and consider every opportunity that crosses my path a little more closely. But in the long-run, if it’s a company with whom I want to work, in a position that sounds interesting to me, in a role I think I could thrive, it’s worth it to try. That’s just my personal cost/benefit analysis, and I know everyone has a different level of comfort with that sort of thing.

      I guess my bullet point is – look for the positive when you’re going into these things. Starting off on a defensive foot, with the idea that someone is demanding something unreasonable from you is really not the greatest way to walk in with a confident smile on your face. If there are 100 other people but I’m the right one for you, those other people aren’t going to matter.

    2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

      “If I’m unemployed while my time isn’t so valuable and my standards are lower then yes, I can feel more comfortable without this info.”

      nicole – one thing I found out during my period of unemployment – some 25 years ago – is that some managers will call in candidates and interview them for their own amusement.

      I had one guy call me in and waste my time – because he apparently had no intention of hiring me but “my resume was interesting and he wanted to see what I was all about.”

      There was one clown who interviewed me, told me that I was his #1 candidate but he wanted me to stop job-seeking – this was October, he was going to offer the job in January. I said “if you offer it and we can agree to terms, I will be there on Jan. 2″…..

      “NO NO NO! I want to keep searching, but I don’t want to lose you. Can you promise not to keep looking until I make up my mind?” Now, I could lie – but this guy was seriously in need of a reality check and I said I can’t make that promise, but he said he’d call me in January anyway. He did. I was still his #1 candidate, but I began working at another position six weeks prior, so I was no longer available.

  28. Sherm

    What about asking if any internal candidates are being considered? I figure that an internal candidate will frequently get the job. Sometimes, all the other candidates are only interviewed because “the rules” mandate it.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I wouldn’t, because the info shouldn’t change your actions. Just because an internal candidate is being interviewed doesn’t mean they’ll definitely get it in every case, and you can’t know from the outside if this is one of those cases or not.

      1. Kelly O

        I would add a +1 to this.

        Some companies have reputations for going with internal candidates, but that doesn’t always matter.

        In the fall I interviewed with a great company with a reputation for promoting from within. Turns out they only interviewed two external candidates, and nearly 30 internal candidates. I found this out because on an interview with the same company for another role, the hiring manager was VERY impressed that this particular VP interviewed me, since her own administrative assistant had interviewed for the same job. It was a tough group to get in, and just being part of it made me a stronger candidate.

        Now, I’ll grant you I didn’t get that job either, but I’m still trying with this company, even though I have something else now. Go on enough interviews, make impressions with enough people, and eventually you’ll get there.

      2. Julia Marsh

        I have only had 2 full time jobs in last 10 years. Both times the decision down to me and an internal candidate. I was chosen both times.

        1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

          Yes, but take note that if you are external – and they have internal candidates — and they “go outside” and hire you — you may encounter some difficulties.

          Particularly if a passed-over candidate just happens to be nearly as, or more, qualified than you. Or thinks he/she is (same dilemma).

          Being an external candidate has its challenges – especially if you’re coming in as a supervisor or manager.

    2. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

      I feel like it’s not a candidate’s business, especially in a small company/small town. I’m pretty unlikely to answer this questions, in part because I want respect the privacy of all candidates – especially internal ones, who might feel particularly uncomfortable if everyone knows they applied and didn’t get the job. I respond with the standard, “why do you ask?”, and then the candidate typically asks if this is some sort of sham interview, which is a terrible thing to ask the interviewer.

      1. NewishAnon

        I’m confused. Even in a small company/town, how does answering this question disrespect the privacy of the applicants? How could anyone glean exactly who applied based only on the number of applicants you’re interviewing?

        Now, I still don’t think this is a worthwhile question to ask an employer. But I don’t understand the logic here.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          In some cases, you could figure it out pretty easily if the place was relatively small and there were only or two candidates who would be the obvious people next in line.

          1. NewishAnon

            Ok. But I don’t see how it protects privacy to not indicate the number of interviewees. If the two are the next obvious in line, people would presumably know they were interviewing anyway.

        2. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

          I was responding to the question about whether it was okay to ask if internal candidates had applied. In some cases, it wouldn’t be that hard for an external candidate to guess which internal candidate had applied.

  29. periwinkle

    I would have freaked out a little if I had known how many people had applied for the position I’m currently in. Finding that out afterward, however, did help ease the bouts of imposter-syndrome-induced panic. “Okay, I can do this. They thought I could do this better than the X number of others who applied, right? Deep breaths, now get to work.”

  30. j-nonymous

    I don’t find the size of the applicant pool to be particularly relevant information for me when I’m interviewing (unless there are dozens to a hundred applicants, I suppose, in which case I might expect a glacial timeline for interviewing).

    What I do find relevant is understanding the company’s overall hiring process, where I am in it, and what next steps I should expect. Usually as one of my last questions (at any interview stage, including recruiter phone screens) I ask, “So I have an idea of what to expect, can you give me a little information on where we are in the recruiting process and what I should expect next?” I find this a very useful tool because:
    A) It is a window into how ‘organized’ a hiring process the company has (particularly if the interviewer cannot give me ANY sense of what happens next)
    B) It gives me a sense of what the timeline for next steps might be
    C) Depending on the interviewer, it *might* give me a sense of how I’m faring in the process – though that’s iffy because I know I’ve caught some interviewers slightly off-guard with the question.

    When I have caught interviewers off-guard, I have worried that maybe I came off as “too forward” by asking. Now I don’t worry about it too much. I feel like interviewers/companies that are very reticent to share information about how they hire and what comes next do so because they don’t have a (good) process in place or don’t really put a lot of care into setting expectations. And that’s probably not a place I’d like to work.

  31. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

    One of the jobs I had – called for a very, precise skill set – working with certain software products.

    Management tipped their hand – when they said they had 8 people they were interviewing. I knew I was the #1 candidate at that point because there weren’t eight people in the Greater Boston area who had the same product experience I had – there were perhaps five — and other than one who was working for another division of the same company, I knew where the other three were.

    I was highly impressed with one place – I interviewed when I was out of work. I was called in, and the HR guy was truly professional – which you ought to be , because you want to leave your unsuccessful candidates with a good impression.

    He said – almost verbatim = “We received a large number of applications. We culled those down to around ninety. From there, we identified five people. You and the four others will be interviewing in the next three days. We will be making a decision by Friday.”

    “If you are the successful candidate, I will be calling you with an offer, where the salary will be what we think is fair. That number will not be negotiable, and I will want a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ at that moment.”

    No – I didn’t get the job. In fact, on Wednesday afternoon, they called me and said it was highly likely they were going in a different direction, but they thanked me for my time. No games. No BS. No circus acts.

    Strange that few act that way.

    1. Damaska

      1. How do you know they weren’t interviewing non-local candidates? Especially if it’s a really narrow skill-set, why wouldn’t they be running a national search?

      2. The phrase “management tipped their hand” implies that you benefited from knowing who the other candidates were. How on earth does that help you? How does that actually change your behavior?

      1. LBK

        #2 Right? That phrase is so cloak and dagger. It creeps me out when people talk about the hiring process as if it’s just a game of seeing who can out-manipulate whom.

      2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

        #1 – they may have been interviewing non-locals, but it was unlikely. They advertised in the local paper, and the place did not use headhunters for this position. Trust me, it was a tech job, they were going to stay local and avoid paying relocation, etc.

        #2 – I did not know WHO the candidates were. But my specialty is a “small world” – and I knew who the candidates WEREN’T. It did change my behavior – they attempted to low-ball me with their first offer, and I was in a position to tell them = “call back, get serious, you have one more shot, otherwise don’t waste my time.”

        1. Burlington

          Did it really change your behavior, though? If you’d not known anything about the number of candidates, you’d probably still be assuming that the other candidates were some number of people from your small world. Would you have accepted their “lowball” offer without knowing the specific number of competitors? I suspect not, because the information you’re using is more “knowledge of your field” than “knowledge of the specific candidate pool.”

          1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

            Well, it DID affect my behavior. So the answer is a “categorical YES” to your question.

            As I went through rounds 2 and 3, I was far more confident, far more self-assured that I could do the job from day 1.

            Which led to my justifying the higher salary. More than they wanted to pay . I **knew** that while they may have had alternative candidates, I was likely the only one under consideration. And they wanted me, probably more than I wanted them, given my position at the time.

            They could have hit the reset button on their search, but I knew (and they knew) they weren’t going to come out of it as well as they had.

              1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

                No we are talking two different situations here. I am referring to a job that was offered and I refused the first offer. But accepted the second offer and stayed there a number of years. They did call back and get it right the second time.

                The OTHER one – was a different one – where they were going to interview five people and get it over with in four-five days.

            1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

              ” they weren’t going to come out of it as well as they had.”

              What I meant was (and this might sound conceited) they could get someone else for the money they were offering – BUT – they weren’t going to get the skills set they immediately needed. They were not in a position to drag their feet and take eight months to fill the job. So they coughed up the money. By low-balling, they were trying to present an over-inflated view of themselves, and it enabled us to get to the bottom line and an agreement in two phone calls.

              Trust me, though – they did get their money’s worth by hiring me, and conceded as much through the years I was there.

            2. NewishAnon

              I don’t understand how them interviewing 8 people, as opposed to 2 people or 20 people, meant you were their number 1 candidate?

              1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

                NewishAnon-

                First of all – my 4 pm post was confusing – I was discussing two different situations in the same post. I am referring to the first (where I did get the job) … this was around 24 years ago (not my current situation).

                The position was for a highly specialized skill set – for IS/IT. The products used to perform the task are highly specialized. The company that manufactures the products used to put out a listing of all who had completed its education/certification. I knew ALL of those in the Boston area who had done this – myself being one of them. One of the other four was working for a different division of the company I was applying to — and he wasn’t an applicant. Another of the four worked for the company that manufactured the product. Wasn’t him. The other two were working already at another company where the product was in use, I knew they weren’t involved. By process of elimination I figured out that I was the only candidate around who fit the requirements fully.

                After it was over, they did tell me what they had done – they had interviewed a few others who had experience (somewhat) in the areas they needed, but no one fit as closely for this one as I did. In fact, the only reason I applied for the job was that I was having some difficulties – not insurmountable ones – in what was my current situation, and this position as listed was a perfect fit for me. I applied, and interviewed, more out of curiosity.

                The only thing that was wrong was on their side – where they miscalculated what I’d come to work for them for. They made an assumption that I was desperate. Bad assumption. They had to provide an incentive for me to jump. I made that clear, and it was no bluff. Given all that – yes, their hand being tipped helped me.

                1. NewishAnon

                  But wouldn’t you have known all that anyway? They could have said any number and you would have done a process of elimination about who you knew was available to do the role in your area and come up with the same assumptions. I still don’t see how the number itself told you anything. If they had said a smaller number, you still would have known all the people in Boston who had done that work and who was or wasn’t available. If they had said a bigger number, you also would have known that information. You already knew that in the greater Boston area you were the only qualified person available to do this work. It wouldn’t have mattered if they said a different number. That would still apply.

                2. NewishAnon

                  I think if you knew none the other 4 in your area were involved then you knew you were the best candidate even without knowing the number of candidates being interviewed. They could have told you they were interviewing 3 people or 10 people and you would have followed the same logic to deduce that you were the most qualified.

    2. LBK

      Is…is that not how most hiring processes go? Yeah, most people aren’t totally transparent about it like that, but that is how they go for the most part. I’m confused about what you think is unusual about a manager getting a lot of applications, paring them down to the good ones and then making an offer. The only thing that’s unusual to me is the insistence on immediate response to the offer, which is kind of a red flag to me, not a plus.

      1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

        Well, I was out of work at the time. I’m presuming, perhaps some of the other four were, too. But many companies make offers — which are non-negotiable. And if they want to fill the position quickly – they will put that restriction.

        I didn’t view this as a red flag. Harsh? Yeah. Bad? No, not if they have a number in mind and won’t flinch from it — you either want the job or you don’t want it. If you know the rules up front, I don’t have a problem with that approach.

  32. Brett

    For some public sector jobs, if you know the hiring process really well it could actually be informative.
    But not really useful, and you are pretty much not going to get an answer to that question in an interview.

    e.g. We have a position right now with two applicants who meet the minimum qualifications. Since we have two, we must give an offer to one of them. (If we had only one applicant, we would not be required to offer to them. If we had three or more applicants, we must offer to at least two before reopening.)

    Even if you were one of the two applicants, and you knew this specific information about our policies, I don’t see how it could be helpful though. If you get the offer, we can still offer to the other person if we cannot reach an agreement with you. If you are the only person offered, we don’t have to negotiate with you if you don’t take the initially offer (and actually will not negotiate 90% of the time).

  33. Vicki

    It absolutely messes with your mind.

    I had a telephone interview a couple of weeks ago with s hiring manager. He began the call by telling me that I was the First Person he was calling. He praised my background. He praised my resume. He went on about how difficult it is to find people are are interested in both writing _and_ content management.

    The call seemed to go well. We seemed to have some rapport. At the end of the call, he repeated that I was the First Person he had called!

    I received a “thanks for your time but we won’t be moving forward” form email letter _20 minutes_ after I hung up. 20 minutes. A form letter.

    They burned that bridge with a flame thrower.

  34. Sarah

    I’ve never asked this because I think it is hard to pull off without sounding a little anxious about your perceived competition, but I like to know it because it helps me gauge if the hiring process is going to be interminably long or not. (I always ask timelines, but I have noticed that a lot of employers are very optimistic about timelines.)

  35. Not telling

    Throw my name in with those above who have already stated this–knowing the number of candidates doesn’t reveal anything about your ‘odds’ of getting the job, but it DOES reveal something about the company.

    Just as applicants can say one thing and reveal something entirely different through their actions, so too can a company. The number of candidates being interviewed can reveal managerial indecisiveness or discord, or a culture where organizational and staffing needs shift frequently and dramatically. This tells me something about the company, and together with other information said and revealed by employers, helps me decide if they are the kind of company I want to work with.

  36. Vanelope Von Schweetz

    I’ve stopped asking this question and seeing this makes me really glad I have! I interviewed on Tuesday, and they told me that they still had a few more to interview over the next week or so.
    However, now I am just at the point where even tho I have 4 friends that work there, including one who works in the department, I am prepared to not get the job.

  37. jade

    so what if you were going into your third round of interviews (or second if the first round was just screening), and you assumed there would be a few other candidates also still left… but it occurs to you you might be the only one? since they are flying you in (to another country), putting you up, having you meet with managing directors… and they are not Google?

  38. Mike

    I often conduct interviews with my manager, and he will often casually mention the number of applicants during the interview. Something like: “Well, you are our fourth applicant today and we have three more tomorrow.”

    It’s never a good sign (here) if you hear that. Those words are not uttered to serious candidates.

  39. Stevie Wonders

    Methinks this is just a roundabout way of asking how long the interview process is. So why get into such a snit about it?

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