Comparing Candidates: Apples and Oranges

One of the biggest mistakes employers make when trying to assess someone for a particular role is the tendency to comparing candidates without a system for assessing and comparing people.  This leads to each candidate being assessed on different grounds and they find themselves comparing apples and oranges.

A systematic, repeatable methodology is essential for assessing multiple candidates for a particular role.  This usually involves moving through several stages where each ‘stage’ has a particular purpose with different criteria for assessing each candidate.  However, the criteria you use at each stage should be essentially the same.

The following paragraphs provide a general overview of a system that can be used to assess people in stages with a system to assess each stage.


Stage 1:  Initial Application

Ideally, before you have even advertised the position you will know what your ideal candidate is.  Use these criteria to develop a list of things that you want to see in the initial application.  Using these criteria, you should be able to setup a table that lists the criteria and allows you to provide a score for each element.  Scoring could be on the basis of No/Yes for some features while other features will be on a continuum.

Also, when you have received a number of applications you can read them and develop or fine tune your criteria and scores from those applications before applying the scores to them all.

The cover letter and resume demonstrate unique features:

  1. Cover Letter. The cover letter demonstrates the applicant’s ability to write and synthesise a range of issues in a way that ‘sells’ themselves and leads to a conclusion.
  2. Resume. On the other hand, the resume provides a history of educational and work experience.

This could lead you to a scoring system that looks something like:

Criteria Scoring Possibilities Score
Has correct credentials?  No = 0, Yes = 1 0 – 1
Has required experience? 0 = not at all, 1 = minimum, 2 = good, 3 = excellent 0 – 3
Cover letter language? 0 = not at all, 1 = minimum, 2 = good, 3 = excellent 0 – 3
Cover letter shows an understanding of requirements? 0 = not at all, 1 = minimum, 2 = good, 3 = excellent 0 – 3


0 – 10


Now, with this approach each candidate can be given a score between 0 and 10 and you will be able to see how each candidate ranks.  It now becomes a reasonably straightforward process the best and worst applicants.  You can reject the worst performers and invite the better applicants for further assessment.


Stage 2:  Specific Responses

Cover letters and resumes provide helpful information, but the formats are often quite different, and this makes it harder to compare different applicants.  Some employers use a series of questions to develop a standard set of answers so that applicants can be better compared.  These questions can include anything from specific credentials, to test problem solving questions, or any other appropriate assessment.

When you have prepared the questions, it is important that you have a clear idea of what sort of answers you are expecting.  With this you can create a marking scale ahead of time and apply this to the answers that you receive.  Almost like an exam, you can then ‘mark’ and rank the responses to give a clear assessment of who the best performers are.


Stage 3:  First Interview

Having gotten through the written and less personal parts of the application process, the next stage involves meeting your candidates.  A lot of people find this stage harder to maintain a systematic approach.  However, even though the format is different, the same principles apply.  Before the interviews commence, work out what you want to learn from the interview.  Then devise questions that will guide the applicants into relevant discussions around those areas.

The interview stage allows you to:

  1. Clarify the information already received in the written parts of the application.
  2. Assess the candidate’s communication and interpersonal or ‘soft skills.’
  3. Assess the coping and personality style of the candidate using behavioural interview strategies.
  4. Assess the approach of the candidate using scenario or problem-solving questions.

Aim to have questions for most of the interview.  However, you still need to be flexible enough to allow the conversation to diverge from the path a little, though it is important to come back to your questions if some divergence has occurred.

Like before, it is important to ‘score’ the responses so that you can compare the candidates.  You can use specific criteria in some cases so that the applicant needs to cover certain things, or it can be an overall score for the question based on an impression.

You will notice that you are developing a profile of each applicant, and this can be used to objectively compare other applicants.  The example below only includes three applicants and some broad categories.


Item Applicant 1 Applicant 2 Applicant 3
History matches the cover letter, resume and questionnaire. Y=1, N=0 1 1 0
Soft skills 2 3 1
Coping under stress behaviour 3 1 1
Difficult client behaviour 3 2 1
Problem solve #1 3 3 1
Problem solve #2 1 3 0
TOTAL 13 13 4


Notice that:

  1. One candidate is much weaker than the other two and will be excluded.
  2. The other two have the same overall scores but it is now possible to look closer at the scores.
  3. Applicant 2 has better responses to the problem-solving questions but is much weaker on the working under stress question.


Now it is possible to make a decision between the two applicants on the basis of whether:

  1. Your business needs someone who is able to work under pressure or,
  2. Your business needs someone who needs a problems solver and pressure is not a big factor.


Stage 4:  Final Interview/s

The final interview is used to tease out the differences between the last two or three candidates, perhaps explore their personalities more thoroughly and work out who will be the best fit for the position.

The approach will be the same as in the previous interview.  You need to:

  1. Think about the interview ahead of time.
  2. Work out what you want to get out of it.
  3. Develop the questions that you will be using to get the answers.
  4. Ensure that you know what criteria you will be looking at to score the answers.


Summing Up

Interviewing applicants is a time-consuming but essential task to fill roles and add constructively to your business.  However, without a systematic approach, it is more likely that you will be comparing apples and oranges and not making optimal decisions.

It takes more work to consider and create the customised systems for the process, but it allows you to make objective informed decisions by comparing people on the basis of the same qualities that you are most interested in.  This way, you will get optimum results and ensure a much higher degree of success instead of ending up with a ‘lucky find’ or a complete disaster.


Website | + posts

Dr Schultz spent 22 years working in psychiatry and then went on to qualify as a lawyer. He has spent 34 years helping people solve problems and the unique combination of medicine, psychiatry, law and mediation provides a unique academic and practical approach to life's challenges.

Hyperconnected eBook by Dr. Neil Schultz
For A Strictly Limited Time Get My Ebook - Hyperconnected