How to Prep a Candidate

Many recruiters consider their hiring manager clients a bit weak on interviewing skills, assessing competency, and recruiting top people. Of course, most managers consider their recruiters a bit weak on understanding real job needs and finding qualified candidates.

A good candidate prep can sometimes reduce this gap.

There is an old adage that managers have difficulty hiring people stronger than themselves. Worse, many miss the mark on hiring strong people who might not be great interviewers or those who bring a non-standard mix of qualifications to the table.

If you’ve ever lost a good candidate due to a poor assessment, spending time prepping your candidate might be the missing piece in making more placements. Doing a good job here can certainly reduce your sendouts per hire by 25% to 30%.

Setting up one or two fewer interviews for each hire will boost your productivity and save you at least one day a week by not having to do searches over again.

Making sure that the best candidate gets the job, not the best interviewee or the person with the exact qualifications, is the key to becoming a more effective and productive recruiter.

As many of you know, I believe that the primary role of a good recruiter is to switch the decision-making criteria for the candidate and hiring manager away from the dumb stuff to the important stuff.

For the manager, the important stuff is what the person is expected to accomplish while on the job. The dumb stuff is over-reliance on a detailed list of qualifications or a detailed technical grilling. For the candidate, the important stuff is what the person is expected to accomplish on the job, not the title or pay.

The real job content is the common denominator here. I call a job description that describes the real job a performance profile. For example, rather than say, “Must have a BS Accounting, a CPA, and 2+ years’ experience with Sarbanes-Oxley,” it’s better to say, “Lead the implementation of the Sarbanes-Oxley reporting efforts for our international group of companies.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to get this information upfront from the manager. If you are sending out candidates to be interviewed with only a vague understanding of real job needs, it’s important to prep the candidate to get this information early in the interview.

Even better, a good prep can overcome many concerns that managers frequently raise about candidates who don’t have the exact skill set, those who are a little nervous, those who are soft-spoken, or those who don’t make such a great first impression. A good prep can help you prevent these superficial issues from becoming deal breakers.

We all know that most hiring managers don’t conduct broad-based, evidence-based interviews. Many base their judgments about candidate competency on some combination of first impressions, technical knowledge, academics, and smarts. One sure way to improve your hiring batting average (sendouts/hire) is to prep your candidates to cope with whatever questions or circumstances arise. If you handle the candidate prep well enough, you can also prep your clients without them even knowing it.

The following are five key steps to take when prepping your candidates:

Step 1: Make sure your candidates know their own strengths and weaknesses. Have your candidates write down their four or five strengths and one or two weaknesses. Have them include a short, one-paragraph example of an accomplishment using each strength.

With the weaknesses, have them write a specific situation where they have turned that weakness into a strength or have overcome the weakness. As you’ll see in the “Universal Answer” below, these examples are critical.

Step 2: Learn the “Universal Answer.” Most answers during the interview should be about one-to-two minutes long. If the candidate talks for more than three minutes, the interviewer loses interest. The candidate is then ranked as boring, long-winded, or too self-centered. If the candidate talks less than a minute, the person is considered superficial, incompetent, or lacking interest.

Have your candidates practice their answers using the “Say a Few Words” acronym:

S: make an opening Statement

A: Amplify that statement

F: provide a Few examples

W: Wrap it up

This is actually what was taught in ninth-grade English class on how to write a paragraph, but it works well for interviewing, too. Providing the example is the most important part of the exercise. This is the demonstrated proof behind the opening statement.

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Interviewers will use these examples to form their judgments about candidate competency. Most candidates talk in generalities. Specific examples are much more convincing. For instance, a marketing manager could give a specific example to describe how she launched a new product rather than saying she’s strong in advertising and new-product promotions.

While this might be the opening to the classic “What are your strengths?” question, the answer will be more meaningful if the candidate gives a specific example and then describes how her strengths, like creativity and perseverance, were required to achieve the results.

Step 3: Have the candidate write up two significant accomplishments. To improve their verbal pitches, also ask your candidates to prepare more detailed write-ups for their two most significant accomplishments. Each of these should be two-to-three paragraphs in length, but no more than half a page each. One should be an individual accomplishment, and the other a team accomplishment. Make sure they include examples of their strengths in both write-ups.

Most candidates get a little nervous in the opening stages of an interview, which can result in temporary forgetfulness. The write-ups will allow for better recall of this important information at these times. They’ll also be the basis of the examples in the SAFW response. Have them send you these write-ups so you can check out their written communication skills.

Step 4: During the interview, get your candidates to ask the “Universal Question.” Discussions about major accomplishments should dominate the interview session. Since most interviewers don’t ask about this naturally, you can have your candidates get them started.

To do this, have your candidates ask this question early if they feel the interview is going nowhere, “I don’t have a complete understanding of your real job needs. Would you please give me an overview of what the job entails and describe some of the key challenges in the job? Then I can give you some examples of work that I’ve done that’s comparable.”

Something like this will allow the candidate to then describe a related project she’s worked on. Managers generally like candidates who are more forceful and those who ask good questions. Make sure your candidate has a list of other insightful questions to ask, such as “What does the person in this job need to do to be considered successful, what’s the biggest problem that needs to be addressed right away, what kind of resources are budgeted already, why is the position open, and how have you developed your team members?”

Step 5: Ask for the job. At the end of the interview, have your candidate tell the interviewer that she is interested in the job, and would like to know what the next steps are. If the next steps seem evasive or unclear, have her ask the interviewer if her accomplishments seem relevant to the performance requirements of the job. Understanding a potential gap here allows the candidate to fill it in with an example of a related accomplishment. Make sure your candidates do the best job possible of presenting their strengths. Sometimes they have to ask for the job to understand what points they need to get across.

To reinforce the importance of accomplishments in assessing competency, before the interview I send the write-ups the candidate prepared to my clients along with their resume and my formal assessment. Along with this, I suggest that my client spend the first part of the interview digging into the accomplishments.

More hiring mistakes are made in the first 20 to 30 minutes of an interview than at any other time. This is all due to the emotions and biases involved when first meeting someone. Focusing on the write-ups helps control the discussion on both sides of the desk, and minimizes any potential adverse emotional reactions. This is also how you can indirectly prep your clients to conduct a better interview.

Prepping Is Important

Well-prepped candidates are more confident and provide more thorough answers. If they know how to give complete answers, they worry less and are able to ask better questions. All of this improves the odds that they will be assessed fairly, especially if the focus of the interview is on detailed discussions about the candidate’s major accomplishments.

The best recruiters know how to coach and advise both their clients and candidates. The best candidates are rarely the best interviewees, and most managers are just adequate interviewers. Under these conditions, you can keep on looking for more candidates until one sticks or find a few great candidates and make sure the interviewing process doesn’t get in the way of the best hiring decision.

You won’t eliminate all of the problems with the prep I’m recommending, but enough to make a difference. You owe it to all those great candidates who need your help.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


16 Comments on “How to Prep a Candidate

  1. I am with an MRI franchise and one of the basic training elements has always been to prep the candidate prior to EVERY interview. It has never ceased to amaze me how many senior candidates will tell me that they have never had a recruiter prep them for an interview.

    We are always looking for new ideas on candidate prep and I will be circulating this article through our office.

    I also like the idea of forwarding the information the candidate writes up to the client. Client Prep is an area that often seems to be under utilized or just missed, or worse yet – people think they are prepping the client by leaving a voicemail or sending an email stating that the candidate is really excited about meeting with them and please call me back as soon as possible after the interview.

    I would like to see some ideas in the future about prepping clients to make sure a competitive candidate gets the treatment they need to make the move.

    My two cents worth, your mileage may vary.

    Bert Hughes
    Office Manager
    MRINetwork – The Alpine Group

  2. Interview prep is so important! Lou’s advise can help a recruiter build more credibility with candidates AND hiring managers as well as provide valuable insight as to what happens during the interview. Without good interview prep, follow-up and debriefing becomes more difficult.
    I have found that if a recruiter has done a good job of preparing both sides, following-up with both sides after the interview becomes much easier…They both WANT to talk to you! This is a good opportunity to find out what they thought of your preparation and what was REALLY discussed in the interview.
    I am often shocked at how interviews are conducted. Information obtained from the candidates de-briefing allows me to go back to the hiring manager and make suggestions on how they could conduct the next interview. Hiring managers thank me for the advise…think about it: How many people have been promoted to a position of hiring authority but NEVER been trained on how to conduct an interview?
    Preparing both the candidate and hiring manager can give a recruiter much more control over the interview process along with establishing credibility. Good article!

  3. Lou,

    As you can imagine, managers and recruiters may get a different perception of prepped candidates if they have an accent. Candidates may be great, but if they have a different skin color and an accent, managers may have a harder time connecting with the candidates and vice-versa. Do you have any advise on how to help in these situations so that a candidate with less than perfect English is not seen as a candidate unable to perform the job well or as less qualified?

  4. I agree with Stephen and Bert.

    Am in a corp environment now, so some of the dynamics have changed, but when I was agency side, not only did we prep the candidate (an essential step, not only for the client interview in question, but if you assign researching the company as ‘homework’ to your candidate, you can gauge how serious he/she is, which can suggest how much time you should put into their search), we took it a step further and SAT IN ON INTERVIEWS. That’s right – the classic one on one, suddenly was one on one plus a 3rd party participant (silent, except for a question or two) that aims to satisfy both.
    In very few cases did clients specifically request our recruiters not do this. They recognized that we’d learn much more about their company and what they were looking for this way than by asking questions on the phone or via email and visiting corporate web-sites. Even if the present candidate was deemed not a fit, they knew we’d have a better idea of what they were looking for (saving them time and resources in the near future), which we would communicate back with the entire office. Of course, a further benefit to us was that we used such information to prep the NEXT candidate we put in front of them, as well as guide our search criteria.
    As you’d expect, salary negotiation and offer presentation was easier (dealing with both candidate and client) afer having been through the process together – literally – and it completely eliminated misperceptions/misunderstandings, such as ‘well, he said …’ I sat through sevaral interviews with candidates who said they felt the interview went really well when, in fact, they completely bombed it.
    No more default to simply taking the client’s or an A+ candidate’s word as gospel [and writing off the other side] when you receive mixed interview feedback.

    That, dear readers, is acting as a true business parner to your clients and positioning yourself with candidates as someone who takes the time to experience the client activities with them. If your candidates have multiple agencies they work with, this is a way to trim it down to just you. Also gets your candidate submissions front-of-the-line treatment from clients you have developed this trust with.


  5. The ability to ask insightful questions is a key attribute of a top candidate. This is one thing I’d ensure when prepping a person whose English isn’t perfect but his/her competency is.

  6. Carla:

    Remarkably few managers are concerned with skin color or accents.

    What they are concerned with is comprehension. If there is difficulty being understood, or much worse, difficulty understanding, a successful work environment is impossible to establish.

    Many of the IT professionals that I deal with speak quite clearly, with only the slightest accent but, in fact,frequently have little idea of what is being said to them.

    You could take a practcal approach to the problem and come up with a way to assess comprehension, or you could do what so many have done before: formulate a policy that insures fairness by only presenting the least qualified candidates.

  7. Carla,

    I’m sure Lou will get back to you with an answer, and I wanted to contribute some ideas here, too.

    I won’t bother railing over the fact that it is illegal to allow color to intrude into a hiring decision (unless one is specifically seeking a diversity candidate), as I’m sure others will respond along those lines. The fact is, color, and even accent, may play into the hiring decision, no matter how much we want them not to. First, find out if your client/Hiring Manager supports a diversity culture. If so, your candidate’s ethnicity may be a benefit. However, if the answer is ‘No’, you need to remind your client/HM that you are obligated to present all candidates who meet the material qualifications for the position, regardless of ethnicity, and that the candidate is clearly qualified for the position in question. If the client/HM still does not want to see the candidate, and the objection is ethnicity (or accent), you would be well-advised to drop the client. If the HM is in your own organization, you might want to seek your HR Manager’s advice.

    If your candidate clearly meets the job criteria, his/her accent should not be a stopper. Strong candidates are at a premium in just about any industry, and your client/HM should know that.

    Good luck,

  8. I think this was an excellent article. The viewpoints in our industry are so varied. I am a strong believer in prepping but with one huge caveat…. I DO NOT TELL THEM HOW TO ANSWER THE QUESTIONS. I tell my candidates the kinds of questions to anticipate and ask them to think about not only how they plan to answer them but how their responses need to be tailored to their audience.

    Giving a candidate a script on how to answer interview questions does not allow the client to get a true picture of that candidate’s abilities. I try to prep my candidates on how responses to the same questions differ when speaking with HR vs. Hiring Manager or Peer. This increases their success to move to the next step.

  9. Most of us understand that the interview process, can at times, be too subjective. Preping a candidate is an obvious way to promote the applicant and you’re skills as a recruiter.

    I advise my candidates to use the following when structuring an answer; ‘STAR’
    S – Situation (Explain the situation, goal or project)
    T – Task (Review the tasks required to get the job done)
    A – Action (What steps / actions did you take to achieve)
    R – Result (Recap and review of the end result)

  10. Great Article but there is only so far that you can go with the candidate. In Ireland especially some of the remarks would be stepping across a line that would make most HR professionals winch. I do agree totally with Bill though

  11. Sean,

    I couldn’t agree more with you on the importance and benefits of sitting in on interviews with your hiring managers/clients. I used to do this when I was recruiting as a third-party recruiter and then in a corporate setting. It was gold for all the reasons you cited.

  12. Just a quick administrative clarification with regards to this discussion:

    We had a few questions this morning about an article review that was posted here yesterday, which was deemed inappropriate by our moderators and removed today, per our guidelines.

    Though the message was deleted from this discussion this morning, it was inadvertently sent out via the ERE Forum last night.

    We do our best to catch messages that violate our guidelines, but our moderation isn’t always 100% perfect. Please accept my apologies for our mistake!

    Thanks, and please do let me know if anyone has any remaining questions or concerns.

  13. A great article! Despite all the good points made on the importance of candidate preparation and the practical tips given, many, many recruiters fail to adequately prepare their candidates for the job interview. I cannot speak for the practice in the US, but most recruiters in Canada just send the one page document titled, ’10 job interview tips’ in a pdf to their candidate. The other recruiters who believe they are ‘preparing’ their candidates are really briefing them on logistics like who, where, when and maybe how. It seems that some recruiters forget that the candidate ultimately represents the recruiter and staffing company to the employer.

  14. I noticed the interest on ‘Prepping candidates’.

    There is an excellent ‘Handout’ you can download and re-distribute to each candidate before they are sent out on an interview at


    Why re-invent the wheel when the quintessential original is available.

    This is a downloadable pdf that is now being used by firms such as MRI, Agilent, numerous national and regional franchises as well as independent practitioners in several English speaking countries ( I know as I get to see IP addresses of whose downloading it every week !!)

    An excerpt of this document was first featured on The Fordyce Letter’s Front Cover last December 2006 and the download version gets hundreds of hits each week.

    While we’re at it – You might want to check out this December’s front cover TFL story – written by yours truly.

    We require the ‘TOP TEN INTERVIEW BLUNDERS – And how to avoid them’ is read by each and every candidate PRIOR to any sendout. We also ‘quiz them’ to make sure they read it.

    It has reduced our send out bloopers and blunders by 90%.

  15. Having worked on the Agency side and now on the Corporate side of recruiting I have many concerns about prepping candidates. When I worked at Agencies I would tell the candidates everything I knew about the company, the individuals in the interview, culture, do’s/don’ts, etc. I would even get information from the first candidate that interviewed and tell my other candidates that were interviewing. Many times this worked, but were they the best candidate for the position or did I prep them well enough to get hired and they did well at the company, not GREAT?

    Now that I am on the Corporate side of things I just prep enough so there are no huge surprises in the process. I do not want them prepped. I want to see if they did their own research, Googled some of the names they will be interviewing with, researched our company history, etc. If they can’t do this on their own, do we really want them? What does this show about the candidate?

    I feel I could prep average candidates well enough to get hired here, but if I did that we would have many average employees. I am not here to hire average employees. Many agencies and recruiters care just enough to get someone hired and hope they make it past the 90 days. The average recruiter doesn’t care if they are placing A+ candidates. But there are many agencies that do care and those are the ones I try to interact with.

    There can be much more said about this, but I will let people respond and get other opinions.

  16. I agree that candidates should be ‘prepped’ in the sense that they should be told a bit about the company and the role. However, overly prepping them is not fair to the client or the candidate (ie. telling them potential interview questions, technical areas to study, etc). Remember, they are ‘marrying’ each other and getting them to ‘fake’ one date (the interview) is not a good idea for long term success.

    Some people seem to evaluate candidates based on how much they ‘did their homework’ on the company. In what sense is this really relevent to their eventual success on their job unless their function is to study companies and jobs? Some ‘A players’ may not have studied all the details of the company (maybe they should have but if they are an A player, so what if they didn’t?). I believe that to be a very poor evaluation tool of their ability to succeed on the job. Maybe the ‘did they do their homework’ question is old school and never was really relevent for most job functions. Obviously, it is very relevent for a C level job, sales, etc, but for a technical job and most administrative jobs probably not. Hate to go against common wisdom but think about it.

    Maybe prepping the candidate is properly done as educating them enough about the company/oppty so the basics are covered (who the company is, what they do, and the job role), but to otherwise let the ‘real them’ come out in an interview. In my opinion, that is what is fair to both candidate and company.

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