How to Ace a Pre-Screen

“I got a call back for a job while cooking, and ran outside to get away from my barking dogs. I had the phone, a knife, and a potato. I told the employer: ‘Sorry, sorry, hold on! I'm carving your number onto a potato.’ Still got the job!”

—Employee with great knife skills

Congratulations! You have heard back from a potential employer—maybe several potential employers—so the next step is the interview, right? Not always. At many companies you still have one more hurdle to overcome before you're sitting face-to-face with someone who has the power to hire you. Welcome to the pre-screen!

A lot of employers will pre-screen you before bringing you in for an interview. Usually done by phone, a pre-screen is fundamentally a verification exercise. Do you exist? Do you sound credible? Will you verbally affirm the same things you said on your resume.

The phone screen is frequently done by a recruiter versus the actual hiring manager. This is not an interview. In fact, the way you know the phone screen went well is if after it's over, you're scheduling the actual interview.

It is dead simple to get past this step. Yet for many, this is where their application stops. Here's how to navigate the phone screen hurdle.

“A lot of people are smart and put some of the language from our job descriptions directly into their resume. Others, however, take it too far. One candidate tried to jam our entire job description into the details of his work experience for his last job. During the phone screen my suspicions were quickly confirmed. He couldn't even remember the things he'd listed. Needless to say, he didn't get the job.”

—Recruiter who sees what you're up to

Read Your Email and Answer Your *&#%* Phone

Here's a fact that works to your advantage: As many as 75% of candidates who apply to a job don't answer when the recruiter reaches out.1 Employers hate it when they can't get in touch with you. You have an edge in the job market today just by showing common courtesy. (Sadly, this is what constitutes real advice in the modern job-seeking marketplace.)

Once you've applied to a job, check your email regularly and have your phone on you. Take every call—even if your caller ID marks the call “Unknown.”

That's it. That's all you have to do to give yourself a better shot at success. I understand you might be reluctant to answer phone calls from numbers you don't recognize. Unfortunately, that's a risk you have to take—until you have the job. And if you miss a call, don't be afraid to call back. Once you have been hired, you can feel free to ignore those spam calls again.

Speaking of spam, make sure you check the spam folder on your email. If you're receiving messages from a company for the first time, that's sometimes where the email algorithm will put them. If you don't check your spam regularly, those emails will sit unopened.

“I left three voicemail messages for a candidate before taking him out of the running. A month later, he returned my call asking for the interview. I decided to have some fun and tell him that, in the time since I had left the message, we had already filled the job, promoted the person, and hired a second person to fill his shoes.”

—Employer with a sadistic sense of fun

This Is Not the Time to Ask Questions

These calls are in most cases formulaic exercises in confirming your key skills and work history. This is not a time for expanded color commentary and it is especially not the time to start sharing any insecurities you might have. Normally those insecurities will manifest in the form of you asking questions.


Phone screener: “Do you have more than a year of experience working with Software X?”

Correct answer: “Yes I do.

Incorrect answer: “Well I have used the software for over a year, but only these components. Does Software play a big part in this role?”

It's Okay to Be Excited

Enthusiasm during a job search always helps you. And it's always persuasive to the person on the other end of the conversation, even if all they are doing is checking some boxes. There are several basic strategies to convey enthusiasm.

Smile When You Talk

When you smile, you make yourself happier—even when you aren't.2 The simple act of smiling releases feel-good hormones, which help relax your body, plus lower your heart rate and blood pressure. Smiling is a performance-enhancing drug for hitting a home run on a pre-screen.

And it doesn't just help you. A smile puts everyone in the conversation at ease—even over the phone! Researchers have seen that people on the other end of a phone conversation can actually hear your smile.3 They can even tell when you're giving off a genuine, or “Duchenne,” smile, which is contagious! And when your interviewer smiles, they're getting that same performance-enhancing feeling that you are. Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” She must have done a lot of pre-screens.

Stand Up

One common technique is to stand up. That might sound strange, because the person on the other end of the phone can't see you. But when you stand up during a sales call or a pre-screen, you can draw on the energy of your entire body to sound more convincing or convey enthusiasm. Pacing is also a great way to burn off nervous energy.

Be Prepared

Don't underestimate the power of visualization. You can't know exactly what an employer will ask you during a pre-screen, but you can think through what the conversation might sound like.

Look over the job posting to which you responded. Think about what the company says it is looking for, and the questions it wants applicants to answer. Those are the questions that are likely to come up during a pre-screen. Write them down, and practice answering them—simply. It won't take much effort to prepare for a pre-screen, but a few minutes of mental practice reps can make a big difference in showing the screener you're ready to meet the real judges.

The good news is that in a pre-screen interview, half of the sales work is already done. You know that the employer is interested: that's why they're on the phone with you. So you don't have to make a “hard sell.” Just be confident in your brand—and get ready to move on to the next stage in your job search plan.

“It's so easy to pass a pre-screen interview, but so many people screw it up. They forget the job they applied for, or have no idea what the job responsibilities are, or the answers they give don't match up with what their resume says. If you're applying for lots of jobs, the best advice I can give you is to make sure you keep good notes on the jobs you applied for and the basic responsibilities of each one. And keep those notes with you at all times in case you get a call and need to access them quickly. It's a shame to lose out on a job opportunity just because you fail to do a tiny bit of planning.”

—Employer who wishes you'd pay more attention


· Keep your email and phone nearby so you're ready to talk when a company reaches out.

· Your first “interview” could be a pre-screen; keep the conversation very high level.

· Share your enthusiasm and be prepared.


1. 1. Seventy-Five Percent of Workers Who Applied to Jobs Through Various Venues in the Last Year Didn't Hear Back From Employers, CareerBuilder Survey Finds. (n.d.). Retrieved January 08, 2021, from http://press.careerbuilder.com/2013-02-20-Seventy-Five-Percent-of-Workers-Who-Applied-to-Jobs-Through-Various-Venues-in-the-Last-Year-Didnt-Hear-Back-From-Employers-CareerBuilder-Survey-Finds

2. 2. Ronald E. Riggio “There's Magic in Your Smile,” Psychology Today, June 25, 2012.

3. 3. Amy Drahota, Alan Costall, and Vasudevi Reddy, “The Vocal Communication of Different Kinds of Smile,” Speech Communication 50, no. 4 (2008): 278–287.

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