The Search for an Awesome Candidate

Once upon a time, hiring decisions were made by an elite few at a company. But in today’s team-based corporate world, more and more people are being included in the hiring process to read resumes and interview candidates. When you get pulled into this world, it can either be a fun break from your work that results in getting a great teammate or it can be an utter nightmare that never ends…because you hired the wrong person.

The Description

If you get involved at the very beginning, you’ll be asked to help write the position description for your new coworker. This is not likely to be very exciting because the Human Resources folks have guidelines and boilerplate language that you can’t change. What you should focus on are specific skills you need your new coworker to have:

  • Software expertise
  • Professional certifications
  • Experience with clients/customers/animals/children/etc.

The more specific you can be, the more likely you are to find the right person.

I once had a boss who insisted on putting exaggerated corporate language in the description to make the company and the job sound more glamorous. My team spent days convincing him that the ad would only attract overqualified, inappropriate candidates.

The Resumes

A few weeks after the position description is published, your boss will say it is time to review the resumes that they have received. There may be several people on your team reading them, with instructions to rank the resumes. Your goal is to find a person that is genuinely qualified to the do the job, and who is personally a good fit for your team. Here are some things to look for.


A resume for the average 20/30-something young professional should only be one page long, two at the most. If you have a recent college graduate with no job experience yet four pages of bullet points, this is a warning sign. A real professional can say a lot with a few words. For instance: “Landed space vehicle on Earth’s moon, 1969.” Those are seven impressive words.

I have often seen the resume with several enormous bullets and acres of white space between them under each college club and fraternity activity, stretching out over page after page. If you see this resume, toss it. They have nothing to say, but they think they can trick you into thinking they do.


Take a minute just to glance at the resume in general. Is it organized with headings and bullets?  Can you easily find important information, like position titles, dates of employment, and employer names?

The resume is the first work product (document) you will see from your prospective office-mate. Judge it critically: organization, clarity, style, spelling, grammar. It all speaks to what sort of person the candidate is. Attentive to details, or sloppy. Thorough and clear, or lazy and confused.

I have seen the resume written in cell phone text abbreviations, in multiple fonts and text sizes, with and without bullets in the same paragraph, and I have chuckled as I tossed it in the trash, unread. I don’t care what your Master’s is in if you can’t spell it like a grown-up.


Does the resume have an Objective? Here’s what every Objective always says, in plain English:

  • I want a job, preferably one that pays well and that I enjoy.

This is a minor waste of space, so don’t judge it too harshly. That is, unless, it’s a substantial paragraph containing all of the candidate’s hopes and dreams. Then they’re wasting your time, and confusing the personal with the professional.


Professionals devote as little space as possible to their education. One line is plenty:

  • BS in Electrical Engineering, State College, 2005. 3.8 GPA, Honors.

If you encounter the resume with two paragraphs about extracurricular activities, classes, professors, and other errata, then not only have you found someone with no work experience, but also someone with no idea of what belongs on a resume. In the Internet Age, there is no excuse for this.

Work Experience

Here is the main event. Here is where you need to read most carefully and cynically. Here is where they’ve hidden the really dangerous lies. While it is fine to try to make something sound better, the danger comes from people trying to make nothing sound better.

The professional resume states real facts, succinctly:

  • Managed team of three developers.
  • Designed and maintained e-commerce Web site.
  • Wrote humorous articles for

The professional resume also includes real achievements:

  • Lowered costs 50% in 2008 by finding new vendors.
  • Increased Web traffic 25% in 2009 using new advertising.
  • Won Pulitzer Prize for WorkAwesome article, 2010.

The unprofessional resume uses big words to describe small ideas:

  • Liaised with departmental representatives. (Translation: Went to meetings.)
  • Conceived and executed novel organizational schema. (Translation: Created filing system.)
  • Supported numerous collaborative events with international experts. (Translation: Fetched coffee during conference calls to Europe.)

Again, beware of candidates trying to trick you. Question everything. Take your time. Remember, the person you select will either make your work life better or worse for the next several months or years. Get this right!

But also, it’s not a crime to be young and inexperienced. We all start out that way. As long as your candidate is honest and professional about what they do and don’t know, then you should give them a fair hearing. The right candidate may just be a novice with a great attitude.

The Ranking

Time to rank those resumes. I suggest three piles: Overqualified (probably 30% of your resumes), Potentials (about 20%), and… well, the third category is the pile of resumes that should have gone straight into the trash (50%). Try to find three Potentials who you really want to interview to recommend to your boss, and pick out one Overqualified person who would be great to have, even though you’re pretty sure they wouldn’t take the job. (You never know!)

The Interviews

Companies today don’t just interview someone once. They may interview a candidate several times in a row, including a management team, a peer team, and an HR team. And depending on the circumstances, there may be second or even third interviews with a candidate before making an offer.

When interviewing a candidate, be sure to follow any rules established by HR. For example, don’t make any personal remarks (no matter how well-intentioned) about the person’s gender, ethnicity, physical handicaps, etc. With that said, your goal during the interview should be to keep the candidate talking. Ask them for stories from previous positions:

  • Can you give an example of dealing with a difficult client?
  • What’s the best environment you’ve ever worked in?
  • How have you resolved conflicts with vendors?

Quiet candidates may be more than just nervous, they might have nothing to offer…which is a problem!

Drill them on their resume to make sure they know what they claim to know. And generally watch their body language. Are they just nervous, or are they confused and terrified?

When the interview is over, check yourself for your initial reaction. Did you enjoy the conversation and wish you had more time? Or was every minute a painful, horrible slog? Your first impression is probably right on the money.

I interviewed a young man who drove over three hours to the meeting in Washington. When he entered the room, he asked if we would reimburse him for the speeding ticket he got on the way. (It was a short interview.)


Odds are, none of the candidates were perfect. But you should have a clear sense of who could do the job without making the rest of the team miserable. (Ideally, they could do the job while making the team even better!)

The End of the Line

Well, someone got hired. Was it the right person? If not, where in the process do you think the team went wrong?

I was once part of a large group interviewing candidates for an analyst position. One day, we met with a young woman and we realized that this candidate had lied on her resume about critical job experience. We returned to our offices to send emails to the team leader to advise him not to pursue hiring this candidate. However, before most us could send those emails (less than 10 minutes after the interviews!) the leader had already announced his decision to hire the candidate. That episode seriously undermined the team’s trust in the leader.

Hiring the right person for the job is like panning for gold. There is a lot of dirt to sift, but there is also fool’s gold to avoid. And the process can be lengthy and frustrating. It helps to define your goals clearly. Do you want to find the perfect person, not matter how long it takes? Or do you need to hire the best available person before a certain deadline?

Whatever your hiring goals may be, remember that you’re not just looking to fill an open position, you’re looking to make your team stronger. Do yourself a favor and find that gold!

Joseph Lewis is a writer and editor who has worked in the public and private sectors, including military, health care, and technology firms. Visit Joe's site


  1. Florian Rohm on the 9th October

    As I end school this year this is also very helpful information to me.
    Thanks for the article.

    Nice page anyway 😀

    • Joseph Lewis on the 9th October


      My best advice to you, as someone fresh out of school, is to be perfectly honest about your lack of experience on a resume and focus on being the most attractive candidate possible. Be professional, not clever. Show your potential employers that you are eager to learn quickly, eager to work hard, and looking to build a long/strong career with them.

      Remember, these people are looking to hire someone because they have a problem: there is a hole in their company. (Maybe someone quit, or maybe the company is growing and has too much work!) Prove to them that you can fill that void and solve their problems, and you’ll do fine.

      Good luck!

  2. Jason Schwartz on the 9th October

    This is an amazing article, Joe.
    I see tons of candidate’s resumes and all of your suggestions are right on.

    I do however think that no resume should be longer 1 page. I am a Creative Director, so usually my candidates shoot me off to an online portfolio with more in-depth info, but the goal of the resume is to give basic information, not a life story.

    Additional information can always be discussed during a follow-up phone call, or the interview. You should always aim to interest a company with your most impressive and important information.

    • Joseph Lewis on the 9th October


      A wise old professor of mine suggested the rule of one page of resume for every ten years of experience, which I think is reasonable if the person has held numerous positions, and has a strong list of publications or awards.

      I myself have a very crowded resume thanks to the amount of full-time and part-time work I have done simultaneously over the last decade. And while my list of publications does have its own page, I still pare down my resume every so often to keep it close to one page.

      Usually, this means deleting details from older jobs (but keeping achievements!) to make room for more recent events. Odds are that your next job will be much more similar to your current position than one from several years ago!

  3. Daquan Wright on the 13th October

    I myself am majoring in computer science, but the I know the odds against me since I lack job experience and that I feel is what will cause the most trouble for me. Especially since most job ads I see want 3 – 5 years experience, not sure where I’m left in that situation.

  4. Joseph Lewis on the 13th October


    If the only job postings available don’t seem quite right for you, you might as well apply for them anyway. The worst thing that can happen is you don’t hear back.

    If your resume comes up a little short, that’s a good reason to put extra work into your cover letter. Demonstrate an understanding of the company and position your are applying for. Emphasize your qualities as a mature professional: ethics, standards, etc.

    And if you can’t get a dream job or even a decent job, then maybe you can get the “wrong” job at the right company. As I said in the article, my first job was as an executive assistant, but I was able to move into a great job six months later by proving my value to the company in the “wrong” job.

    Good luck!

  5. Daquan Wright on the 13th October

    Thanks for the inspiring words! I’ll take it to heart and of course improve my skills while working toward that goal.

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