When tasked with hiring new talent, a common mistake many people make is not beginning with a clear idea of what they're looking for. Have you really thought through the functional requirements or skill sets the position demands? Hiring managers are human, and like most humans, they have biases and preferences. Without a systematized resume review process in place, you run the risk of overlooking strong contenders, or wasting time on individuals who are not qualified.

1. Defining what you're looking for

Start by describing the position in a single, detailed and concise paragraph. Below this summary position description, create a bulleted list of 5-10 qualifications you feel the applicant absolutely must have in order to fulfill the requirements of the job. This list may include specific technical skills, educational or training certifications or level of experience in a particular functional area, such as the number of years a person has worked with a particular software program.

These are the bare-bones essentials - the non-negotiable job skills that must be in place in order for the applicant to be considered a viable prospect. Keep in mind that the narrower the list, the smaller the pool of qualified applicants.

2. Making the first cuts

When you sit down to tackle that rather imposing stack of resumes, you will probably discover that quite a few don't meet the minimum job requirements you have identified. Eliminate those right off the bat. Now, you may still have a sizable list of applicants who would make potential candidates for an interview. This is where it can get a little tricky. In all probability, these "first cut" resumes are beginning to blend together. How do you distinguish the great from the good"when they all seem to be saying the same thing?

3. Going back for round two

The desired outcome in round two is to end up with a list of candidates you want to talk to, either in a telephone screening or an in-person interview. This group of applicants will need to have much more than just a basic set of technical skills. The position you are looking to fill may have unique work culture issues that require a certain personality or style for the job.

For instance, an applicant's resume might indicate that he or she has always worked under the supervision of a manager. If your position requires a great deal of independent, self-directed work, this person may not be the best fit. You may have an applicant who meets all the technical requirements, but doesn't appear to have much experience collaborating on a team or interfacing with clients. You need to ask yourself, "what are the less obvious expectations of the job?"

Review in detail the position description that you have created, and develop a second list of qualifications, such as accomplishments, skills and experiences, that would make an applicant an ideal candidate.

Here are some important things to keep an eye out for as you proceed with your review:

  • Job achievements vs. job descriptions--Functional resumes, or resumes that focus on accomplishments and skills, are very popular today. Employers like them because they emphasize practical job experience and achievements, as opposed to position titles and places of employment. Be cautious, however. This type of resume can sometimes be used to disguise a sketchy work history, demotion or job-hopping.
  • Grammar, punctuation and spelling--It may seem picky, but if applicants are inattentive to these areas on their resume, they won't be attentive to them in their jobs either.
  • Presentation--Content should be clear, logical and presented in an attractive, uncluttered format. If the applicant is a graphic artist, you would naturally expect him or her to have a well-designed, eye-catching resume.
  • Job continuity--Does the applicant appear to be hopping from one job to the next? Is there too much variety in job titles and responsibilities--an indication that they haven't really settled on a professional direction? Try to determine if there is a clear and deliberate pattern and progression to the applicant's work history.
  • Their goals vs. your realities--Does the applicant appear to be overqualified? If yes, you run the risk of hiring someone who will outgrow the job quickly. A resume may also indicate a level of ambitiousness that your job can't provide for the applicant. Be honest. There's no value in hiring someone who will be gone in six months.
  • The intangibles--Many employers look for other kinds of more subtle talents or traits, also called "soft skills." These include qualities such as:
    • Creativity and innovativeness
    • A healthy, competitive drive to succeed
    • An ability to handle complexity and to juggle multiple tasks
    • A facility for learning new skills quickly
    • Strong written and oral communication skills
    • A willingness to embrace change and diversity
    • A collaborative, team player approach
    • Self-motivation and a strong work ethic
  • Demonstrable successes--A good resume will showcase what an applicant has to offer, including value-added benefits he or she has brought to an organization. Look for clear proof of real contributions. Remember, you are collecting evidence on how well applicants have applied their knowledge and skills in the past. Quantifiable measurements such as "was instrumental in increasing sales by 40%" are good yardsticks, as are awards, promotions, and other commendations.

4. Reviewing the cover letter

A cover letter is a great way to whittle down your list of potential interviewees even further. In many cases, it can reveal more about an applicant than the resume itself. Most people do not customize their resumes for each job ad to which they respond. The cover letter, on the other hand, should address the unique qualifications of the position that were highlighted in your job ad.

A good cover letter will be well written, to the point and showcase some of the applicant's more stellar professional achievements. If an applicant's cover letter is disorganized, sloppy or fails to address specific job requirements, he or she is probably not a good prospect.

5. Preparing for the telephone screen

As you are reviewing a candidate's resume, it is a good idea to write down your questions and observations as you go. You may come across some phrases that conspicuously omit specific details. "Improved marketability and overall customer satisfaction" is a good example of this. Marketability for what products? How did you do it? How was improvement measured? Who were your customers? How were they satisfied? Are there concrete sales figures that substantiate this claim?

Make a note of dubious areas such as these, as they may require further clarification later on. This also will enable you to focus your telephone screening on specific issues and potential problem areas. The more thorough and thoughtful your resume review, the better you will be able to engage in a conversation with the prospect that draws you closer to determining if a face-to-face interview is appropriate.

Remember, resumes are employee advertisements. At best, they are going to give you a distorted image of reality. You need to recognize that a candidate's resume is simply the first impression in the hiring process. It raises the right questions, but it is not the final answer.