How Many Candidates to Interview: A Guide for New & Established Companies 2022

by Sarah Reyes

It’s frustrating for any employer or recruiter to spend countless hours skimming through hundreds of resumes, administering pre-employment tests, and conducting interviews, only to find out that the “chosen one” is ill-fit for the job. Unsurprisingly, some companies interview every job applicant to increase their chances of finding the best candidate for the position. Unfortunately, human resource management experts say such an approach is hardly practical and efficient. 

Most companies have one persistent question boggling them every time they go on recruitment activity. 

How many candidates to interview? You’ll want as many highly qualified people as possible to apply for any job if you’re a business owner. But, must you interview everyone? If not, what’s the magic number? Is there such a thing as the “golden rule” to determine how many candidates to interview? Let’s find out.

Why Interview Job Candidates?

Would you marry someone you barely know? Are you ready to tie the knot and move in with someone you’re unfamiliar with for the rest of your life? Although some of us would take the risk (like the reality TV show “Married at First Sight”), most of us would rather not.

Marrying a stranger is like hitting your head with a sledgehammer and following it up with a boulder falling on top of you. The stakes are too high to risk your life and future on someone you hardly know.

Business owners have this feeling when looking for someone to fill vacancies in their respective organizations. They know they must choose the right candidate to be with their company “for as long as possible.” They’re ready to invest in this person – financially, socially, and even emotionally. 

Although pre-employment assessment tests can screen the best candidate for the future employer-employee relationship, nothing beats a “personal conversation” between the two entities. 

Written tests and competency assessments mean nothing if you cannot gauge the candidate’s interpersonal impact, which you can only evaluate in an interview. 

People have this notion that job interviews are a one-way street. The interviewer asks questions, and the candidate responds. 

However, an effective job interview is always a value-laden two-way communication process, a professional interaction. Employers and candidates exchange information about the job to determine job fit. The candidate will also want to know the conditions of employment if accepted, such as pay, benefits, and other terms. 

Unsurprisingly, the Society for Human Resource Management describes job interviews as crucial in a company’s efforts to land the best talent for the job. So, why ask how many candidates to interview if it’s that vital? Does it not make sense to interview everyone to increase the chances of finding the right person?

Why Limit the Number of Candidates to Interview?

Before we shed light on this question, we must point out that the job interview we’re talking about differs from a one-way interview. This pre-employment technique is a screening method that ALL applicants for a position must undergo.

The most significant example of this pre-screening method is asking job applicants to record a video answer to a few questions they must submit together with their resume and other credentials.

Recruiters screen application documents and one-way pre screening interview videos to determine who among the applicants will proceed to the succeeding recruitment stages. The question remains, why and how many candidates to interview? 

Some companies receive only a handful of job applications per post. Most will get hundreds, while big-name brands can have their “IN” trays overflowing with applications within hours of a job posting. 

Recruitment specialists say the average business receives about 118 intentions per job post. Entry-level positions might get as many as 250 applications, while leadership and senior management positions might only have about 30 to 50 applicants. 

Eye tracking studies show that HR professionals only need seven seconds to scan a resume and decide if it’s worth evaluating further or not. Any CV that catches their attention will demand about 15 to 20 minutes of thorough resume evaluation.

Hence, you can expect the screening process to be time-consuming and stressful. And although it doesn’t answer the question of how many candidates to interview, it sets the underlying framework for candidate shortlisting.

Suppose the company wants to interview ALL applicants. You’ll need several days to a few weeks to conduct an employer-candidate dialogue with everyone. Statistics show that the average job interview lasts between 30 minutes to a few hours, with some exchanges lasting up to four hours.

Imagine you have 150 job applicants you want to interview for an average of 45 minutes. You’ll need 112.5 continuous hours to finish one round of employer-candidate discussion. Suppose you can only set aside six work hours daily to interview candidates. In that case, you’ll need 18 to 19 business days to interview everyone. 

And what about your other obligations? Interviewing job candidates isn’t your only responsibility. You have other work functions to perform, too. You’ll play catch-up after the interviews if you don’t decide how many candidates to interview.

Now, try reducing the number of candidates to interview. Let’s say you’ll interview only ten out of 150. 

You can finish a few rounds of interviews in a day or two. Your recruitment process is now more efficient while allowing you to fulfill other work obligations. You can make the hiring decision much sooner than if there were a hundred or more job applicants to interview.

Downsizing your candidate list for an interview also reduces the time for recruitment-related administrative work. Job candidates want to know if they will move on to the next phase or can start looking for another job. Hence, recruiters must process all candidate credentials and inform them of their status. Imagine if you have a hundred applicants, and the task is enormous.

There’s also the issue of cognitive bias if there are more than a handful of job candidates. Interviewers and other people in the organization might “favor” some candidates because of preconceived notions.

For example, a manager might push for the inclusion of one candidate because he is from their place or the same school. Reducing the number of candidates for interviews should help minimize, but not eliminate, unconscious bias.

How Many Job Candidates Should You Interview?

We made our point clear as to why you must create a candidate shortlist. Not only does it improve recruitment efficiency, but shortlisting also shortens hiring decision-making, minimizes cognitive bias, and reduces administrative workload. So, how many candidates to interview?

Unfortunately, no “magic number” exists on how many job candidates companies must interview. Everything depends on the organization’s needs, resources, job position sensitivity, and the number of applicants. 

For example, there’s no point in shortlisting job applicants if you receive only a handful of applications. Recruiters must interview everyone. On the other hand, you must determine the “ideal” number of candidates if you have more than a hundred job applicants.

It’s also worth pointing out that some companies only have one interview, while most have three to four rounds. 

Although experts disagree on how many interviews a job candidate must undergo for one position, they share the sentiments of job seekers saying that too many job interviews are unproductive. So, we’ll assume that your business will only have three to four rounds of interviews.

·        Initial Interviews

The first interview differs from the one-way interview we mentioned above because this is now a two-way process. So, how many candidates to interview initially?

As mentioned, the number of candidates for the initial interview depends on how comprehensive and objective the screening process is. If you have lax applicant screening procedures, you can expect to interview up to twenty candidates. 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t speak highly of your recruitment strategy because the interview success rate will be lower, especially when the candidates start a dialogue with senior managers.

Human resource management experts say six to ten job candidates should be sufficient for most companies to entertain during the first interviews. Interviewers contact the shortlisted candidate and conduct the dialogue over the phone or via videoconferencing.

The objective is to validate and clarify some points in the applicant’s resume and other application credentials. It also allows HR professionals to assess communication skills and other measurable attributes. Your job here is to ensure the candidate is fit for the job at its most basic level. You can afford not to go into the details or assess the candidate’s personality and other characteristics.

You’ll schedule the candidate for an on-site interview if he ticks all the boxes in your initial interview assessment checklist. 

Suppose you can’t contact some of your shortlisted candidates. After several attempts, you might consider calling other job applicants to fill the requirement. Some HR experts advise against this technique, but some companies do. 

However, we recommend rank-ordering your job applicants before the initial interview to make it more efficient.

We recommend getting five to twenty percent of job applicants if you’re still clueless about how many candidates to interview at this stage. Use five percent if you have more than a hundred applicants and twenty percent for less.

·        Onsite Interviews

The best analogy for a series of job interviews is a multi-stage water filtration system. The water passes through one filter to remove some contaminants before moving through succeeding units until only the purest water goes into a drinking glass.

Job interviews are like that. Each round filters candidates by fielding increasingly challenging questions, ensuring only the best survives. Hence, how many candidates to interview in the initial stages will differ from the second and third rounds of interviews. If you start with ten candidates in the initial dialogue, the onsite interview boils down to four to six candidates.

Of course, you can “advance” all ten candidates into the next round. However, we recommend focusing on the top four candidates first. Hence, it’s ideal to have a scoring system during the interviews, allowing you to rank the job candidates.

If you decide to go down this route, we recommend interviewing the top four candidates and keeping the rest waiting for a few weeks. For example, you can schedule the priority candidates for the second round of interviews next week. You don’t have to interview the lower six if the onsite interviews can provide you with two to three candidates for the final round. 

However, if only one of the four candidates passed the second round, you can schedule the others to complete the two to three job candidates for the final interview. And that’s how to decide how many candidates to interview.

·        Final Round of Interviews

As mentioned, interviews are like filtration systems. You can expect the purest product in the last filter stage. Hence, anyone who reaches the final round of interviews will feel proud because they are the cream of the crop. Out of hundreds of applicants, it all boils down to this.

But, do you know how many candidates to interview in the final round? Most companies select the top two or three candidates from the second round of interviews. These candidates undergo more rigorous questioning that focuses mostly on determining their cultural fit, team fit, and other attributes not covered during the first two to three rounds of interviews. 

For entry-level positions, the final interviewer is often the department head of the requesting unit. 

On the other hand, middle management and higher positions will require the CEO, owner, or a top-level company executive to deliver the final qualifying questions. In some cases, the candidate might undergo a panel interview.

It’s not uncommon for a company to have a single job candidate going into the final round, making the interview seem more like a formality. Other institutions interview more than five candidates to increase their “selection” pool.

Narrowing the List of Candidates to Interview

If you noticed, we always emphasized “shortlisting” job applicants into candidates. After all, that’s the rationale behind the quest for determining how many candidates to interview. You can have 100 or 200 applicants for a single position. So, the question is, how do you narrow the 100 or 200 to only ten or twenty?

·        Use a Criteria Checklist

Shortlisting job candidates is easy if you have clearly-defined selection criteria. Experts recommend reviewing your job description to determine the essential (must-have) and preferable (nice-to-have) qualities. Include this information in your job post so that only people with these attributes will apply for the position.

Score each “must-have” criteria with one point and “nice-to-have” attributes with two points. Find the maximum expected points for each candidate based on your predefined selection criteria and determine the minimum requirement. For example, you can peg the minimum at 75 points if the maximum number of points is 100. 

Evaluate each resume using the criteria checklist and put a score on each candidate. Next, rank them and exclude those who don’t meet the minimum 75 points requirement. This technique should help you narrow down the number of job applicants to interview.

·        Use Pre-interview Screening Techniques

Another strategy you can use to determine how many candidates to interview is to conduct pre-interview screening tests. You can create an organization-specific personality test for all job candidates to take on your official website. Alternatively, you can ask them to take a reliable personality trait assessment test and attach the results to their resumes.

Some companies administer cognitive skills tests, general mental aptitude tests, and competency assessment techniques as pre-interview measures. However, these might cost you if you have more than a hundred job applicants.

·        Bring Up Potential Deal-breakers in the First Minute of the Interview

We recommend bringing up any potential deal-breaker during the first minutes of the initial interview to determine the likelihood of the candidate agreeing (or disagreeing) with the employment terms. 

For example, does the work require the employee to work night shifts and weekends? Some people don’t like working during these times. How much will they earn, and what benefits will they obtain? You might want to be upfront with these concerns from the start.

There’s a chance the candidate will feel cheated if he progresses to the final round of interviews only to find out he cannot agree with the employment terms. You only wasted the candidate’s time and effort, and yours, too.

So, if the first interview reveals the candidate does not find your terms acceptable, you can scratch the name on your list and move on to the next job candidate.

Final Thoughts

Deciding how many candidates to interview is a matter of perspective. Some companies don’t mind wasting time and resources interviewing everyone who applies for a job.

On the other hand, efficiency-minded business organizations prefer to streamline the recruitment process and make it more efficient by limiting the number of candidates from six to ten initial interviewees until only two to three remain in the final round.

You can also partner with a recruitment agency to help you retain your administrative and other work-related duties.

However, we must reiterate to spell out what you expect from the agency to help them customize their pre-employment screening and job interview processes. You can reserve the final round of interviews for yourself. After all, the successful candidate will work for your company, not the recruitment agency.

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