How Do Employers Decide Between Two Job Candidates?

Posted By Terri Williams on September 5, 2017 at 3:00 pm
How Do Employers Decide Between Two Job Candidates?

When companies have two equally qualified candidates who are both recent college grads, how do they decide between them? The 2017 Job Outlook Report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers provides insight regarding what’s important to employers.

Some of the 169 NACE organizations that provided responses for this year’s survey include Abbott Laboratories, Anheuser-Busch, Edward Jones, Georgia Tech Research Institute, Kellogg Company, Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, Nestle USA, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Pfizer, Raytheon, and Southwest Airlines.

On a 5-point scale where 1 equals no influence at all, and 5 equals extreme influence, NACE member employers ranked the influence of deciding attributes when choosing between two equally qualified candidates as follows:

Deciding Attribute Average Influence Rating
Major 4.0
Has held a leadership position 3.9
Has been involved in extracurricular activities (clubs, sports, student gov’t, etc.) 3.6
High GPA (3.0 or above) 3.6
School attended 2.9
Has done volunteer work 2.6
Is fluent in a foreign language 2.1
Has studied abroad 2.0


Why are these attributes so important, and are there other factors that employers should consider?


According to Andre Lavoie, CEO and co-founder of ClearCompany, “College major is the basis of a candidate’s learning experiences, and will show the foundational knowledge they acquired while in college and what training may be unnecessary because of those courses – which saves valuable time and resources.”

And, he says that certain majors may result in bonus skills. For example, a communications major may have some marketing courses under their belt, but they were also trained on effectively getting messages across to multiple personalities and audiences.

College major can also provide clues about a candidate’s passions and interests. Denise Dudley, founder and former CEO of SkillPath Seminars, and the author of Work It! Get In, Get Noticed, Get Promoted says, “Let’s say a psychology major and a math major were both vying for a position in a bank, which will be in a back room, away from all customer contact, and involves working alone most of the time.” Dudley believes that the math major would be better suited for this type of job, compared to a psychology major who is likely to be a more social person.

Has held a leadership position

Leadership experience can reveal a lot about a job candidate. According to Rachel Ernst, head of employee success at Reflektive, “If someone has chosen to hold one or multiple leadership positions, they clearly have a strong internal drive.”

Ernst says leaders learn to be self-disciplined, in addition to being motivated to develop the skills necessary to lead individuals with diverse opinions. “Being responsible for leading groups builds confidence, strategic thinking, and informed decision making, and this individual has an immediate advantage over other candidates.”

Lavoie agrees, and adds that a company knows this candidate is capable of being in charge. “This is important when employees are expected to head up projects, be responsible for their actions and others, and even points to their ability to communicate well.” He admits that these skills can be developed on the job, but says companies like candidate who already have leadership experience.

Has been involved in extracurricular activities

Ernst believes that candidates who have been involved in extracurricular activities have the ability to manage time and priorities.

“You can’t create more time, so it’s important to know how to make tradeoffs to increase personal productivity; when a person chooses to be involved in many activities while also being able to keep a high GPA, this shows their ability to know which tradeoffs need to be made and when.”

Employers want workers who know how to budget their time accordingly. “Even if the company or a manager has communicated priorities, it is still up to each individual to know how to manage their work in alignment with those priorities.”

In fact, Ernst says the most common request for training is in the area of time management, and even senior leaders struggle with this issue.

Lavoie also believes that extracurricular activities show employers that candidates will go the extra mile.

“While it’s necessary for college students to go to their classes and get good grades in order to graduate, extracurriculars aren’t mandatory,” he says. “This shows they’re willing to put in extra effort and remain dedicated to something – even when it’s not a necessity.”

And, according to Dudley, extracurricular activities also demonstrate that the candidate is energetic.

“Interviewers are looking for candidates who can go the extra mile with a smile, who won’t collapse in a heap after their first late-night or all-weekend work project, and who might actually volunteer to take on extra assignments – and energy is a good indicator of these characteristics.”

Dudley also believes these candidates have another advantage: they’re interesting.

“If a candidate can enthusiastically tell me how they sang in the college chorus or worked in the campus greenhouse, they immediately become someone of interest to me, and I’m more likely to hire them.”

High GPA

Ernst, Lavoie, and Dudley all agree that it’s not easy to maintain a high GPA in college.

“It never hurts to hire the candidate who worked the hardest in school,” Dudley says. “Fair or not, a student’s GPA is their scorecard, quite literally, for how they performed during a four- or five-year stint, which we psychologists would consider to be an impressively long time-sample of someone’s ability to function in a new environment.”

She adds that a high GPA can also reveal other traits.

“GPAs are also about turning in assignments on time, working well in groups, making it to class – even those 7 a.m. labs – on time, and fitting in once you get there.”

Other factors

In addition, our panel of experts had their own deciding attributes. Dudley wants to know how well the candidate will fit in with the organization.

“Assuming that the necessary skill set has already been confirmed, I believe the question of ‘fitting in’ is the single most important question an interviewer can ask themselves about any candidate – and not just when they’re attempting to break a tie.”

Even though some workers are remote, and a lot of communication is by phone, text or email, she says a company is a community.

“Ultimately, people must interact, interface, cooperate, collaborate, and get along together.”

According to Ernst, “For junior roles that usually align with new college grads, the most important skills we seek are time management, self-drive, and the ability to navigate and achieve results in an ambiguous environment.”

Ryan McCormick, co-founder of Goldman McCormick Public Relations, doesn’t think that NACE’s four traits are an accurate gauge.  “Instead of a 4.0 student, we would actually prefer a candidate who was able to convince their professor to change their grade to a higher mark, since this reveals the person has persuasion skills and we think that is a great asset to have in business.”

Regarding extra-curricular activities, McCormick says, “College is very expensive today, and we understand that many students have to work outside of class – if a candidate says they didn’t partake in extracurricular activities because they were working on developing their own business, it’s an incredible thing.”

McCormick says his company gauges job candidates on the following:

  • Gut Feeling: We’ve worked with hundreds if not thousands of people. When we speak or meet with someone we asses them consciously and subconsciously on an intellectual and instinctual level. Malcom Gladwell’s “Blink” is an amazing book that describes this process.
  • Internships: If a candidate takes an internship knowing they won’t be receiving college credit, we see this as an amazing quality. This is an indication of a person who is investing in themselves and who naturally enjoys learning. This fits in with our culture.
  • References: If you have people willing to put their reputations on the line for you, we’re inclined to take that chance as well.


Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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