In yet another example of why I’d be a boring person to job shadow, I love it when candidate interview notes arrive in my inbox or on my desk (pre-quarantine). The exciting part, at least to me, is seeing the variety of note-taking styles. Every interviewer has a unique take on what to jot down and how to document their notes.
There isn’t a “right” way to structure your interview notes per se, other than recording legally permissible notes and consistently documenting for every candidate that you’re interviewing. But if your only measure of note-taking success is based on legal compliance, you’re missing an opportunity to refine your skills and improve your assessment and selection process.
I don’t know any recruitment professionals or experienced interviewers, present company included, to be the foremost expert on interview note-taking. But what I have learned, from my own experiences and from reading different interviewer’s notes over the last 20+ years, is how to take better interview notes by implementing and adhering to a consistent style guide.
In the sample below, I’ve red-circled five interview note-taking techniques that have helped me to organize and share my insights. Below the infographic, I provide more context on what I’m looking for and how these techniques have helped me become a better interviewer.
In case you were wondering, these interview notes are for a fictitious candidate. And if you’ve ever seen my actual handwriting, you’d know that my penmanship would rival anything you’d find on a Doctor’s prescription pad. Aside from those two disclaimers, this is how I structure my notes. Let’s proceed to the infographic portion:
1. STAR in the Margins:
Many interviewers ask behavioral-based questions and grade the candidate on their ability to frame an answer using the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, and Result). I like to shine a spotlight on the S-T-A-R acronym by writing those four letters in the margins to easily identify patterns and trends, usually related to their Actions and Results.
Example: Suppose I’m interviewing a Customer Success Manager. I would be concerned if the candidate summarized all of their “Results” using self-serving metrics (I got promoted, I won an award), rather than customer-centric metrics (our customer NPS increased x%, the customer became a reference for us). So when I’m reviewing my interview notes, I can easily spot the A’s and R’s and look for any themes that are worth exploring further or calling out for the Hiring Manager.
2. Dots and Dashes:
When a candidate answers a question, I record their most impactful sentences verbatim. I use bullets (dots) to denote what the candidate states, and hyphens (dashes) to record my opinions and reactions to the dots. I separate the dots and dashes to ensure that I don’t misconstrue candidate statements as my opinions and vice versa.
Example: It’s common for a candidate to use “we” when answering a behavioral-based question. Most interviewers will probe further to ask a candidate to clarify what their specific role was. Still, the pattern often reappears if the candidate is frequently in a supporting role rather than owning the project, program, or process. Depending on the role I’m hiring for, this could be a concern. If I’m sensing a theme where the candidate lacks ownership, I use the dash to document my opinion to share with other interviewers.
3. Quick Answer Scoring (Meets / Doesn't Meet):
This isn’t a post about the merits of various interview scoring systems to get you to a hire/no hire decision. I’ll save that topic for another day. But what I’ve learned from my years of post-interview debriefs is that there’s far more value in sharing your insights rather than just sharing a numerical value.
If we’re focused on rating a candidate with an exact score in real-time, we’re more prone to invite unconscious bias into the scoring criteria. Instead, I use a high-level scoring system during the interview, instead of awarding an “official” grade in real-time.
Example: Coming into an interview, I’ve already established a basic threshold for what I consider to be an “acceptable” answer. If it’s a behavioral-based question, I’m looking for a concise answer using the STAR method. If I’m asking a situational question, I’m looking for the BED (more on that below). Once the candidate has finished answering my question, I write a “DM” (Doesn’t Meet) or “M” (Meets) when assessed against my pre-identified benchmark. The more times you ask the same interview question, the larger your dataset becomes for establishing a DM/M threshold. I use these DM/M’s as a marker to return to after the interview to ensure I’ve captured an accurate score.
When I’m debriefing on candidates with the rest of the interview panel, I’ll scan my D’s and DM’s to validate or challenge another interviewer’s feedback. You can use whatever acronym that works for you. Just remember – you’ll add far more value to the interview panel if you share your insights rather than just stating, “I scored her a seven on leading projects.”
4. Look for the BED (In Your Situational Interview Questions):
In my blog post about the merits of asking Situational Interview Questions, I explain why Situational Interview Questions are an excellent method for assessing a candidate based on the scenarios that they’ll encounter on the job. There are three attributes that I’m looking for, summarized in the acronym BED:
Business Acumen, Emotional Intelligence, and Divergent Thinking:
Business Acumen: Does the candidate demonstrate the ability to identify operational, financial, or reputational opportunities and risks? Do they have the capability to see the bigger picture?
Emotional Intelligence: Does the candidate demonstrate self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, or social competence?
Divergent Thinking: Is the candidate able to brainstorm and articulate creative ideas spontaneously or with minimal direction?
Similar to the STAR method, I’ll write the letters B-E-D in the margins.
Example: Suppose I was hiring for a role where the candidate would have a wide variety of projects and tasks, rather than repeating the same duties all day. In my situational questions, I would be looking for the transferable skills needed to thrive in a role where they’d be wearing multiple hats in the same day. I’ll easily spot these competencies by scanning my B’s, E’s, and D’s.
5. Validate Candidate Motivators in Real Time:
It’s standard practice for a Recruiter or Hiring Manager to kick off the interview process by asking the candidate for a high-level overview of their resume, including the reasons (motivators) why they left one job to pursue another.
While the candidate will share their narrative (which is often a pre-rehearsed version, since 99% of candidates are anticipating this interview question), the interviewer needs to validate the candidate’s self-described motivators. I’ll take the candidate’s motivators at face value and record them at the bottom of the page. Then I’ll add and refine the list as I gather new insights. I also put an asterisk beside the motivators that I believe are most important to the candidate.
Example: Suppose a candidate states that they have a growth mindset and consider themselves a “lifelong learner.” During the interview, I’ll be looking for cues to validate their opinion. Does their body language or energy level change when the topic turns to innovation, learning, or challenging the status quo? Do they educate me on a subject before giving their STAR or BED answer? Have I piqued their interest on a topic that they’d like to explore further?
Fast forward to the offer stage – When giving a verbal offer, I can also go back to my interview notes to cite specific examples of how their most important motivators align with our Employer Value Proposition.
Interviewing is a skill that takes practice. It’s not easy to listen, assess, and write your interview notes concurrently. But if you’ve documented and retained so little that your only interview feedback is “no red flags,” you’re not adding any value to the interview process.
The end goal is to make a great hire. Well written interview notes will get you one step closer to the desired outcome.
If these note-taking tips resonate with you, please subscribe and share. I’m erasing the whiteboard and will share new insights every couple of weeks.