Criteria in personnel selection

What you should really look for in applicants!


How do you actually recognize an ideal applicant? Is it good grades at school, previous work experience, a convincing letter of motivation or the result in an achievement test? This question is increasingly challenging HR managers – because it is not uncommon for them to be confronted with a wealth of information about job applicants. Additionally, in a fast-moving world of work, the areas and content of tasks are constantly evolving – and so are the skills that applicants must have to be successful.

This makes it increasingly difficult for HR managers to maintain an overview and assess the relevance of the individual pieces of information for the selection decision. To help you get an overview, we have compiled a checklist of the advantages and disadvantages of the most important rating criteria available (see Table 1). First, however, let’s take a closer look at the individual criteria and their role in effective personnel selection.

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Checklist: This is what you should look for in applicants...

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Requirement analysis and decision criteria

1. Requirement analysis: what characterizes ideal applicants?
According to DIN 33430, the first step in any professional personnel selection process should be a comprehensive requirement analysis. The fundamental question is: What does the applicant need to bring to be successful in the job? A systematic requirement analysis that continuously adapts to changes in a fast-paced working world forms the cornerstone for effective personnel selection. Because it is clear – only if personnel managers know which characteristics and competencies ideal applicants should bring with them, can these be measured and observed during the selection process.
2. Selection of the decision criteria: How do I recognize the ideal applicant?
The next step is to make the characteristics defined in the job profile measurable. In psychological aptitude diagnostics, this is also referred to as operationalization. This means that the superordinate competence concepts (e.g. intelligence) must be transferred into concretely observable evaluation criteria (e.g. result in an intelligence test). This step is essential for effective personnel selection – because it is usually difficult to work with superordinate competence terms. After all, how do you recognize leadership competence or conscientiousness in the first place? If this remains undefined, then there is a lot of room for subjective interpretation, because every HR manager will understand something different as a result.

The result: the objectivity of personnel selection suffers. Consequently, it is better to define precise criteria that reflect the respective competencies as accurately as possible (Schuler 2014): For example, in university recruiting, taking on the task of class president could be defined as an indicator of leadership competence, or behavior in a game-based psychometric test procedure could be defined as an indicator of conscientiousness. Science has long been concerned with the question of which of the evaluation criteria available in personnel selection best predict career success (Kanning 2013). It has been repeatedly shown that results in aptitude diagnostics, such as intelligence tests, are best suited for this purpose (Schmidt & Hunter, 1998). Nevertheless, aptitude diagnostics are only slowly finding their way into practice (Kanning 2015). Instead, selection decisions are still often based on previous traditions (“We don’t hire applicants with a poor high school diploma”), lay theories (“Young women are less assertive”) or gut feelings (“I think this person would be a good fit for us”).

Time for more science in practice!

Let’s take a look at what science has to say about the validity of each evaluation criterion:

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The personal impression in the job interview

HR managers usually have a lot of experience. You have seen many applicants in interviews and observed their subsequent success in positions. Based on this, conclusions can undoubtedly be drawn about the suitability of applicants. But just as often, first impressions, often known as gut feelings, are deceptive. Because without realizing it, HR managers are often unconsciously influenced by irrelevant aspects (this is also referred to as unconscious biases), which lead to incorrect personnel decisions.

Two examples:

  • Good-looking applicants are experienced as more intelligent and more able to work in a team (Watkins & Johnston 2001)
  • Applicants with dialect are experienced as less competent (Rakić, Steffens, & Mummendey, 2011)

But should HR managers therefore completely dispense with recruitment interviews? The answer is: No! Because, despite the possible biases, a significant correlation between performance in an interview and professional success can be scientifically established (Schmidt & Hunter, 1998). However, to increase this, interviews must be designed in accordance with scientific findings. So these are particularly valid (i.e., they reliably predict career success) if they are based on well-founded requirement analysis, follow structured guides, and are decided by consensus by trained interviewers (>2 interviewers). We have compiled a guide to the professional organization of your job interviews for you here.

Grades at school and university

For a long time, school and final grades were among the most important criteria in personnel selection. The advantages are obvious: Grades are seemingly easy to compare, are usually always available to recruiters, and a significant correlation between average grades in high school and college and intelligence can also be proven scientifically. (Schuler 2014). However, current surveys show that grades are becoming less important in personnel selection (Wirtschaftswoche 2016). The reason for this is, on the one hand, that grades and degrees are becoming less and less comparable due to the large number of degrees in Germany and abroad. On the other hand, work tasks in a digital world are evolving faster and faster away from what is taught in school and at university. For example, the programming languages taught in computer science courses are often outdated after only a few years.

Will academic degrees and grades play no role at all in the future? Here, too, the answer is: No! However, their importance will decrease significantly in a fast-paced working world. Consequently, degrees and school grades will only be able to provide a comprehensive picture of the applicant in combination with further information about the applicant (e.g. aptitude diagnostics data on learning readiness). Read more about the importance of school grades in personnel selection here.

Job references

Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. This is stated by a central axiom of psychological research (Sutton, 1994). Accordingly, the external assessment of past work performance in job references is still of great importance in personnel selection. But at the same time as work requirements are changing at an ever faster pace, previous work experience is also losing its significance. Job references alone will therefore increasingly no longer be sufficient to assess the suitability of an applicant. We have compiled a list of what you should bear in mind when interpreting job references in the working world of the future.

Motivation letter

Almost all of us know the challenge: the motivation letter. Because what do you write to stand out from the crowd? It is not uncommon to consult Google or a career guide to answer.

The consequence: motivation letters increasingly consist of a string of phrases recommended on job portals. This means that companies usually do not recognize the actual motivation of the applicant, but primarily the applicant’s ability to present himself. It is therefore hardly surprising that no significant correlation between the content of the motivation letter and the suitability of an applicant has been proven in science (Kanning 2013). More and more companies, such as Deutsche Bahn, are therefore already dispensing with motivation letters in their application process. Find out why this makes sense and whether motivation letters are a relic of postal applications here.

Other information in the resume

Gaps in the resume. Gaps in the resume are an absolute no-go for many recruiters. But scientific research shows: There is not always reason for this. This is because although more than 80% of companies are actually interested in gaps in the CV (Kanning, 2013), no meaningful correlation can be proven between the CV gap and characteristics such as achievement motivation or determination (Frank & Kanning, 2014). Screening out applicants based on a less than straightforward resume? Consequently, there is no comprehensible justification for this. Rather, recruiters should take time to gather additional aptitude diagnostics data about the applicant (e.g., on their achievement motivation and conscientiousness) and explore the reasons for resume gaps in personal interviews.

Interests. The predictive power of interests is also limited. Contrary to widespread assumptions, individuals who participate in team sports, for example, are not more socially competent than people who participate in individual sports or no sports (Kanning & Kappelhoff 2002).

Application photo. The application photo is similarly uninformative, as it tends to exert distorting influences (cf. cognitive biases) (Watkins & Johnston, 2000). For example, female applicants wearing headscarves are less likely to be invited for job interviews despite having the same qualifications.

Social Engagement. This is somewhat different in the case of the applicant’s social commitment. In fact, there is at least a small correlation between social commitment and the social competence of applicants (Kanning & Woike, 2015).


Are assessment centers therefore the solution to finding ideal applicants? Perhaps surprisingly to many, assessment centers are among the “losers” in survey studies that look at the predictive performance of individual criteria. While there is a significant relationship between the results of these and occupational success, they do not provide value beyond that of aptitude diagnostics data (e.g., intelligence tests) (Schmidt & Hunter, 1989). If one considers the high costs of the procedures (e.g., due to travel and personnel costs) and the time required for applicants and companies, a cost-benefit analysis does not exactly turn out in favor of assessment centers.


More and more companies are using brainteasers to uncover applicants’ thinking patterns and test their analytical skills. These are brainteasers that quickly upset inexperienced applicants in particular. Example tasks that have to be solved are: “How many tennis balls fit into a Boeing 747?” or “How many reindeer does Santa Claus need to give all the children presents?”

Sounds strange? Companies in the tech industry seem to see it differently – especially corporations like Apple, Google and Tesla are notorious for unusual brainteasers. The aim is to measure above all problem-solving ability, creativity and analytical skills. Brainteasers are also assigned to behavioral and logic questions. More important than the actual correct solution is the solution path, which should provide information about the applicant’s way of thinking. For example, can applicants logically link facts and develop creative solutions? You can find out more about brainteasers here.

Aptitude diagnostics data

Time to look at the predictive power of aptitude diagnostics data. Aptitude diagnostics are psychological selection procedures used to test a fit between applicants and the workplace (Schuler & Hoff 2007). The relationship between intelligence test scores and occupational aptitude has been particularly frequently considered in previous research. Numerous studies have come to a clear conclusion: no other method can predict career success so well (Schmidt & Hunter, 1998). Similarly, aptitude diagnostics tests are better suited to measure personality traits (e.g. conscientiousness) than information in a resume or motivation letter. While the disadvantage of aptitude diagnostics data has long been the expensive and time-consuming collection of this data, online assessments today enable an increasingly cost-effective and simple collection of this data. One example of this is game-based psychometric testing, which can be performed online or directly via tablet or smartphone.

From past-related analysis to intellectual potential analysis

Our observation shows: Past-related, biography-centered procedures, such as and letters of motivation and resumes, will become less important in the personnel selection of the future. The reason for this is their declining predictive power in an increasingly rapidly changing world of work. Inferring future performance from past performance – this will always work worse. Instead, the personnel selection of the future must move away from a very narrow concept of occupational aptitude towards an intellectual potential analysis which, in addition to occupation-specific competencies, increasingly includes supra-disciplinary aptitude dimensions such as adaptability and takes into account the development potential of applicants. Measuring this is the task of professional psychological aptitude diagnostics.

It is to be hoped that companies will show the same willingness to learn and adapt in the further development of their selection procedures as they expect from their applicants. Because scientifically based personnel selection, which consistently uses new digital possibilities (e.g. online tests) and algorithm-based evaluation methods, not only increases fairness for applicants, but also the long-term success of the selection decision.

  • DIN Deutsches Institut für Normung e.V. (2016). Anforderungen an Verfahren und deren Einsatz bei berufsbezogenen Eignungsbeurteilungen – DIN 33430. Berlin: Beuth.
  • Frank, F., & Kanning, U. P. (2014). Gaps in the CV – A valid criterion for personnel selection? Journal of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 58, 1-8
  • Kanning, U. P. (2013). Testing in human resources – Part 1: Variants and problems. Personal Manager, 1, 36-39.
  • Kanning, U. P. (2015). Personnel selection between demand and reality – A business psychology analysis. Berlin: Springer.
  • Kanning, U. P. & Kappelhoff, J. (2012). Sifting through application documents – Are sports activities an indicator of applicants’ social competence? Business Psychology, 14 (4), 72-81.
  • Kanning, U. P. & Woike, J. (2015). Sifting through application documents: is social engagement a valid indicator of social competencies? Journal of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 59, 1-15
  • Rakić, T., Steffens, M. C. & Mummendey, A. (2011). When it matters how you pronounce it: The influence of regional accents on job interview outcome. British Journal of Psychology, 102, 868-883.
  • Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J. E. (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: practice and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 124, 262–274.
  • Schuler, H. (2014). Psychologische Personalauswahl (3. Aufl.). Göttingen: Hogrefe.
  • Schuler, H. & Hoft, S. (2007). Diagnosis of professional aptitude and performance. In H. Schuler (Ed.), Textbook of organizational psychology (pp. 289-343). Bern: Huber.
  • Sutton, S. (1994). The past predicts the future: Interpreting behaviour-behaviour relationships in social psychological models of health behaviour. In D. R. Rutter & L. Quine (Eds.), Social psychology and health: European perspectives (pp. 71-88). Aldershot, England: Avebury Press..
  • Watkins, L. M., & Johnston, L. (2000). Screening job applicants: The impact of physical attractiveness and application quality. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 8, 76–84.
  • Wirtschaftswoche (2016). Grades lose value.

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