How to Answer Applied Sift Questions

Published by:
Cameo Choquer
August 24, 2022
min read

This isn’t your typical “how to improve your CV for algorithms” type blog. Mostly because we don’t encourage CVs and Algorithms don’t score your applications at Applied! This blog is going to give you some pointers on how to answer sift questions in Applied, cover why not all applications look the same and finally some tips on how to reduce negative biases in your CV/resume.

We have over 250 jobs on our job board and want to make sure that you’re well prepared for those applications!

What are sift questions?

Sift questions are knowledge and situational questions curated for the job you’re applying to. Meaning, the questions you’re answering as part of your application should be directly linked to the tasks needed to carry out the most pertinent aspects of the job.

For example, an Operations role sift question could look like this:

It's been a busy week and it's now late on Friday. You have five things you've yet to get to this week.You're leading on our hiring processes, and you need to post 4 roles to different job boards to ensure we attract the best and most diverse group of potential candidates.

  1. The quarterly Board meeting is coming up. You're helping to pull together the presentation and you've said you'll help out the CEO by creating the skeleton of the deck together for her and sending it to the Executive Team to prepare their contributions before the deadline on Wednesday.
  2. We're currently running out of office space. You need to notify our contact at our co-working space if we agree with an offer they've given you regarding an additional office space to fit our team's growth. There's a chance that they've also talked about the same space to a different company.
  3. You need to collect and check over some of our financial information from Xero, our accounting software, which will also be a key input for the upcoming Board meeting.
  4. You need to send some documentation to HMRC regarding our company accounts, late notice can incur a fee.

Imagine you only have time to do two of these tasks, which two do you choose to do and why?

When companies use Applied, they will ask you questions upfront and may also ask for a CV.

Some of the companies that use Applied will use both but might not look at your CV until interview stage - and some of them might never need to look at your CV (depending on the sift questions they ask you!). Which is why it’s so important to read the question and answer in full.

Predictive validity of assessment methods (chart)

How to answer a sift question

1. Read the question carefully

I know, I know, basic stuff. But you would be surprised at how many people will attempt to include irrelevant information in their answer that doesn’t address the question. Some candidates just copy and paste information from their cv as their answer - don’t do this! It’s really unhelpful for the reviewing panel!

2. Formatting is your friend

There are some favourite sift questions where formatting will help reviewers understand exactly what you are trying to get across. Our platform isn’t Microsoft word (and it doesn’t need to be!). Simple bullets/numbers and paragraphing are usually enough to help you convey your knowledge and help reviewers process information clearly.

3. Read the questions again

There are a variety of sift questions that assess skills and knowledge. But it’s important to understand what the question is actually asking for.

For example, we have questions that ask candidates to write an email to a prospect, employee, or colleague. These questions help hiring managers assess how candidates communicate, understand their tone of voice, what they decide to leave out, or how they’d personalise the email to the recipient. We’ve seen lots of people answer this question with the steps they would take rather than actually writing the email.

The example at the beginning of this blog is a prioritisation question. Its aim is to assess if candidates can make a decisive decision, delegate, communicate, and prioritise. Some companies will be looking for a correct answer (ie. they have to prioritise y over x) and some will be trying to assess how candidates make difficult decisions and compromises.

With these questions, make sure to remember and write out the numbers you would prioritise (it saves word count) and make sure to address all tasks and provide your reasoning and judgement on each as to why one was chosen over the other. This will include how you work (or don’t!) with your team.

4. It’s fine to bring up your past experience, but be careful

Your past employer or university probably isn’t relevant to answering sift questions. However, the experiences (and mistakes) you went through along the way are what will help you answer these questions. It’s only worth bringing up if it’s relevant, for example, when answering questions like:

Why do you want to work at x, why now in your career? and what are you looking to learn in this new role?

This is the sort of question where you can talk about your current or past experiences, your motivations and how you can add value to the company. However, it isn’t the opportunity to list off all of your achievements either. Go back to #1 in this list - answer the question(s).

A good way to approach this is to split up your answer - the question is actually asking three questions, so you should really have three paragraphed answers.

5. Take the tools out of the toolbox

When you’re answering a question related to how you approach a task, situation, or project, don’t shy away from telling the reviewers all the tools you would use to make it work. If you use a specific framework when approaching a problem, write it in your answer. Do you rely on specific tools to manage your work or a piece of software that you think is best in managing work that work? Tell the reviewer what it is.

6. There may be different ways to answer the question, but that doesn’t mean your answer is what the employer is looking for

We’ve found that with technical roles, there are answers that will be correct, but they are not the best answer, nor what the reviewing panel is looking for. This is difficult because as a candidate when writing out the answer you believe that you are absolutely correct.

We found this when hiring engineers and data scientists. When answering a question to fix a bug or how to sort a dataset. Technically, the answer would be correct but it would take a lot longer and possibly create problems further down the line that the candidate wasn’t able to foresee in their answer.

"This is exactly how you open and sort the file in excel, I can open my screen and show you… I’ve done it 100s of times “

Sift questions are constructed to level the playing field by proposing the work situation or task for that specific job so that answers can be standardised across candidates. This methodology not only reduces bias, it reduces the context switching and assessment burden reviewers normally have when scoring ‘tell me a time when’ assessments.

If you’re recruiting from a diverse pool of candidates (which we hope you are!) it’s really difficult to use  “tell me a time when” type questions because situations and workplaces vary so greatly even though the candidates could be doing essentially the same job. The “tell me a time when” questions require reviewers to compare apples to oranges, instead of apples to apples.

Formulaic Answers

Candidates often have to answer ‘tell me a time when’ questions with the STAR formula. STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result. With sift questions, hiring managers can put candidates in the situation they will most likely be in for the job, give them a task (like writing an email) and ask candidates to simply answer the ‘AR’ part of the star formula.

What are the actions you’re going to take? and what are the results you’d aim to get?

It’s also why many blogs and recruiting companies will get you to re-write your CV/Resume with this formula:

Accomplished x, as measured by y, by doing z

Companies want to know and understand how you as an individual will have an impact on the company through the work that you do.

Removing triggers for bias

We’re continuing to work with companies to make recruitment more efficient, ethical, and inclusive. We’re all biased in some way but we’re working on creating interventions to reduce them and this can be done on the candidates side as well. There are ways to tweak your applications to reduce the impact of bias.

Last year the Behavioural Insights team found that changing employment dates to number of years in the role improved call-back rates by 14%.

If you have a gap or break in your career, the explanation you give also makes no difference in the recruitment process.

Six tips summarised

  1. read the question
  2. format your answers
  3. read the question again
  4. rely on experiences gained, not name dropping
  5. showcase what tools you use
  6. answer can be good, but not right

Searching for jobs is daunting and difficult but we get countless feedback from candidates that they actually enjoyed filling in Applied applications and sift questions.

Still looking to work for an amazing company? Check out the amazing companies that work with Applied to make hiring better, enjoyable, and more inclusive here.