What are Knockout Questions?

When applying for jobs online, most of us focus on crafting a perfect resume and writing a cover letter that will make an impression. However, there is another gatekeeper standing between you and a job interview that is less forgiving than either of those– knockout questions.

What are knockout questions?

Knockout questions are typically asked early in the job application process to eliminate applicants who are unable or unwilling to perform key job functions, lack required qualifications, or exhibit other red flags. They are designed to keep hiring managers from wasting their time vetting and interviewing applicants that are unlikely to be among their top candidates.

Known sometimes as screening questions or pre-interview questions, knockout questions come in many formats online:

  • Short answer
  • Yes or no
  • Scale of 1 to 5
  • Select all that apply

If you’re not getting responses to your applications despite submitting a keyword-optimized resume, one possible explanation is that you’re not making it past the knockout questions.

Auto-rejection

The term “knockout” is not an exaggeration. While a short answer question may be reviewed by an actual person, anything with preset answers could result in an automated rejection. Applicant tracking systems (ATS) allow hiring managers to send any applications with a failed response straight to the trash.

Read more: What is an applicant tracking system?

For example, the ATS JazzHR states on their website:

“Candidates who answer incorrectly to your knockout questions will be flagged as having been auto-rejected and be automatically dispositioned based on your selection. They will not show up in your new candidates and will go straight into a Not Hired disposition.”

Here is what the settings look like for hiring managers:

Auto-reject setting for failed knockout questions.
The auto-reject setting in Jazz HR’s ATS. (JazzHR.com)

Types of knockout questions

Knockout questions can address concerns ranging from simple logistics to culture fit.

Basic functions, logistics, and legal

In the JazzHR example above, the knockout question is “Can you work weekends?” Working weekends is critical to the job, so the hiring manager has no interest in interviewing anyone who can’t.

As a job applicant, if you really like the company and the job but can’t work weekends, there isn’t a good way to get around this. Answering “no” will sink your application. Answering “yes” in bad faith will come back to bite you when the truth is uncovered.

If you can’t do the job described, you’re probably better off pulling the plug and putting your time and effort into a different application.

Other knockout questions in this category:

  • Are you willing to travel/relocate/work overtime?
  • What are your salary requirements?
  • Are you legally able to work in the United States?
  • Are you willing to submit to a drug test?

Qualifications

Some applicants believe they can get around being under-qualified if they can just get to the interview and explain themselves. To combat this, hiring managers use knockout questions to enforce required qualifications listed on the job description.

For example, if the job description demands a “minimum 3 years experience as a graphic designer,” you might try some resume formatting trickery to make your 2.5 years of experience seem more like 3. It’s harder for applicants to blur the lines with an unambiguous yes-or-no knockout question: “Do you have at least 3 years experience as a graphic designer?”

“No.”

Other qualifications-based knockout questions:

  • Do you have X degree?
  • Do you have X license?
  • Do you have X certification?
  • Do you have work experience with X?
  • What is your skill level with X on a scale of 1-5?

Culture Fit and Character

Most knockout questions are simple and judge your eligibility and qualifications. Rather than wait for a phone or in-person interview, some hiring managers will use the application to filter out applicants based on culture fit, personality traits, or character.

These types of questions include:

  • Do you prefer to work alone or as part of a team?
  • Can you concentrate in a loud environment?
  • Describe your preferred work style.
  • How well do you adapt to change?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • Tell me about a time you resolved a conflict with a co-worker.

How to answer knockout questions

Be honest

You might get a little further by lying on knockout questions, but unless you’re committed to life as a con artist, the truth will eventually come out and put your efforts to waste. The best approach is to answer honestly or not at all. If the only way forward is to answer dishonestly on a knockout question, consider cutting your losses and moving on to a different job application.

If you’re determined to apply anyway, answer truthfully then find the hiring manager and explain why they should hire you despite your apparent disqualification. It might be the only way they’re aware of your application if it was auto-rejected.

Do your research

There’s more wiggle room with subjective culture fit and character questions. If you’re not sure what the “right” answer is, research the company to get a better idea of company culture and what the hiring manager might be looking for. Re-read the job description carefully. Use Glassdoor employee reviews to get an inside look at the company. Scope out the background of employees in your prospective department on LinkedIn. You should still answer honestly, but doing some investigative work can help tailor your response for the specific company.

Be real with yourself

If you’re frequently getting knocked out due to your qualifications, it might be time for a reality check. Instead of looking for a job that is a step up from your most recent position, consider making a lateral move or taking a slight step back into a role with more opportunity for growth. Add free certifications to strengthen your resume. Develop your skills and bolster your portfolio with volunteer work, freelancing, and side hustles.

They say job hunting is a full-time job in and of itself. Don’t let that time and effort go to waste by ignoring key qualifications or blowing off knockout questions that seem redundant or less important than your resume.

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