The Difference Between Applicants and Candidates

Sometimes I see the most interesting conversations on Twitter.  Like this one.  A group was discussing the difference between applicants and candidates.

I must say that I have a tendency to use the words interchangeably.  Even though, when I really think about it, there’s a difference.  I believe applicants are the people who apply for jobs.  Candidates are the ones who are chosen to get an interview.

That being said, I also feel companies have an obligation to both – applicants and candidates.  The question becomes should the obligation be applicants, interview, recruitingthe same?  Should applicants be treated the same as candidates?  Or once you become a candidate should the expectation change (and, I assume, become greater)?

On one hand, both applicants and candidates are potentially past, current or future customers.  So I’d like to think this is important and merits giving everyone a certain level of attention.  On the other hand, for candidates you actually see and talk to…this should create some sort of relationship (albeit a short one) that deserves more.

Tell me.  I’m interested in your thoughts on this one.

  • Should applicants and candidates receive the same level of service?
  • As a manager, is it acceptable to treat applicants and candidates differently?
  • If you were a candidate, would you expect the same response an applicant gets…or something better?

Thanks for sharing your opinions on this one.  Anyone who leaves a comment by Sunday, April 10 will be entered into a drawing for the book, Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street.  And if you don’t have any thoughts about candidates and applicants but want to be entered into the book raffle…no worries, just say so and you’re in.


  1. Kelly Dingee says

    Good Morning Sharlyn….

    I agree – applicants do “apply”. But whether applicant or candidate I firmly believe that everyone is owed a response, an interaction of some sort. I think it’s incredibly impolite and borderline unprofessional to not respond to applicants and candidates. Even if it’s a quick “thank you, no thank you”.

    Do candidates, i.e. people who have entered the screening and then interviewing process, possibly receive a different level of interaction? I think so, but that’s because they’ve passed the initial screening that put them into the interviewing queue. So the interactions and responses would be different.

    And I say that with the knowledge of having been recruiter and candidate. I appreciate every crappy candidate experience I’ve had when entertaining a new job opportunity, because it’s made me a better recruiter.


  2. says

    Hi Sharlyn,
    I too agree with your definition of applicants and candidates. But both terms are very similar. We can say all candidates are applicants, but some applicants are candidates. Applicants become candidates after fulfilling certain criteria.

  3. Kent Wrenn says

    Although we’re splitting hairs, there is a distinction. In my book, everyone is an applicant while some are candidates. The customer comparison is perfect – treat them all great because you never know when one might become one of your “best” customers.

  4. says

    I guess an applicant is the one who thinks he is the right fit, where as the candidate is the one who you think is the right fit.

    Having said that it still makes good sense to treat both of them with request (if not equal) If that is not done a candidate or applicant may bad mouth your company or venture. That is the last thing you want to happen.

    Yes even if you dont want to a candidate will get better preference than applicant and I dont believe there is anything wrong with that. Its all about business, and its all about caliber
    Himanshu Chanda recently posted..Is your boss blindly in love with your customer

  5. Elliot D. Lasson, Ph.D. says

    Generally speaking, the distinction is where one is in the process. “Candidate” implies that the person has passed through one or two initial points of screening, not necessarily having been interviewed. We know that there are technologies in place that allow for a resume to be submitted automatically when a certain job is posted. The fact that it is so easy to “apply” for jobs today is perhaps the reason that the Dept. of Justice has struggled for a legal definition that would have implications for tracking and reporting by HR entities.

    From an HR perspective, I would say that even at the level of applicant, the individual deserves some type of response, even automated. Once the person becomes a candidate, it is in the best interest of the organization to be responsive and keep the person engaged with the organization.

  6. swagner says

    I agree that “applicants” refers to anyone that has applied or expressed interest in a position.

    I believe someone can only be considered a “candidate” if they have met the minimum hiring criteria for the position, including compensation requirements. Sometimes this is evident just by looking at their resume or application, and other times a conversation is required.

    Regardless, everyone deserves to be treated with respect. At the very least, a TBNT e-mail should be sent. But if you have the opportunity to provide the applicant or candidate with advice, recommend resources, or at least an explanation about why they weren’t considered, it will serve you well in your career to be known as a kind and helpful person.

  7. Roxanne says

    This is a great post, and something I have thought about in the past. I do find that I use the terms interchangeably at times, but there is a distinction.

    Personally, I do try to make sure responses go out, whether automated at the earliest level of rejection or personalized at later stages. I want people to come away from interviewing with us thinking that they would recommend their friends apply, whether or not they are hired.

  8. says

    Great insight Sharlyn! I feel Applicants and Candidates are terms mostly used by ATS / Recruiting Systems to differentiate the pool you finalized for the next action most likely an interview. At the end of the day, companies should be making the process as human as possible and establish the emotional connection with the applicant, be able to communicate back to the applicant on their status vs becoming a black box.

  9. Charles Barragan says

    I agree that “applicant” and “candidate” are words that are often used to describe any and all persons interested in working for (or moving within) an organization. Regardless of how one classifies a person, I recommend that the level of treatment be the same (one of the few times I encourage democracy in the workplace) and that all in the recruitment pipeline receive the courtesy of an update on where s/he stands. The biggest bug-a-boo for me is an employer that does not notify an applicant of his or her status…is that person a contender? A short email at every step of the process will work wonders and allow non-contenders to move on while the employer can now focus on who to bring on board. My 2 cents.

  10. Ming says

    I believe there is a difference between an applicant and a candidate for all the reasons listed above. I agree that both deserve communication but the candidate deserves more due to the fact they’ve passed the screening process.

  11. Reuven Rubinson says

    I agree with swagner. Unfortunately in this market too many people apply to any job that is somewhat close to what they want. And these applicants waste peoples time because there’s no way they’re going to be hired. They only drain your resources.

    If your resources allow, definitely send them a no thank you. But if you have hundreds of them than don’t lose any sleep over it.

  12. says

    Hi everyone! Thanks for the great comments. This is a really interesting conversation.

    One comment I received on my Facebook page was about the legal definition of applicant and candidate. Something we haven’t touched on here. Any thoughts? Would a legal distinction offer important insights?

  13. Jeffrey Graw says

    Nice article Sharlyn, and one which evokes a certain amount of angst for job seekers who, regardless of their position in the recruiting process, don’t get a response. As an HR professional, I blame the HR department of any organization that hasn’t implemented some process/tool that acknowledges everyone that is interested in working for their organization. It’s bad for business!
    I agree with Elliott Lasson that everyone deserves an acknowledgement, and definitely more so when they have moved from “applicant” to “candidate” in the selection process.

  14. says

    Well said…it’s amazing how we all agree that businesses need to provide some kind of acknowledgement and then you hear about so few that do.

  15. says

    I like the definition to differentiate and would not get lost in the detail and what Legal definition is correct. I definitely think they should all be treated the same. That being said, it is being treated the same at each stage they are in. One has to be realistic as to the level of engagement you would be having with someone going for their third round interview (the candidate) versus someone whose CV you did not think made the person the incumbent for the role (the applicant). It is about acknowledging the person and giving them closure should there be no interest to pursue the opportunity further. It will do wonders for you and the applicant and is free branding!
    Thabo Hermanus recently posted..There Goes Your Brand- Its Personal

  16. says

    Treating “candidates” with respect is key. As a Talent Finder for my company, I personally call every “candidate”. The applicant and the candidate are different in this case as there has been no personal relationship with the 100’ds of applicants who apply to my position. Every applicant gets a notification and every candidate gets a personal call to either come in for an interview, receive an offer or to be gently and professionally declined.

  17. says

    I thought that I would open with a a quote from Mollie Lombardi, Aberdeen Group who said it best. “Hiring May Slow or Stop, but Talent Acquisition Never Does.”

    With that in mind–you can have a million unqualified applicants for a position, but to find someone qualified is the key and to continously build a quality database is what talent acquisition is all about (in my opinion).

    As discussed I wanted to agree that there is a significant difference between a “applicant” and “candidate.” An applicant is any person who simply turns in their resume for a position, and a candidate (greater expectation change) is any person who possess the necessary skills/characteristics that a company position is seeking. The bottom line is that candidates are quality…as a recruiter you are seeking quality candidates that will enable growth and possess key skills. Therefore, as a recruiter and business you would want to make the candidate experience as profound as possible.

    Another topic in collaboration that I wanted to touch is what Jeffrey Graw presented in his discussion about a effective process/tool. Recruiting staff have seen the number of applicants continue to rise and with less “manpower” have turned to video interview solutions as their process/tool for a better candidate experience and to combate “bad business”.

    Users of video interviewing have come to realize that video interviewing saves time and money. What they are also finding and most importantly is the fact that video interviewing provides the most effective tool to find those quality candidates, candidates who best fit the organizations and will enable growth and push the business forward.

    What do you think of this video interviewing management tool? I would love to hear your feedback Sharlyn on how effective it is for the candidate experience!

  18. Karen D says

    I have been in the Gov’t contracting realm for quite some time now – and we are required to take the term “applicant” quite seriously – the OFCCP put out the following definitition of Applicant in 2005:

    “Internet Applicant. (1) Internet Applicant means any individual as
    to whom the following four criteria are satisfied:
    (i) The individual submits an expression of interest in employment
    through the Internet or related electronic data technologies;
    (ii) The contractor considers the individual for employment in a
    particular position;
    (iii) The individual’s expression of interest indicates the
    individual possesses the basic qualifications for the position; and,
    (iv) The individual at no point in the contractor’s selection
    process prior to receiving an offer of employment from the contractor,
    removes himself or herself from further consideration or otherwise
    indicates that he or she is no longer interested in the position.”
    So we are careful about the differences in terminology 😉 Going back to your point – all of us that have ATS capability should be setting up at the very least – auto-responses – letting the candidates know that they are or are not being considered. I have had Many thank you notes from potential candidates who appreciated having Any type of response – even a thanks but no thanks- and believe me – they Do remember how they are treated :) Just my two cents!

  19. says

    Thanks everyone for keeping the conversation going. It’s really interesting to read your perspectives.

    @Thabo – I like your comment about people being treated equally at each stage in the process. Important point.

    @Tracy – I’m a big fan of notifying everyone that applies as well. In my past experience, applicants could still stay at hotels and buy airline tickets…so everyone was a potential customer.

    @Leilani – I’m starting to see companies use tools like Skype to conduct interviews. In the past that would have been unheard of. I think we’ll see increased use as organizations start to use telework more.

    @Karen – Thanks for sharing the OFCCP definition. I totally agree candidates just want to know what’s going on. They might not be thrilled that they are no longer under consideration. But at least they know.

  20. says

    Hi Sharlyn. I appreciate the comment and for any more information about our top please take a look at HR professional, Dr. Van Latham’s Quality of Hire Workshop today:

    The workshop focuses on how to better assess candidates with respect to job description.