Streamlining what you ask for from candidates

This article is part of a series sharing a decade of experience supporting you to run open calls.

Streamlining what you ask for from candidates

Asking candidates for the correct information is a fine art. Ask for too much, and people won’t apply; ask too little, and you might not be able to make a meaningful decision when choosing candidates. Luckily we’ve compiled a few ideas below on helping you find that sweet spot that will serve everyone.

Each second you save candidates is amplified by the number of submissions you receive

Work backwards

There are two types of information you may need from candidates:

  • What you need to choose successful candidates
  • Demographic data to improve your programme and demonstrate value to external stakeholders

Knowing how you will choose successful candidates should always be the first step in defining what information you need when they submit.

Create a list of everything you need to know about candidates to allow you to make meaningful decisions. These answers should be made available to any judges you are inviting to help you in the selection.

Once you have your list, add all questions that are important for you and your stakeholders (e.g. demographic information).

Fostering diversity & inclusion

Demographic information is valuable in ensuring you are reaching the communities you want to reach. But make sure judges can’t access it as it could lead to bias in how candidates are selected.

Impact from the Pandemic

With a constantly changing world, make sure to stress test your statement above with current events. What worked two years ago may need a lick of paint to serve today’s needs.

Using Zealous

Your purpose is the first thing candidates will see on your profile page. You have limited time to draw people in, so the field is restricted to 320 characters.

Who should submit?

Knowing who you are targeting will inform every facet of your planning. It helps shape your language, imagery, process and more. 

Ensuring you define your demographic before you start will give you a reference point for each decision you make. These are usually loosely defined on location, demographic, age, etc. You might also consider using segments defined by your stakeholders (e.g. Audience Agency spectrums) or depend on already defined ones that you use within your organisation.

Fostering diversity & inclusion

Defining who you want to submit goes a long way to make you think about how inclusive you will be.

But watch out this can be a double-edged sword. For example, focusing on age may create discrimination when supporting emerging talent (they might start late).

Impact from the Pandemic

It’s unlikely who you target is going to change based on the pandemic.

But understanding how the pandemic has impacted those you are targeting, will help create a programme that serves them better at this time.

Using Zealous

Make selection easier by separating visual elements from your application form. Choose what answers you want to show judges.

Format is everything

Keeping data clean will make your life simpler in reviewing applications and analysing data. Choosing the correct format for the answer to your question will help.

Instead of allowing candidates to fill out a field with text, can you restrict the number of options available to them in a list? Or even replace lists with simple Yes/No answers?

For every question you have on your list, think about the format of the answer and any restrictions you might have on that format (e.g. 120-word text field, a list with six options to choose from etc.).

If you have a list with too many options (e.g. more than seven) consider removing some, splitting the question into separate parts or changing the format. For each additional choice you give candidates, you double the time it takes them to make a decision (Hick’s law).

Fostering diversity & inclusion

1 in 10 people in the UK has some degree of dyslexia.

Simplifying the format of your questions will help reduce the barrier to entry for some candidates

Using Zealous

Customising your application form allows for structured data to be captured from candidates (e.g. adding list boxes, text items, restricting the length of answers etc.).

Build for scale

Taking a large number of submissions? You might want to consider making your selection in multiple rounds.

Asking candidates simpler questions to establish who passes the earlier rounds could help you manage larger calls better. The more nuanced questions could then be used later in the process to make more meaningful decisions.

Fostering diversity & inclusion

You shouldn’t just consider the needs of your candidates.

Each one of your judges also has their own needs. Streamline their process as much as possible to ensure you value their time.

Impact from the Pandemic

If you are working with the heads of institutions to judge a call out,  be mindful the bulk of their time is currently being spent navigating the current climate.

Making judging quick, fun and easy is vital in guaranteeing their participation.

Using Zealous

We have a whole process to make judging as simple as possible. You can explore the judge’s journey here.

Simplify your submissions in minutes

Experience our submission management platform with a customised online tour.

Keep language short

The correct language allows candidates to digest information quicker and leads to better answers from them. Even small changes in how you word your question can lead to a big impact.

A question should be as short as possible without losing its meaning.

e.g. “Please add a biography?” should be shortened to “Biography”. This could be improved to be “Short Biography” and further shortened to “Short Bio” (only do so if you feel candidates know what you mean by Bio).

It’s nice to be polite, but it’s more polite to save candidates time.

Fostering diversity & inclusion

Communities that need the most support are most likely to have the least time available to them.

Saving them time allows them to take part.

Impact from the Pandemic

At present, we either have too much time on our hands (furlough) or have never been busier (kids at home, double the work).

By serving the latter, you end up serving everyone.

Using Zealous

Edit questions at any time – even after you’ve published your call. This allows you to make tweaks to how you ask the question based on feedback from candidates submitting.

Ask fewer questions

If you can save each candidate 30 seconds and receive 1,000 submissions, you save the world 8.3 hours of productivity.

We tend to ask for more than we need, just to be safe, don’t.

Can you get the information you need by merging some of the questions on your list? Can you get demographic data elsewhere? (e.g. Instead of asking how candidates heard about you, use Google Analytics campaigns). Remove as much as you can.

If you find it hard to choose which questions you should keep, split your list into Must-Have, Should-Have, Could-Have. Keep the Must-Haves, delete the could haves and make should-haves optional.

Review them and make amendments.

Fostering diversity & inclusion

Any action that simplifies your process amplifies participation in your competition.

Using Zealous

Basic information, such as name and contact details, is asked by default and preloaded to save candidates time when submitting.


Human beings can only make a limited amount of decisions in a day. We all suffer from decision fatigue.

The order of questions matters. Put the most important complex questions at the top and the least important optional ones at the bottom. Doing so ensures candidates have a fresh mind at the start and find answering questions easier as they go.

Using Zealous

Reorder questions on your application form at any time.

A thousand words

If an image speaks a thousand words, imagine what videos, sounds and 3D models could do!

If you don’t need to analyse answers in a spreadsheet, you should consider alternative mediums. Can the short bio be a 1-minute video? Instead of restricting the submission of artwork to one image, could you allow for more (e.g. closeups of the details)? What about 3D models of sculptures or PDF files to present more engaging pitches.

Giving candidates flexibility in how they present their work may help them better demonstrate the depth of their practice.

Fostering diversity & inclusion

“Why should we pick you?” could be answered with an essay, a short video or some audio.

Giving candidates a choice of which medium to choose to answer long-form questions allows candidates who struggle with a specific medium to embrace another and still answer your key questions.

Impact from the Pandemic

A slim silver lining is that all those Zoom calls have conditioned us to be more accustomed to being on the screen.

Asking for video pitches won’t be as big of an ask as it was before.

Using Zealous

Customise submissions to be any number of rich media elements. Choose how many and the types you will accept.

Let candidates reuse works they have submitted before to save time.

Serving everyone, serves no one

You might want to create one competition with multiple categories or perhaps integrate your student prize into your main prize.

Creating one call works if the submissions process is the same. However, if you start asking for specific information for specific categories, you should consider splitting them into separate online calls.

The easy test is to go over your guidelines and questions. If candidates are shown irrelevant information when they are submitting (e.g. Film do this, Art do that, Students something else), consider splitting your opportunity for this category.

Breaking your competition into separate calls will keep guidelines and questions relevant and lead to fewer queries and confusion when submitting.

Fostering diversity & inclusion

Forcing people to see information that isn’t relevant to them will confuse them and require additional time for them to take part.

It will also lead you to be swamped with queries when submissions open.

Using Zealous

We don’t charge per call out.

You can create as many competitions as you need with the submissions you purchase.

Process is everything

Planning your questions is one thing; understanding the process by which you will accept entries is a different thing.

Once you have understood what you need from your candidates, be sure to input it to whichever process you will use (e.g. submissions management platform, online forms etc.). Then be sure to test the journey your candidates will take – this should start from the point of discovery (where they hear about your call out) to the moment they have submitted successfully.

Whilst you do, make sure to take notes about the following:

  • Is any information duplicated?
  • Is there any ambiguity in what people need to submit? Can it be clarified with additional checks?
  • Are questions clear?
  • Is all the information on the page relevant to candidates applying? If not, do you need to split the open call into two?

Fostering diversity & inclusion

Get a few other people from the communities you want to serve test out your process. Their feedback could help highlight any issues you might not be aware of yourself and root out systematic discrimination

Using Zealous

We can’t fit everything we do to help candidates submit in this little box. However, you explore their full journey here.


For each minute you spend planning your process, you will save hours answering queries later on. And this won’t just save you time. It will guarantee wider participation and help you scale your impact.

And remember, each second you save candidates is amplified by the number of submissions you receive.

About the author


Guy Armitage founded Zealous to simplify access to opportunities in the creative sector. He was voted Guardian’s Creative Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013, has discussed the world-changing potential of creativity at TED and in Forbes; and is a proud trustee of Firstsite (Colchester) and Arebyte (London). Prior to Zealous, Guy kept the London Stock Exchange open during the 7/7 bombings and founded a creative startup in Cairo. Contact Guy