When you're a job candidate, the hiring process can seem like a mystery. And that can be frustrating. But an understanding of the steps most companies follow when they're hiring can take away some of the stress when you launch your job search and when you’re waiting for an answer.

Familiarity with the recruitment process can also give you clues about what to do at each stage to give yourself a better chance of landing the job. Here are the basic steps you can expect, plus some other considerations as you approach a job search.

Basic steps in the recruitment process

Here's a quick rundown of the typical recruitment process after you’ve submitted your resume. Some of our advice may even help you influence the employer’s decision about whether to keep you in the running.

Step 1: Human resources evaluation

At most companies, a computer program scans your resume for keywords and phrases after you submit it. Typically, the words and phrases it's looking for are those in the employment ad. If your resume includes some of the language from the position description (assuming these words accurately portray your skills and experience, of course), it's more likely your application will make it through the scan.

Step 2: Phone interviews

Next, an HR representative goes through the resumes flagged by the scanning program and picks the ones that fit best with the position's requirements. That representative then calls each chosen applicant for a short phone interview. If you get one of those calls, answer the HR rep's questions with professionalism and enthusiasm. He or she is not only confirming what's on your resume; the HR rep is also gauging your communication skills and interest in the job and deciding whether to pass your resume on to the hiring manager.

Step 3: First interviews

Once the HR rep has discussed each candidate's qualifications with the hiring manager, the manager chooses which ones to bring in for a face-to-face interview. He or she will already be familiar with candidates' skills and work history, so in this meeting, the manager will be evaluating personality and fit with the position and corporate culture. If you make it to this round, prepare to be asked a range of common questions about your skills and experience and how they match up with the requirements of the job. Also be ready for situational questions, which focus on how well you understand the process for certain job requirements, and behavioural questions, which are designed to gauge your interpersonal and judgment skills.

Step 4: Second interviews

After the first round of interviews, the hiring manager generally narrows the field of candidates to two or three. Those candidates are then asked back for a second interview, often with another manager, potential coworkers or the department head. In this round, let your personality shine through but maintain your professionalism. This interview is designed so the interviewer can get an even better sense of your working style and your character.

Step 5: Decision and job offer

Once the additional interviews are complete, managers who have been involved compare their impressions of each applicant. A final choice is made, and the HR rep makes an offer to the selected candidate.

Step 6: Salary negotiation

For some job seekers, salary negotiation — the final step in the recruitment process — is the most stressful. This is a stage where it pays (literally) to be prepared. You can research typical salaries for your desired position in your province and city with tools like Robert Half’s Salary Guide and Salary Calculator. Next, consider what you’re worth to the company based on your skills, the value you’ll bring to the team, and whether the industry or your role is fast growing and/or hard to fill. Finally, consider the entire compensation package — benefits, employee perks, paid time off, training, etc. — rather than focusing solely on salary. If you’re able to reach an agreement with the employer, be sure to get everything in writing.

If you make it to the final stage of the recruitment process, congratulations! If not, don't be discouraged. There's often a very thin line between the applicant who gets the job and a finalist who doesn't. If you got close, you were clearly a strong candidate for the position, and if you maintain your focus on your job search, another opportunity may soon arrive.

Having a friend in the process: working with a recruiter

Let’s go back to the beginning of the process for a minute. If you’re overwhelmed by the thought of applying for a wide variety of online job listings and unsure that you’ve uncovered the opportunities that best match your skills and workplace preferences, consider working with a recruiting agency. The fundamental difference between working alone and with a recruiter is that the recruiter handles a lot of the steps for you, offers a much wider selection of job opportunities and also gives you overall guidance through the entire recruitment process. Here’s what working with a recruiter looks like:

1. Have a conversation

Whether you're actively looking for a new position or just curious about your career options, the recruitment process starts with a one-on-one conversation. The recruiter will get to know you, and you'll learn about the agency's procedure and get the inside track on the local job market.

2. Let your personality come through

Recruiters certainly want to see your work history and talents, but they also want to see your personality. When candidates interview with recruiters, they typically talk about the job seeker’s background and strengths, as well as the person’s soft skills and the types of environments he or she wants to work in. That way, the agency can match you with a workplace where you'll be happy and successful.

3. Be up front about your needs

Recruiters will represent you in the recruitment process, so they need to know your work preferences and salary requirements. Are you open to part-time or contract work, or are you looking for a full-time position? And what amount of pay will make you say yes to a gig? The recruiter will only send you information about positions that match your range. It's also helpful for the recruiters to know what perks and benefits you consider dealmakers or dealbreakers.

4. Consider their wide reach

Recruiters are often aware of unlisted jobs — and even know when firms are only starting to consider adding personnel. If a recruiter finds someone who's a good fit for a particular company, he or she can sometimes build the case to get the applicant hired. When the recruiting agency finds a position that might be a good match for you, they'll present your profile to the employer. If the hiring manager agrees it could be a good match, you'll get a call about the position and, if you're interested, you'll chat on the phone or meet for an interview. Afterward, the agency will speak to both you and the hiring manager about how to proceed. If it's a match, you'll negotiate pay and benefits through the recruiter and set a start date.

5. Keep the lines of communication open

Whether the position you land through the recruitment process is temporary or full time, you should stay in touch with your recruiter. Send an email every three to six months to share how the new gig is going. The recruiter is just as invested in your success as you are. And the next time you're looking for a new position, they’ll be up-to-speed and ready to help.

Maximizing your potential: showing off your soft skills

As you pursue your job search, you'll have numerous opportunities to make a good impression — from the first discussion you have with the recruiter or hiring manager to the initial phone conversation to your interaction with the receptionist when you visit the firm for an in-person interview. At every step, you need to project an approachable demeanor and an enthusiasm for your work. You have to rely as much on your interpersonal skills as you do on your functional and professional talents.

Here are a few tips for using your soft skills to help wow the people you meet during the recruitment process:

1. Prepare your pitch

Craft a compelling storyline that describes you, your particular skills and your unique career experiences. Then, narrow this story down to an elevator pitch — a one- or two-sentence nutshell version that functions as the positioning statement for your personal brand.

2. Express your enthusiasm

When you're genuinely excited about your work, it draws other people to you. Did a past project teach you a new technique or solve a particularly sticky business problem? Was the team inspiring to work with? Be ready to discuss what excites you about your work. You'll naturally relax and smile during the conversation.

3. Watch your body language

How you speak and present yourself is just as important as what you say. A few essentials in the nonverbal department: Make eye contact with the person you're meeting with, adopt an attentive posture and present a firm handshake.

4. Give, don't just take

Go in knowing how to sell yourself and your ideas. Part of that includes tuning in to the other person's perspective and, most important, listening to what they say. Pay attention, ask questions and actively engage in the conversation. Come to the interview prepared with a few questions of your own, in case nothing comes to mind when it's your turn to do the asking. You will not be perceived in the best light if you have no questions.

5. Be gracious

Every step in the recruitment process takes time — not just yours but also that of the people responsible for interviewing and choosing a new employee. Remember to thank them for their time and attention. Follow up with an email or a handwritten note on every job interview, even those that don't lead to a new gig. Your ongoing reputation is still at stake.

The bottom line? A top-notch resume might get you an interview, but from there, it's up to you to close the deal. So learn as much as you can about the typical recruiting process, and then be sure to make a positive impact at every stage.