Guess what can possibly help a job candidate stand out from the sea of applicants. Relevant job experience? A long list of certifications? A good track record of achievements at work?

While these credentials could be important, for a popular post that attracts hundreds or thousands of qualified candidates, what really sets an applicant apart could be as simple as asking the right questions, suggests Gary Sherwin, president and CEO of Newport Beach & Company, who spoke in my tourism concepts class last week.

According to Sherwin, when a candidate is curious and interested in things around her/him, s/he would ask questions. Sometimes, a simple question of "How does it work?" or "Can you walk me through this?" could set a candidate apart from others.

He is not exaggerating at all. Over the years, I have repeatedly heard the same comment from various recruiters who visited Texas Tech, Syracuse or Cal Poly Pomona for college recruitment. Recruiters love to hire students who show great interest in what they are doing and feel excited about innovative ideas. Those who can carry an intellectual conversation and ask engaging questions stand out.

Referring to a research report I wrote about the factors influencing hospitality recruiters' hiring decisions in college recruiting, job candidates are expected to research the open position and the company they apply for before interviewing. Then, they need to ask recruiters good questions during the interviewing process.

For example, a recruiter of a national restaurant chain stated: "They have done their homework, and then the interview. They know about us, and they ask questions. And then they follow up after the interview with a personal thank-you note or even (at least) an email, asking me further questions to keep our conversation going back and forth."

OK. Then, what does it really mean to ask "intellectual and engaging questions"?

Intellectual and engaging questions usually come from an in-depth research of a company or a topic. I consider "good" questions as those showing candidates are already knowledgeable about a topic (or a company) but seek additional information to add to what they have already known.

In this case, if a question can be easily answered with a search on the Internet, that is not a good question because a candidate should have done their homework without asking the question. Another key is to ask open-ended questions. "Yes/no" questions do not help engage with anyone.

Here is a more specific example. When a job candidate applied for a hotel job, he first did a good research about the hotel on the Internet and found out the hotel was using iPad and mobile apps in room service. The candidate had worked in a hotel before, and he recently read several news articles about hotels embracing new technologies in customer service.

In this case, the candidate could possibly ask: How much impact does the hotel's new service style in room service have on guest satisfaction/operations/staffing?

By asking an intellectual and engaging question like this, the candidate can initiate a good conversation with the interviewer about the hotel's new initiative. The interviewer will likely be happy to talk about what the hotel is doing.

Additionally, the candidate can demonstrate that s/he:

  • has done good research about the hotel
  • understands how the room service department operates in a regular hotel
  • is aware of the industry trends
  • is curious and wanted to know how this new service style is working for the hotel
  • can think strategically

In the workplace, those who remain curious are more likely to notice issues that others do not see. They often initiate new inquiries or changes. Isn't that how great knowledge is created in the ivory tower, too? Many breakthrough innovations and new discoveries begin with a good research question.

Now, let's remain curious and start asking questions.