Business Management

How to Test Job Applicants

Use this simple standard test to judge objectively which job applicant has the technical skills you need.

Hiring decisions are often made based on how much we like an applicant. But is the person we like really the most talented and best suited for the job? Psychologists say that most executives make a hiring decision within the first three minutes of meeting an applicant. In fact, most of us are so swayed by emotions and first impressions that we tend to judge on appearance and who we “click” with, an actuality that is the talented applicant’s worst enemy. Because of this, shyness, nervousness, and inexperience in interviewing can shut out even the most talented person for the job.

Sure, you want a technician who can fit into your salon’s culture and from lasting relationships with clients. And there are people who walk into a room and are so professional and easy-going that you know in an instant you want to hire them. But will your positive first impression cause you to overlook the fact that her sculptured nails look like spoons? Maybe she’s trainable, maybe she’s not. And what about the somewhat shy person whose sculptured nails could win competitions? Did you give her a fair chance?

The easiest way to assure that your hiring  decisions are sound and based on your salon’s needs is to have applicants take a standard technical test, one that provides each applicant a fair chance to show you what she can do. This will make your job easier by allowing you to put aside emotion and see how well they do on the test. Ideally, you’ll have more than one who passes so you have a choice.


You don’t want to spend time testing every applicant who walks through the salon door. Use an application form or resume as a first stage of the process. Evaluate the applicant’s professional presentation, the condition of her own nails, and her job experience before asking her to show you her technical skills. You don’t need to find out whether a sloppily dressed candidate can or cannot do good nails. If she doesn’t consider a job search reason enough to dress professionally, she probably won’t consider working at the salon reason enough either.

Technical testing can be very time-consuming for salon owners. You may find that doing your testing only one day a week or a few days a month saves you time. Or you may choose to do your testing when the salon is closed. However you arrange the testing procedure, do it in a manner that will allow you the time and quiet to truly evaluate the applicant’s work.  The time spent hiring wisely will save you much time and aggravation caused by poor quality work, unhappy customers, and a resentful staff.


Most salon owners ask an applicant to perform a service on the owner herself or on another technician at the salon. But working on the owner can make the applicant nervous. Also, the owner may not have the time or patience to sit through the entire procedure. Will you want to see a full set of sculptured nails, but end up requiring her to do a basic manicure and one sculptured nail because you’re rushed for time?

Geraldine Sinner, an instructor at the Artistic Academy of Hair Design in Fair Lawn, N.J., says, “I used to have the applicants to do a final exam on me, but after a few experiences removing thick, sculptured nails, I said, ‘never again.’”

“Having an applicant work on the owner creates undue pressure,” contends Deborah Mack, director of nail education for Pivot Point International schools in Chicago. “Step away from her and let her relax and establish a relationship with her model. Don’t watch every step over her shoulder. You can see if she did it right by the finished work.”

Educators who test every day agree that the fairest method is to ask the applicant to bring in her own model. Give her ample time to get one; only supply her with a model if she can’t find one. If you supply the model, make it a regular client who isn’t likely to fuss over the extra time a test takes. Says Sinner, “Don’t give an applicant a new client, and never criticize her in front of the client.”

Sinner advises making the situation as realistic as possible. If you’re asking a regular client to play guinea pig (offering the service for free in return), “coach the applicant not to tell the client’s she’s just out of school.” Tell the client you’re trying out someone new, but don’t mention her experience.


Mack says that her final exam tests how a student performs manicures for men and women, French manicures, wraps, tips, overlays, and sculptured nails. Lynn Glass, an instructor in Pittsburgh Beauty Academy’s graduate division, recommends seeing at least three to five artificial nails but not a full set. The candidate could be there all day if you want to see more than one service. “Having her do just one nail isn’t enough,” she says, “because applicants are nervous and it takes them one or two nails to get involved in their work.”

Adds Dora Brooks, a nail instructor at Pivot Point International’s Schaumburg, III., center, “Test on a manicure and a pedicure as well as acrylics. But don’t ask for a full set or you’ll have less time to see other services.”

You should seriously consider testing the applicant’s pedicure service because that service is popular and some technicians aren’t willing to do it. Nail art, although also popular, isn’t necessary to test unless you are hiring someone specifically to do nail art.

To help salon owners develop a benchmark by which to judge job applicants (and give applicants a sense of what to expect), we consulted several professional testers and salon owners and developed a standard technical test. It can be used by any salon to test job applicants and new-hires.

It tests an applicant on a manicure and pedicure first, allowing her to demonstrate basic skills. Then it moves on to a five-finger test on sculptured acrylics. This shows you all the techniques you need to see and allows the test taker to use a single model for displaying her skills. Since she’s performed a basic manicure first, the nails will be in excellent shape for the artificial nail services. For those steps, all she’ll have to do first is remove the polish and prep the nail, which will save both of you time.


Don’t test an applicant’s skills the minute she walks in the door. Invite her to sit with a technician in your salon through a service to get her used to you and your salon. Then arrange a time fot the technical test.

Ask her to bring a model and her own products. The latter is essential because acrylic systems vary widely and she may know the liquid-to-powder ratio of hers but not yours. Additionally, she might be a pro at sizing the tips she’s accustomed to using, but she’ll take longer to adjust to a different line of tips. Don’t expect an applicant to learn a new system during a job interview. If you’ll expect her to change systems once she’s hired, let her know, but let her use what she knows best on the technical test. This will make it easier for you to judge all applicants equally and will let you see how an individual maintains her equipment and supplies.

Allow 10-15 minutes for talking and settling in, an hour and 15 minutes to an hour and a half for the manicure/pedicure (longer if you want a spa approach to the foot massage), and an hour and a half to two hours for the extensions. If she finishes sooner, great; but don’t rush her. Don’t give the applicant a time limit; rather, see how long each service takes.

“New applicants are weakest when it comes to speed,” says Sinner. “It takes time and experience to build speed and you shouldn’t expect a new person to work as fast as your other technicians do. If she takes longer because she wants to do a great job and she does, she’ll build speed later.”

The tests outline the most important steps for each service (not every single small step), give optimum time limits for their completion, and include a checklist for checking the work. (Glance occasionally during the procedures, but don’t hover over her through the entire test.)

Each test is followed by suggestions on what to watch for so you can uniformly evaluate each applicant’s work. There’s a list of questions you can ask the applicant after the test to further assess her technical skills. If you want to ask questions upon completion of the test, add at least half an hour to the total time.

This means the applicant (and you) must plan to spend four to four and a half hours in your salon. Let the applicant know to expect to stay that long. Tell her exactly what you’ll be testing her on and give her a list of supplies she needs to bring.


If you want something done a particular way, the time to tell the applicant is after the test. Lat her use whichever techniques she is familiar with for the test. “If she doesn’t do everything the way you would, so what? Just look at the end results for now. Remember, she’s learned to do things the way she’s been taught; you can show her your techniques later,” says Glass.

If your applicant has a good attitude and takes your constructive criticism well, she will be open to learning your techniques even if they differ from hers. If she tests well and shows interest and flexibility, you’ve got a winner.

How do you know if your applicant isn’t right? “If she doesn’t have basic skills,” answers Glass. “She should be able to apply a tip without getting air bubbles or product seepage. She should be able to mix liquids and powders and apply them without getting a super-thick nail.”

Brooks, who tests for a 45-minute manicure and a 1-hour pedicure, says she likes to see a long massage and does not permit use of a razor to remove calluses. She looks to see that polish is completely removed, that nails are not cut too short, and that it takes no longer than 10 minutes to apply polish.

When it comes to artificial nail services, examine the nail prior to buffing. Have your applicant call you over at this point so you can see how she’s doing. “I observe the shape, the cuticle area, the free edge, and the sidewalls,” says Brooks. “Even an applicant who is under pressure should be able to create an artificial nail that’s not too thick.”

Adds Sinner, “I ask applicants to use a dark-colored polish. It’s easier to see if she’s made an error. It should be smooth with no line of demarcation and it should not overlap the cuticle.”


Even though you are testing primarily for technical ability, you’ll have the opportunity to observe a number of important non technical skills.

“The first thing I watch for as the technician gets ready is her sanitation practices.” Says Mack. “I observe how she sets up her table, whether she washes her hands and the client’s hands, if she uses a hand antiseptic, and how she disinfects her tools. If a nail technician does all these things, it’s a strong clue she’s had a good education.”

People skills are important, too. If she brought her own model, she’ll be naturally comfortable; if you supplied one, watch to see how she interacts with the model.

Says Tony Jane Smith, owner of Details in Columbus, Ind., “I look for aggressiveness, too. Does she get in there and work? Is she holding the client’s hand properly or is she shy about taking her hand?”

“An applicant should hold the client’s hand so all the client’s nails are over the applicant’s hand, and she should use her pinkie to support the nail she’s working on,” notes Sinner. “Did she come prepared? Did she bring a model who can stay the whole time? If you told her what you’ll be testing her on and she’s not prepared, it’s a good clue she can’t take direction.”


If you’re lucky, you’ll have more than one applicant who makes the grade. Smith, who recently interviewed applicants for a position in her salon, says that out of three applicants, there wasn’t good candidate among them. They all wanted a full clientele right off and were not willing to work on commission. If your applicant is technically skilled, but insists on a particular work situation, you have two choices: keep looking or entice her. If you decide on the latter, make certain you get something in return for everything you give. For example, if you offer to promote her, ask her how she’ll promote herself and if she’s willing to pass out business cards everywhere she goes.

If you are enamored with an applicant but she failed the skills test, ask if she’s willing to be trained by you. Then let her retest in her weak areas. Once you’ve hired a nail technician, you can start her doing basic services as she learns more advanced skills and becomes competent in all extension services. In the final analysis, nothing beats the right attitude and a willingness and ability to learn.


You only have one chance to make a first impression---make sure it’s your best!

  • Dress appropriately for the salon where you’ll be interviewing. Look professional.
  • Make sure your nails are well-groomed!
  • Make sure your makeup complements your professional image.
  • Plan to arrive 15 minutes early.
  • Bring several copies of your resume.
  • Bring photos of your best work.
  • If you’re asked to bring a model, review her dress, makeup, and hairstyle several days before your interview. How she presents herself reflects on you.
  • Practice your techniques on your model ahead of time.
  • Practice professional conversation about nail services and products with your model.
  • In front of a mirror, practice what you’ll say to the salon owner, paying special attention to your facial expression and voice inflection. You might want to talk into a tape recorder and play back your voice.


1) Consult, remove polish, soak nails 6-7 minutes
2) Cuticle care 4 minutes
3) File and shape 6 minutes
4) Hand massage 4-6 minutes
5) Apply base, color, and top coat 6-7 minutes


TIME FRAME: No more than 40 minutes to do this procedure, unless working with problem nails. The hand massage can be at the low end of the time frame; cuticle care and polishing can take up to 10 minutes.


  • Does the technician file from corner to center to prevent breakage?
  • Trim all hangnails?
  • Give a long hand massage?
  • Were there excessive strokes when polishing?
  • Is there polish on the cuticle or skin?


  • What would you do differently for a male manicure?
  • At what point would you create the tips for a French manicure?
  • Do you prefer clipping the cuticles or pushing them back? Why?
  • When you do a silk wrap, when do you apply the fabric? How do you remove excess fabric at the free edge? How close to the cuticle should a wrap be placed?
  • What would you ask the client and observe about her during the consultation?


1) Consult, remove polish, soak feet 5 minutes
2) Cuticle area 3-5 minutes
3) Shape and trim nails 5-6 minutes
4) Remove calluses 5-7 minutes
5) Foot and leg massage 10 minutes
6) Polish application 6-7 minutes


TIME FRAME: Unless your aim is the one-hour spa pedicure, more than 45 minutes is too long for a pedicure. The foot massage can be a few minutes less if cuticle care and shaping takes longer.


  • Are the nails long enough? (Too-short nails can cause Ingrown toenails.)
  • Was the massage long enough?
  • Are the cuticles and skin free of polish?


  • Do you know reflexology? What massage techniques do you use?
  • How do you treat ingrown toenails?
  • When would you refer a client to podiatrist?


1) Remove polish and prep nail 3-5 minutes
2) Size tips 5-7 minutes
3) Apply tips 5 minutes
4) Buff smooth 5 minutes
5) Apply overlay 10 minutes
6) Buff 5-7 minutes
7) Apply polish 5-6 minutes


TIME FRAME: One hour is too long for five nail; that would make a full set a two-hour service! Be flexible on the timing of each step; numbers given are averages for experienced technicians. However, more than 15 minutes is too long for an overlay application; buffing the overlays more than two minutes on each nail probably indicates the acrylic was applied too thickly or incorrectly.


  • Is the tip positioned halfway up the nail bed?
  • Was the tip bevelled at a 45-degree angle before applying?
  • Were the tip sizes correctly selected?
  • Are the tips aligned with the sidewalls?
  • Are there air pockets under the tip? (If you see an area that’s a lighter color, adhesive did not get to this area.)
  • Did the technician use the side of the brush in a patting motion? (Holding it like a pen can cause indentations.)
  • Are the stress areas reinforced?
  • Are there visible bumps in the nail?
  • Is there polish or acrylic on the cuticle?
  • Is the shape of the finished nail good, and is it natural looking?


  • What is the liquid-to-powder ratio of the system you use?
  • Which other systems are you familiar with?
  • Are you familiar with gels and fibreglass systems?
  • Who is not a good candidate for liquid and powder?
  • How do you reinforce the stress area?
  • What is the best way to clean up the free edge?


1) Remove polish, prep, and sanitize nails 3-5 minutes
2) Apply forms 5-7 minutes
3) Apply acrylic 10-15 minutes
4) Buff smooth 7-11 minutes
5) Apply polish 6-7 minutes


TIME FRAME: The above times are based on a technician who takes an hour and a half to do a full set of nails. More than an hour for five nails is too long. Remember, a manicure was already performed on the same model, buying your applicant a little extra time because there’s no mini-manicure to do. More than 15 minutes for buffing is too much and indicates that the acrylic was applied too thickly or incorrectly. More than 10 minutes for form application is too much. On the average, product application and buffing should not take more than 30 minutes.


  • Were the nails either overprimed or underprimed?
  • Was the form applied straight off the nail bed and were side wings positioned correctly? (If not, a claw shape, not a C-curve, will result.)
  • The acrylic application should not be too close to the cuticle. There should be no bumps and the stress area should be reinforced. There should be slight curve at the stress area.
  • The polished nail looks clean and smooth and has a natural-looking shape.
  • The brush technique was side to side at a 45o angle.

The applicant did not hold the brush like a pen.

  • The applicant did not have to do too much filing.
  • The nail is not too thick.


  • How do you create a natural-looking sculptured nail?
  • How do you prep the nail for the system you use?
  • How do you keep filing to a minimum?
  • How can you prevent nail infections?
  • What home care and follow-up service instructions do you give your client?

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