I was headed back to my desk when I spotted her, in the corporate-gray skirt and jacket combo, heels high enough to say I’m-dressed-for-the-office but well short of I’m-going-to-a-party. The standard-issue Human Resources uniform. So who was the guy walking next to her in the too-tight corduroy pants and the wrinkled shirt with the huge bag over his shoulder? Could he really be a job applicant? Did he think this was 1999 and our Fortune 500 company was having trouble getting résumés? I caught up to them just in time to hear her throw the interview equivalent of a high, easy fastball down the middle. All he had to do was take a level swing and maybe she’d ignore the fact that he was dressed for a night of foosball.
“So,” she says, “You applied a few months ago for another position with us.” A perfect opportunity for him to emphasize his admiration for the company, and explain once again why his skill set is just what we need. But apparently he hadn’t stopped to think about why he’d struck out last time.
“Yeah,” he answers, “I was thinking I could carve out a niche for myself by doing a little stuff for you along with some other things I’ve got going on…” I could feel the breeze created by his epic whiff. He never even saw the ball.
Rule No. 1 when you are applying for a job: Absolutely everything you do, say, and write should be focused on how you are going to help that company. Hiring managers do not care whether your commute would get shorter, why you need to make more money, or what “niche” their company can fill in your life. They want to know how your skills will help their department outperform. Period.
Follow these rules to improve your job-search batting average.
As in sports, the job interview is won or lost long before game day. In fact, your long-term goal is to develop a web of relationships in your industry; managers who so respect you and your work that the résumé, and even the interview, become little more than formalities. But if you’re not yet at that point, your sales pitch begins with the curriculum vitae. No doubt you already have a typo-free resume in pdf format that lists your accomplishments with metrics to back it up. If you don’t have a short summary at the top, write one, says Caroline Ceniza-Levine, a corporate recruiter and co-founder of the SixFigureStart career counseling service.
“People don’t have time to read the whole thing,” she explains. And when selling yourself in that paragraph, she says, always try to “show, not tell.” In other words, “don’t say ‘I’m creative,’ instead write that you created a website—that shows you’re innovative.”
Before you send that résumé, make sure that the summary, and the accomplishments, serve as proof that you have the skills for the particular opening you are applying for. Get in the habit of editing it to emphasize the exact qualifications for this exact gig. Same with the cover letter. If that letter could be sent, as is, to any other company, it will come off as generic. Tweak it to explain why your specific talents are right for that specific company.
Just getting it on paper is not enough, however. The résumé is your outline for the performance that turns Rule #1 into a sales pitch. That means going bullet-point-by-bullet-point and making sure you have a story to go with every accomplishment, says Mark Horstman, co-founder of Manager Tools, a series of podcasts that are a must-listen if you want to whip yourself into interviewing shape.
Horstman says to start with your answer to what is likely to be the first question: “Tell me about yourself.” By this point, you have probably figured out that your answer to that question must adhere to Rule #1. It’s fine that you like kayaking, but unless you are applying for a job at Patagonia, quickly move on to explain the professional accomplishments that make you perfect for this particular job.
Horstman recommends recording yourself answering that question. Over and over. Master it. “Know it like you know the Pledge of Allegiance.” Don’t worry that you’ll sound too rehearsed. “No amount of rehearsal will overcome your nervousness,” he says. But if you can ace this first question, the confidence boost will be a huge advantage for the rest of the interview. For each accomplishment on your résumé, prepare the back-story like you were taught to write essays in high school: intro, body, conclusion. For example: “Let me tell you about the time I had to counsel a difficult employee, and the outcome was successful,” he says. Then explain the problem, the steps you took to solve it, and the metrics you used to measure the employee’s successful turnaround.
Unlike a well-told joke, you should always start these stories at the end. “Suppose you were interviewing me, and my name was Derek Jeter,” Horstman says. “I could begin by saying: ‘At the start of the 2000 season…’” and give the chronology. Instead, get right to the point: “My significant accomplishment was being named World Series MVP. Boom, you have context.”
It should go without saying that you need to study up on the company. But there’s no shame in admitting you don’t know how many employees are in the Hong Kong office. The only topic you need to be exhaustively prepared to discuss is you.
Your performance begins the second that recruiter extends his hand in greeting, and does not end until you are heading down to the lobby in the elevator.
Oh, and bring as much common sense as you can fit in your head. Ceniza-Levine tells the story of a big-time media sales executive with an impressive résumé. But all she can remember is the sweat. “It’s pouring down his face. He needs a towel,” she recalls. “A chammy to mop it all up. But all he has is a tissue that he’s dabbing himself with, like a southern lady. It’s leaving tissue remnants all over his face. So I’m watching this instead of listening to him. I’m fascinated by the little bits of tissue all over him.”
She didn’t recommend him to a single client because she was scared he’d sweat all over a potential advertiser. “That’s an extreme fail.”
Then there was the guy with the surfer dude accent and the spiky hair. “He used a lot—like, a lot—of gel,” she says. But he had produced huge growth in a social media job and could explain exactly how he did it. “And he did it for a pregnancy website! As much as he was a dude. The fact that he could thrive in that environment, I just thought, wow, if you put him in the right environment, he’d kill it.”
He got the job.
Jack Otter is the author of Worth It…Not Worth It? Simple & Profitable Answers to Life’s Tough Financial Questions.