Ten Critical Tips for Job Seekers

Former Speaker of the House John Boehner grabbed headlines last month when he called Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz “Lucifer in the Flesh.” This was not just a rebuke of Cruz’s policies and actions in the Senate. It also encapsulated—fairly or not—how people feel about Cruz.


The presidential election campaign is the ultimate job application process. On Election Day, voters make their decisions using a set of personalized criteria. For each candidate who tries to win on his or her record alone, there is another, savvier candidate who knows that style matters just as much, if not more, than past accomplishments and positions on the issues.


Job applicants would do well to emulate time-tested political strategy. Like a ballot box decision, hiring decisions often come down to personality, character traits, and observed or even inferred flaws or missteps of one kind or another. Thus, my first piece of advice to candidates: Know your shortcomings, and work on them—constantly.


If you are a perennial final-round candidate who can’t close the deal, it’s time to take a good, hard look at yourself in the mirror. Blinders put you at a serious disadvantage. The first thing you should do is reach out to people who could mentor or coach you with heartfelt but honest assessments. You must receive and internalize feedback that you have been ignoring or not getting.


Below are ten examples of where to look in that candidate mirror. Notice that these examples address multiple phases of the application process: early screening, on-site interviews, and the written application. The strongest candidates—like any skilled politician—are in tune with themselves and their core constituency: prospective employers.


1. Listen to yourself talk. Do you answer questions without reaching a firm stopping point, rambling on instead? Are you louder than the average person in the room? Do you cut off an interviewer because you are so eager to start your answer? At your current job, perhaps you’re known as someone with a lot of energy and passion. In an interview, you’re more likely to be viewed in a negative light.


2. Be respectful in a group interview. In a one-on-one conversation, it’s easier to have a more free-flowing conversation with interrupted dialogue back and forth. In a group interview, interviewers have fewer chances to ask you spontaneous questions, so the last thing you want is for someone to think that you are overbearing in a group setting. Let others interrupt you when necessary, answer questions succinctly, and maintain an engaged, friendly, deferential demeanor throughout the interview.


3. Remember that the job is not yours—yet. If you’re interviewing for a senior position, ask for high-level documents, including the strategic plan and departmental budgets. Contrast that approach with a candidate who only asks for benefits documents, the employee handbook, and a sample employment contract—to be prepared to accept a hiring offer. Your actions should convey thoughtful leadership, not overconfidence. On that note, some applicants send myriad letters of reference or certificates. They give detailed updates on why they’re not available for a phone screen, so they can slip in a mention about unrelated volunteer work. Their references initiate calls, or their reference list grows each week. Paradoxically, these efforts to prove a case often undermine it.


4. Develop solid presentation skills. The sample presentation, if it’s part of the interview process, is critical.  With the hiring panel all together, this is often your best chance to hit a home run and win over skeptical members of the hiring panel. Sadly most presentations range from average to poor. Reach out to seasoned presenters to make an effort to learn valuable tips. Here is your first one: There is nothing wrong with using PowerPoint or Keynote if you reduce the bullets, increase the imagery, and integrate simple animation.


5. Show and control your emotions appropriately. If you have been selected for the final round, be a little excited, not blasé because you expected this outcome. Don’t ask where your office would be, even if it’s a legitimate question because you’re applying for a new position. Thrilled about the six weeks of vacation? Great, but tell that to your spouse, not your interviewer, particularly if it’s a senior administrator who probably rarely takes all of his or her allotted vacation time.


6. Act the part, especially if it’s a senior-level one. I remember a search in which students interviewed a candidate for a senior technology position at a school. Their complaint about this candidate was that he came across like a teacher. Huh? That’s right, the students were astute enough to recognize that this job required someone with veteran administrator qualities, not a candidate who became overly excited after hearing about experimental classes. In a similar vein, if this job is a stretch for you, control how you convey your emotions. The last thing you want is for a prospective employer to think that you would be a small fish in their big pond.


7. Assess your candidacy from the eyes of your interviewers. If you are from the Northeast with a stereotypical big personality, you may need to moderate your tone when applying to an organization out West or in the South. If you’re currently at a religious organization and applying to a secular one, referencing your faith in a cover letter is akin to walking through a minefield. If you’re applying for an educational position and coming from the business sector, don’t mention ROI too many times—you might come across as too “corporate.” If you worked from home in your last job, stay alert; employers without this policy could view you as incompatible for their work culture.


8. Review your résumé for red flags. If you have a PhD in progress—especially if you’re ABD—take it off your résumé. You might come across as someone who doesn’t finish what you start. A degree from a for-profit college is almost always a knock against you. Accept it and do something about it. At a basic level, make sure your writing is top-notch. Consider getting a higher degree or simply a professional certificate from a different institution, and put that at the top of your education stack.


9. Watch your tongue and idiosyncrasies. Can’t remember someone’s name? Don’t mention the “HR lady.” Want to make a point via an analogy? Don’t reference James Bond. Like to make quotation marks with your fingers all the time? Do it just once in an interview, not ten times. Record yourself during a mock interview. Every time you cringe—whether it’s because of your loud laugh, strange facial expression, or hair-fiddling moment—consider yourself lucky: You have a chance to suppress that behavior before your next actual interview.


10. Learn to gauge the room—quickly. This is probably the hardest technique to develop, but it’s the one that could yield the greatest results. Try to read your interviewers for clues about how they engage with the world. You can infer a lot just from a handshake, a greeting, and even the artifacts in someone’s office. Those clues will speak volumes about how to carry and project yourself for the rest of the interview. Talk with a little more energy if you get an extra firm handshake; drop in a sports analogy if you see pictures of kids playing football. And to return to tip No. 7, this is the time to work in your faith—after spotting the appropriate religious symbol in your interviewer’s office.


At the end of the day, you should not change your core values or pretend to be someone you’re not. Even if you wanted to, you wouldn’t be able to do so overnight. But are you willing to do some self-reflection and make adjustments to present yourself in a more positive light?


Just remember, whenever employers call with bad news—“It was tough; there were just so many good candidates”—they may actually be thinking, “You were loud, you made us feel uncomfortable, and you didn’t fit the part of a senior administrator.” Unfortunately, our laws give them no incentive to say these things even if they wanted to, so you’ll have to figure out all of this on your own before you step on to the big stage.