January 19, 2021
Kevin Collins is a career consultant at Carnegie Mellon University - Career and Professional Development Center.
I recently heard a great story. Way back in the early 1980s, a young up-and-coming shoe designer wanted to make a big splash in the New York City market. He knew a friend who owned a very large tractor trailer and got the idea of selling his new line of footwear out of the vehicle’s spacious cargo container. The shoe designer asked his friend if he would be able to borrow the truck for a few days, provided he was able to find a place to park it in midtown Manhattan. His friend laughed at the thought of the city allowing such a thing but agreed to the deal. Undeterred, the shoe designer contacted the city and found that, other than utility repair vehicles, the only large trucks allowed to park for extended periods of time on Manhattan streets were those connected with film production companies doing location shooting, So, overnight the shoe designer created his own film production company, hired a camera crew, and hung a banner on the tractor trailer announcing the filming of a new movie entitled ‘The Birth of a Shoe Company.’ The city dutifully issued a permit, curious pedestrians stopped by, and within a few days Kenneth Cole had sold tens of thousands of shoes and was on his way to success in the fashion industry (a brief video describing this event can be found here).
Kenneth Cole was able to succeed in part because he found a way to rethink and package his brand in a unique way to attract customers (and also found a clever way to get a city permit!) In today's uncertain employment market, the same idea applies to students’ job searches. Increasingly, recruiters are looking to fill positions requiring a wide range of skills and abilities. More and more positions necessitate possessing a high degree of flexibility and adaptability in order to cope with ever-shifting environments and market conditions. As a result, even when responding to postings that seem like a perfect fit with their area of expertise, applicants who present themselves as a ‘one dimensional’ candidate run the risk of selling themselves short and not getting the offer.
Here are four ways to help your students to showcase their full range of strengths in their applications and interviews.
Do a Pre-Search Skills Inventory. It has been my experience that a lot of students begin their initial career center appointments with statements or questions about their self-identified deficiencies as candidates (low GPA, lack of internships, little participation in extracurricular activities, etc.). While self-awareness of areas needing improvement is important, it should always be accompanied by a knowledge of one’s strengths and skills—those unique factors that set candidates apart from others and are an integral part of their brand.
While there are a number of formal assessment instruments that can assist students in skills identification, much can be learned through conversations. For example, in my first appointment with a student, I will often ask them to tell me why they decided on their particular major, or what classes they enjoy the most. Generally, those things that students enjoy doing are things at which they are proficient—helping students to recognize their strengths and to encourage promoting these strengths in their communications with potential employers (even those strengths that students initially dismiss as non-relevant) will go a long towards ensuring that they are presenting a more complete candidate profile to recruiters.
Read Between the Lines. Too many students overly focus on matching the qualifications and requirements listed within job postings and end up missing the implicit skills needed to succeed. A well-written posting will weave both the essential hard and soft skills into the job description—and both are equally important. Some postings make it easy to identify these essential skills, others might take a bit of detective work.
Having students highlight the active verbs within the description can help with this process—if they have experience in using any of those skills listed, they should be highlighted in the cover letter and mentioned in interviews.
Work on the Narrative. Everyone’s career is a story, even students who are just beginning their journeys. And these career stories are usually not merely statements of fact—they feature obstacles and setbacks to overcome, adaptations and adjustments made on the fly, and achieving hard-won goals.
Unfortunately, many students relate accurate but bland descriptions of their experiences when answering interview questions and leave out those elements which would have given the story more power and interest. For example, many students shy away from talking about failures or setbacks in their interviews (unless specifically asked to provide such an example). This reluctance deprives students of opportunities to describe instances of resilience, and of lessons learned the hard way. This is of course not to say that every interview question will lend itself to a response full of drama—sometimes the simplest answer is the best one to give.
Practice, Practice, Practice. We all know or have seen people who are blessed with the gift of storytelling. Whether reciting a speech or just describing something that happened at work, their words just seem to flow out in a natural and unforced pace, and they seem completely comfortable throughout their narrations. It’s a shame that we can’t all possess this gift, but we can work on feeling more at ease in situations requiring storytelling. As many verbal interactions with employers represent opportunities to use stories and examples to illustrate skills and strengths, it’s important for students to become more accustomed to this process.
Too often, however, students mistake memorization for preparation and as a consequence, their elevator pitches and interview answers sound flat and…well, memorized. It can be difficult to break students of the memorization habit. As described earlier, having students talk in general about their passions and interests during a career center appointment (without trying to answer any of the standard practice interview questions) can help them feel more confident when articulating their strengths—subsequent practice sessions employing more structured interview questions can then be used to help students answer these types of questions in a more natural style, and be more willing to include both hard and soft skills in their responses (and, in today’s virtual recruiting and interviewing environment, naturalness is a plus).
At the same time, it’s important to stress to students that brief hesitancies or stumbling over words when talking to employers does not mean that their candidacy is doomed. Answers do not have to be perfectly recited and flawless to be considered great responses. What is more important is the ‘authenticity’ of the candidate’s answers—to what extent are their responses truly reflective of who they are and what they have to offer?
NACE college and university members will find a student-directed version of this blog on NACEWeb.