you are misapplying job search advice

The internet has made it easier than ever to find advice on how to interview and find a job – but sometimes job seekers misunderstand common advice and misapply it in a way that harms them rather than helping. Here are six common ways that you might be taking good advice but executing it poorly.

1. Good advice: Clearly explain what skills you can offer.

How you might be misapplying it: Just announcing that you have those skills rather than demonstrating them, such as saying things like “I have initiative” or “I’m a skilled communicator” rather than talking about work you did that demonstrates those skills. You absolutely should make sure that hiring managers understand what skills you have to offer, but simply asserting that you have them isn’t convincing. Show, don’t tell.

2. Good advice: Look for opportunities to highlight how your skills and past experience match the position.


How you might be misapplying it: Doing this non-stop, so that it feels unnatural and not genuine. For instance, when it’s your turn to ask questions in an interview, if you only ask questions with the intent of using them as a way to further showcase your skills, you’re guilty of this – and certainly annoying most interviewers. When interviewers spend time answering your questions, it’s because they want you to have a chance to learn whatever it is that you need to know to make a good decision about the position … not so that you can turn their answers about company culture or management style into a chance for a sales pitch for yourself. So while you certainly want to find ways to talk about your fit for the job, don’t go overboard.

3. Good advice: Address the job’s qualifications in your cover letter.


How you might be misapplying it: Talking about all 20 qualifications in your cover letter, even minor ones, and even if it turns your letter into a boring, uncompelling laundry list of key words. To be clear, your resume should address the most significant qualifications you have, and your cover letter should flesh you out from there. But if an employer lists 20 qualifications, you don’t generally need to mention all 20 — just the most significant ones. No good hiring manager will expect otherwise — and sure, there are bad ones out there, but you will turn off the good ones in the process of trying to please the bad ones.

4. Good advice: Explain why you’d be great at the job.


How you might be misapplying it: Claiming you’d be the best person for the job, even though you have no idea what the rest of the candidate pool is like and don’t yet have a nuanced understanding of the employer’s needs. You can explain why you’d excel at the job without verging into hyperbole or making claims you can’t back up.

5. Good advice: Be confident.

How you might be misapplying it: Sounding like you have no realistic sense of the challenges of the job because you are so amazing that nothing will be a challenge for you. While employers like confidence, they don’t generally like arrogance, cockiness, or naivete.

6. Good advice: Always negotiate, no matter what.

How you might be misapplying it: Thinking that this means that you have to negotiate even when you’re thrilled with an offer. This can especially be misapplied when you already talked about salary earlier in the hiring process, and the offer matches the number you named them.  If the employer gives you what you asked for, trying to negotiate for more will seem disingenuous and off-putting.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. My 2 Cents*

    I have to add: Stop with the “I will follow up in one week” and then doing so. Yes, it’s good that you follow through on what you said you would do, but stop following up in a week! We have your application, we are reviewing it, and emailing us again does not help, and it usually hurts your application. I will slightly let it slide if it’s just a cordial “Checking in to let you know I am still interested” which is harmless enough but still annoying, but you will absolutely get dinged if you say “Following up so you can tell me the status of my application, please call me immediately to schedule an interview”. Not gonna happen!

    1. Jennifer*

      Hah, I was just explaining to my mom that “showing that you’re interested” and “popping in every week” no longer gets you a job–quite the opposite because you come off as a nag/pushy person.

    2. Leah*

      Yes! I think this is why a lot of companies auto-respond to emailed applications with something that boils down to: Thank you for your interest. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. No, seriously, don’t call us.” Others put it in their job posting. If someone can’t or won’t follow directions, it makes the job of picking interviewees that much easier.

  2. Sunflower*

    I struggle a lot with number 3. It’s difficult to hold back here because you want the employer to think ‘Oh yes, she has everything so we need to interview her!’ I’m trying to cut it down to things I think are most important to the job or what my experience speaks the most to but it’s really hard!

  3. Simonthegrey*

    Instead of “I have initiative,” would something like “I took the initiative to create a new widget for our production facility line, saving the company X per month” work, or would you want to give a longer example?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That works, but ideally if you’re specifically trying to demonstrate initiative with it (as opposed to just skill at widget-creating, which is also valuable), you could also a little more context to make it clear that it was indeed initiative at play — for instance, talking about how you identified room for improvement there, fit in the extra work alongside your regular duties, or whatever — something that really does demonstrate initiative beyond just “I did X.”

      1. LBK*

        So essentially the same idea, but leave out specifically mentioning initiative? I struggle with how to word this stuff too so I’m hoping for a little clarification. Would you just want a description of the events that transpired so the manager determine for themselves that they show initiative? For example, “I noticed an inefficiency in our teapot handle manufacturing process so I designed an updated process, tested it during non-production hours and presented it to my manager. It was ultimately implemented and has saved us $1 billion over the last 6 months.”

  4. JM in England*

    I have struggled with #5 in my time. Have often felt that there is an extremely fine line between projecting confidence and arrogance. Has anybody any insight into how to put across the former without sounding like the latter?

    1. Jamie*

      I’m looking forward to reading advice about this as well – because you’re right – it can be a fine line.

      I personally don’t generally have a problem with arrogance in others if they can back it up – but for new people in an interview situation there is no room for it. It’s such a delicate balancing act.

      (And when micromanaging one’s self in order to not inadvertently come off arrogant it’s easy to fall the other way to too self-deferential which, in my line of work at least, is much worse.)

    2. fposte*

      One possibility is emulating somebody you know who hits the mark you’re trying to. How do they talk about their accomplishments?

      Some of this is field and situation-dependent, of course, but in my experience the line isn’t all that fine: I see a lot of confident people and not very many arrogant people when I interview. They talk about what they’ve done, not how cool they are or how awesome their skills are or how nothing fazes them; they talk openly about errors they’ve made, learning curves they’ve surmounted, contributions other people have made. They act like they’re ready to come in and play on the team immediately, but not like they think they need to run the team.

      Does that help at all?

      1. JM in England*

        Yes, fposte, it does somewhat. Thank you.

        It’s similar to advice in “Seven habits of highly effective people”, where you find someone who is already having success in the area that you want and basically do as they do.

    3. Kelly O*

      I’m with you on this. I struggle trying to figure out how to do that without sounding like a jerk.

      Also, I never, ever say I’m an expert at something. And I also readily say that the reason I don’t say that is because that’s when you ask me to do the one thing I don’t know how to do.

      1. Jamie*

        Once in an interview I almost said something was my area of expertise – then stopped myself because I thought it sounded arrogant and in that split second went with milieu instead.

        With the french pronunciation.

        Talk about jumping from the pretentious frying pan into the fire!

        When nervous I should not be allowed to speak off script.

    4. OriginalYup*

      Part of it is related to body language. But on the tone/word choice end, I’d say a lot has to do with conveying the impression that you have knowledge & experience in a given area but that you don’t think of yourself as the world’s foremost authority on it. Confidence comes across as “I’m knowledgeable and ready to get to work with the team” whereas arrogance comes across as “You’re lucky to have me working on this because you idiots would mess it up on your own.” Does that make sense?

    5. Anonicorn*

      I heard somewhere (TED talk, maybe?) that the simple act of smiling while speaking makes you seem knowledgeable and confident.

      …Then, of course, there’s the thin line between pleasant smile and grinning like a loon.

    6. LBK*

      I think citing details of accomplishments makes them sound less like arrogance. If you created a new dark chocolate teapot and it resulted in sales going up 10% with a 95% satisfaction rate from people who purchased it, you can state those figures because they’re facts. When you get into vague or unquantifiable results – “Everyone loved the new dark chocolate teapot I made!” – it comes off more arrogant.

      Focusing on specific achievements (or citing actual feedback you got on something that can’t be measured as easily) shows confidence because it means you pay attention to and are actively aware of the quality of your work. Talking generally about how great you are comes off as arrogance because it sounds more like your own opinion of yourself without anything backing it up.

  5. Joey*

    The difference is in whether you will own or admit to a real mistake and whether or not you hoard the credit.

  6. Dan*

    #5

    If I had an applicant for my job tell me that nothing will be a challenge, I’d ask them why they would want the job I was offering. Clearing somebody as intelligent as them would be looking for work that would keep them awake every day, no?

    True story: I was once interviewed for a job in a very narrow field within my niche, working in a specialty that I had no direct experience in. I was ultimately rejected from the job because the interviewer thought I would get bored and quit within two years. While I don’t have a pattern (or even one instance) of job hopping, I really thought his position had merit. My skills and interests are much broader that what they were seeking.

  7. Dan*

    #6

    AAM, in the first five points, your headings are all things that truly are “good advice” — things every applicant should be doing. But the last one simply isn’t, particularly with the “no matter what” qualifier. Granted, you explain your position well.

    Although, I think it’s fair to negotiate salary if you’ve given a range and the employer comes in at the bottom end of it. A cold hard number is one thing, and leaves the negotiator to believe you’re targeting a specific number, but any number within a range shouldn’t be restrictive.

    One thing that’s interesting for me is that both professional jobs I’ve had, I’ve never negotiated. I didn’t do so because I never could find objective (or at least less subjective) grounds to do so. My first job came through with an offer better than I expected. With that job, when discussing a “range” I actually didn’t disclose the bottom end of it, just the high end. I told the interviewer that I knew it was expensive as hell living out here, and if I gave him the bottom end of “national averages” and was held to it, I wouldn’t be happy with it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, honestly that was sloppy writing on my part. It should have just said “Always negotiate” for the good advice, without the “no matter what.”

      1. Sasha LeTour*

        One thing I’ve always wondered: How do you negotiate when the employer (or headhunter, if s/he’s handling salary negotiations) is okay with your initial salary range, right up through the verbal offer stage – and then, the official offer on paper is thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars lower than the range you can realistically work with? And I’m talking “the difference between a director and a line worker with 5 years’ experience” discrepancy, not 3K – the latter, to me, isn’t worth losing an offer over.

        How do people handle that? I ask because this has been an issue I’ve run into over and over again while interviewing, ever since the recession began in my field. (Approx. early/mid 2010.) Sign of the times? Or red flag? I lean toward the latter but would welcome any input.

        1. Sasha LeTour*

          Other relevant data: I’m at the middle management stage of my career, and the salary range I ask for is in line with both the market range and the range for the position at each company, as posted on Glassdoor and similar sites. I also tend to let the employer or headhunter suggest a range first, which makes the salary plummet during the written offer stage even more agonizing.

    2. some1*

      Yes, my current company offered me more than the high figure I gave in my range. It would have been entitled to ask for more.

    3. A Bug!*

      I think “always negotiate” is one of those pieces of advice that just doesn’t boil down well, because it’s very nuanced. Like you say, “always negotiate” might not work in a situation where your initial offer is obviously very generous and a counter-offer might make you look demanding or naive.

      I think it would be better put as “Don’t be afraid to negotiate, but be smart about it.” But even that is not very useful! Negotiating is such a complex art that there’s just no easy set of rules for “being smart” about it; every piece of negotiating advice has an endless train of qualifications, ifs, ands, or buts.

  8. Overkill*

    Are you looking for employees, life partners or saints? Seriously, from the comments I can’t really tell. Folks just want to put food on their tables, that’s all.

    1. AB Normal*

      “Folks just want to put food on their tables, that’s all.”

      Hmm… Not necessarily. Back i December I started looking for a new job while employed, and was able to decide between sticking to my current job and taking one of two offers on the table. I started my new job a few weeks ago. There are lots of people (in particular experienced professionals with skills that are rare to find) that are in a position to choose and negotiate with employers.

  9. buddleia*

    I’m guilty of #3! I’ve totally taken to heart the advice of “make sure you repeat in your application what the job ad says! The electronic resume scanners will be searching for those keywords!” blah. I’ve seen the light. Now I use an example from my current job, and another strong example from my most recent job to tell a story about some (not all) of the skills that I have that match the job ad.

    1. Stevie Wonders*

      I did that too in another way, read advice to address point by point in cover letter the ad’s requirements with how you fulfill each requirement. Abbreviated version of what you might say in the interview but written down. Didn’t seem to work.

  10. Anon #8670*

    How do you demonstrate you have certain skills when you have little or no experience?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, if you can’t point to evidence in your background showing why you’d excel at a particular job, it might be the wrong job for you! But I might be misunderstanding the question — can you add specifics?

  11. Led*

    I actually had an interviewer ask me why I would be the best person for the job. It was rather unnerving. What is an appropriate answer?

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