do job-seekers really need an elevator pitch?

A reader writes:

I recently visited my grad school on behalf of my employer as part of their college recruiting team. My objective was to collect resumes and speak with students regarding our summer internship program. I’ve worked the career fairs before but have not done so in a couple of years, and at this one I noticed some students doing something that I found off-putting. They’re making an “elevator pitch” for themselves. This is basically a very slick, well-rehearsed speech with a lot of emphasis on their purported skills and how much value they’ll bring to the table as my intern next summer, and a ton of flowery language about their knowledge and skills. Most of the students who approached me in this way had no idea which division of the company I work for, or if I was even looking for interns with their major – as soon as they stepped up to me, the resume was shoved in my hand, and their pitch began.

Several of the students using this tactic also used aggressive body language, tried to read the notes I was writing on the back of their resume, and demanded that I give them my business card or work email address (which is not permitted by HR). I want an engineering intern, not a salesman, and the slick pitch and presumptuous attitude was actually a turn-off. Almost without exception, the students who did an elevator pitch were poorly qualified, with a low GPA or lacking relevant college coursework or work experience. The students who we’d actually consider for an internship generally took the more standard approach of having an unscripted but productive conversation with me about their coursework, their experience, and the company that I work for. I only have a few minutes with each student, and I want to actually get a feel for them and their skills and interests, not be subjected to a rehearsed and overly-aggressive sales pitch.

Colleagues who help with college recruiting at other institutions are reporting similar experiences. This was not a thing when I was in college (~15 years ago), nor have I seen it in career fairs that I’ve worked as recently as 3 years ago. Is this something that college career centers are telling students to do? Am I just an old stick-in-the-mud, or do these elevator pitches really work for job seekers?

Yes, it is very much a thing that (some) college career centers are telling students to do! And not just career centers — job search advisors in all sort of places love to tell people to prepare elevator pitches. (For people who haven’t heard the term, an elevator pitch is a 30-60-second speech about who you are and what you do. The idea is that you could give the whole speech while riding in an elevator … with your bored, captive audience.)

And yes, it’s a bad idea for exactly the reasons you say — it comes across as overly salesy and too rehearsed and denies them the chance to make a real connection and build rapport with you by having a normal-person conversation.

You also touched on something I’ve noticed about pretty much all of these overly salesy job hunting approaches: They are nearly always (possibly always-always) employed by weak candidates. Strong candidates, practically by definition, don’t do it. I don’t know if it’s because weaker candidates are feeling more desperate so they’re grasping at any advice that they’ve heard might work, or if it’s bad judgment that’s entwined with the reasons they have a weaker resume to begin with, or who knows what. It’s nearly always the case though. (The same is true of these things.)

And it’s not just an inexperience thing — because there are plenty of inexperienced candidates who don’t do it, as you saw.

Anyway, it’s not that it’s never a good idea to have this kind of short pitch prepared. It can be a useful thing to have, in case you’re in a situation where someone asks what you do or are interested in doing and you need to give them a short, interesting summary. But you don’t use it to open a conversation where the other person hasn’t invited it. And if you use it, you need to do it in a way that sounds natural and conversational, not rehearsed. If the other person is thinking, “oh, I’m hearing an elevator pitch,” that’s a failure.

{ 129 comments… read them below }

  1. Sophia in the DMV*

    I agree that this kind of elevator pitch for this audience is wrong. But wanted to point out, like most things, in academia it’s different. An elevator pitch is about your research and is something you most definitely should have and be prepared to talk about

    1. stellanor*

      If for no other reason than that when people say “So, what are you working on right now?” you want to be able to tell them in a brief, coherent fashion.

      My elevator pitch about my research got trotted out most often on relatives I didn’t see super often.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Yep, novelists are supposed to have one for their books too. It’s supposed to be a one or two-line thing ONLY, just in case you find yourself at a conference in an elevator (or at a pitch session) with your dream agent. And you’re not supposed to shove stuff at people or demand their cards!

      2. Tau*

        I did a PhD in pure maths and spent so much time trying to come up with a short , or for that matter long, explanation of my research that was remotely comprehensible to a layperson. Because random people *will* ask and it sucks to shut down the conversation with “…I don’t think I can actually answer that in a way you’d understand…”

    2. blackcat*

      I was going to say exactly this: researchers in academia are expected to have an “elevator pitch” of their research. Which is sometimes hard! And is supposed to be tailored to the audience (the same field elevator pitch is often very different from the same subfield elevator pitch), since different niches often use pretty different vocabulary.

    3. So Very Anonymous*

      Yes, exactly re academia — especially since it’s so easy for scholars/researchers to wax on and on about their researcher (and not always notice the eyes glazing over). I think of “elevator pitches” as good practice for learning how to talk concisely, period, about what you’re doing, in a way that could open a conversation, rather than close it down by forcing a sales pitch.

      1. Jools*

        I once worked in a lab where one week for lab meeting, the PI decided that all of the grad students should give their elevator pitch. Most were mildly long-winded, but not outrageously so. Then we got to the last student, who started talking, and talking, and talking. Fifteen minutes later, she showed no signs of wrapping things up any time soon, but the PI finally managed to get a word in edgewise and put a stop to the world’s longest elevator ride.

        1. Cactus*

          Eeeeeee, that sounds painful. I would hate to be stuck in an elevator with that person. “Elevator pitches” were often “pitched” in e-mails from the career center of the college where I got my Masters, and I’m so glad we never had to rehearse them in class. There was definitely at least one person in my cohort who would have done the exact same thing as your former classmate; no matter what the subject was she would go off on any random tangent she could find.

    4. Big10Professor*

      I once attended a workshop where they made us give an elevator pitch without using any words, just gestures and sound effects.

    5. Honeybee*

      Well, yes and no. I was actually thinking about academia exactly because your advisors always tell you to have an elevator pitch ready there, too. But I think similar rules apply – you should be ready to give short, medium, and long versions of your research – but it shouldn’t sound rehearsed and salesy, and you should also be prepared to elaborate upon the pitch and answer questions as necessary.

      I also had academic and non-academic versions of mine, because people always asked me what my research was about, and nearly always asked additional questions I didn’t expect at the time (I did HIV and drug use research, so people were…curious).

      Now I can’t talk about a lot of the research I do, so my elevator pitch is MUCH shorter, lol.

  2. AdAgencyChick*

    I was all ready to post a comment, “but in some contexts it could be useful!” And then I got to Alison’s last paragraph. :P

    I think it’s good to be able to state what you do and what you’re looking for in an ultra-condensed context. But that’s not about memorizing a speech. That’s about being so well versed in what you do that you can describe it on a dime — and although you can do some thinking specifically about what words you use to present yourself, that’s about as much prep as a good elevator pitch really needs.

    1. Kelly L.*

      Yup. I did come up with kind of an “elevator pitch” because interviewers always asked, “tell me about yourself,” and I wanted to have something on the tip of my tongue so I wasn’t like “Umm…I’m 5’6″ and I like dogs?” :D But yeah, I didn’t just sidle up to people and spout it off unsolicited.

      This sounds like something the guy from the earlier letter would do, and advise!

      1. Laufey*

        My college career center had a workshop with a guy who made us to develop an elevator speech… and than forbade us from using it. He basically wanted us to have concise answers for the “tell me about yourself” question that didn’t ramble into social activities, but focused on our major, work/intern experience, and research, if applicable. I like to think it helped during my job search, if only because it made me not get flustered on a softball question early on in the interview. I don’t think I’ve ever actually pitched to someone….but I didn’t enter sales for a reason.

        1. Snargulfuss*

          Oooo, I love the analogy of softball. As the attendee to the career fair you’re the batter, not the pitcher. Obviously you want to do your research and be prepared and have something to say to the recruiters there, but you don’t need to “pitch” yourself to the recruiter.

    2. Bostonian*

      I had the same reaction as I read Alison’s response.

      I should really be giving some thought to an elevator pitch of sorts as I start my next job search. I went back to grad school to change careers (actually to settle on a career) after almost a decade in the workforce, and explaining relevant grad school and industry experience + various diverse but relevant stuff from before grad school that puts me ahead of my younger peers + what I’m looking for next, all within a minute or two, is challenging. Thinking about it ahead of time so that I don’t ramble too much or confuse my audience will be useful, though I’ll have to adapt on the fly for whatever the specific situation is. A rehearsed speech is definitely off-putting, though, especially when delivered aggressively.

      This is where it can be helpful to have been on the other side of the hiring process. I’ve never been a hiring manager but I’ve been involved in interviewing, and there’s definitely a tendency to kind of summarize candidates in your head and as you talk to others about them – the one with the programming background who wants to start working with clients directly, or the one who has been doing great volunteer stuff and is returning to work full time, or the one with less experience but more enthusiasm. It feels like a lot of advice about elevator pitches and resume summaries or profiles is about helping employers develop that shorthand about who you are in a way that is both accurate and favorable. That doesn’t require buzzwords and salesy approaches, and is probably more effective if you can be authentic rather than sounding canned.

    3. Clever Name*

      Me too. When I’m job hunting, I try to come up with a two sentence summary of my background and the type of job I’m looking for, so when I’m at networking meetings, I don’t stumble around and hem and haw and sound less than prepared. But my “elevator pitch” isn’t a salesy list of skills.

  3. Bend & Snap*

    In my world, an elevator pitch is less about whipping out a canned spiel and more about making sure you can hit your key messages quickly and concisely every time. That does NOT mean you should be saying the same thing to everyone every time–just that thinking through what’s really important and knowing how to highlight it is very beneficial.

    1. MattMan*

      Absolutely – I think that the concept of an elevator speech is very helpful, just being a slave to the form is not. No need to be a robot, but having a personal narrative you feel confident about giving is an advantage to a job seeker.

  4. Snarkus Aurelius*

    With all that touchy-feely garbage peddled by overpaid consultants who claim to be workplace experts, I’m not entirely surprised this is now a trend.  Far too often, college grads are encouraged to be unique and stand out without really considering what it is they have to offer in the first place or who they’re offering it to. 

    So here’s what I do to push back:

    Anytime an interview candidate starts in with this sales pitch garbage, I call her on it.  Here are two real life examples:

    Candidate: I have a strategic plan to fix [statewide government system].
    Me: Oh really?  Can you tell me more about that?
    Candidate: [sales gimmick pitch with buzzwords]
    Me: Right but how does that connect to the system-wide transformation you’re proposing?  What are the specific actions you would take to remedy the current challenges?

    Candidate: I’m a strategic thinker and thought leader in my field.  [a field he occupied for two years straight out of college.
    Me: Would you give us some examples of this?
    Candidate: [sales gimmick pitch with buzzwords]
    Me: That’s fantastic.  Could you cite specific examples though?  

    It’s calling them on it without embarrassing them, which you don’t want to do.  For example, you raise a great point about candidates not knowing who your company is or what you’re hiring for yet they want you to hire them.  You could touch on that ignorance by asking them explain how their qualifications match with what you’re looking for.  You want to make them think about what they’re saying.

    No, it’s not your resopnsibilty to be the world’s teacher, but you can nudge a few of them in the right direction.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        I give them two chances to answer my questions then I’m mentally done: done with the interview and the candidate.

        To this day, a candidate who talks like that, in an interview I conducted, has never gotten the job.

        1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

          I recently had an experience where we had fresh out of MBA school consultants advising us on how to implement process improvement without ever having practical experience nor having domain experience. It was painful. I was already trained and teaching the techniques, and they couldn’t answer basic questions despite being “versed in the latest trends” and “thought leaders”. After the first few sessions, I went to my boss with specific examples that we knew were incorrect and asked him to keep them away from us. We wound up putting in the improvements we needed vs. were told we needed and improved more than any other team they consulted with during the time they were with us.

          Guess who got the recognition and bonuses for the success? Wasn’t my team, I can tell you that.

    1. stellanor*

      Referring to yourself as a “thought leader” is like the fastest way to get me to tune out of whatever you’re saying because I am distracted by the fact that I’ve rolled my eyes so hard I pulled something. It’s just such an obnoxious phrase to apply to yourself!

    2. Jerri*

      Thank you for this insight. I am on the fence when it comes to elevator speeches. When I research I see references to the types of ESs that you receive. I like the challenge to provide more details which challenges the speaker to back what they are saying with examples, actions, details, etc.

      I only want an ES for networking events, job fairs, etc. I will not only work to make sure its not a sales pitch but back up what I say will supporting information.

      Nudging is a great thing. Too many times opportunities to educate and improve are missed.

  5. Career Counselorette*

    I help certain of my clients with elevator pitches because I think the people who are naturally good at it and by extension “stronger” tend to be people who in general are more assertive and/or extroverted, or possibly have better spoken skills, and I do think it’s a trainable skill to be able to introduce yourself in a way that makes people want to talk to you. I did a mini-workshop on them recently before I accompanied a group of job-seekers to a fair, and they all said it was really helpful in that they felt more confident and relaxed to approach tables and actually have conversations with the hiring managers, rather than just sidling by the tables and saying, “What jobs do you have?” (Many of them got callbacks and on-the-spot interviews, and since then three people have been hired, for what it’s worth.) I’m really against it being overly sales-y, though- I advise people to think of it more as a soft ask, like, “I’ve worked in X field for X years and I’ve read a lot about your company- I’m really interested to speak to you about the opportunities to do X Y and Z.”

  6. Rebecca 2*

    It’s good to have like 3 talking points about yourself in your back pocket.

    I got asked “why you?” at an interview recently and wasn’t ready for it. I made it through, and got the offer.

  7. Anne S*

    My department is hiring and I often start my interviews with what I sort of mentally think as a request for an elevator pitch, something like “Tell me a little about your background and how it fits into this role.” But what I’m expecting there is a few sentences about everything before their last job, a few sentences about their most recent role, and a few sentences about why they’ve applied for this job. I’d be put off by something very sale-y or aggressive as opposed to a more natural-feeling conversation.

    1. A Non*

      Same here – the first question is some version of “We saw your resume, but that’s a piece of paper and you are a person. So tell us about who you are and what you do.” Being prepared to answer that question is great, formatting it as a rehearsed sales pitch isn’t.

      Good answer: “I’ve always been fascinated by teapots, so I got my teapot degree from XYZ college and have worked in teapot design since then. My most recent job was designing specialty teapots for ABC company, which I really enjoyed because DEF.” (Expand as appropriate for the conversation.)

      Not good answer: “I’m an enthusiastic, high-energy teapot professional who specializes in bringing value to your organization by understanding the complexities of today’s teapot landscape.” (Continue in this vein for five minutes if you want to put people straight to sleep.)

    2. Not Today Satan*

      OMG, please don’t start with “tell me about yourself”! There couldn’t be a more nerve-wracking start to an interview imo. I think it’s better to start with some softball questions.

      1. Snargulfuss*

        “Tell me about yourself” is a softball question though. And it’s a super common one. If people can’t answer that question well I know they haven’t really prepared for the interview because there are so many helps online (granted, some of them are bad but reputable sources have good advice) for how to answer that question.

  8. Leah*

    These are the classic “want any job” rather than “want this or a similar job” people too.

    I also thought it was interesting that the OP was not allowed to give out her info. Is that common for these kinds of events?

    1. Jubilance*

      Yes, it’s common. I was my company’s recruitment team and we were instructed to never give our cards or contact info to students. In this context, you’re simply gathering information for the company and you have no bearing on if a candidate will get matched for a position. Students will latch onto any name they get and will email/call forever, even though you were just working a career fair 1 day and your real job is as an engineer, far away from any authority on hiring.

      1. AnonyMoose*

        On the other hand, my old company sent out the branch manager to career fairs and it was expected that he would be handing out his card to interested parties as he was the person networking/recruiting. So it definitely depends on the audience/company profile.

      2. BRR*

        I found it odd but now that makes sense. Although I don’t fault the students for asking for a card.

        1. Observer*

          Asking nicely is one thing. But, the OP says they demand. That’s a MAJOR no-no.

          Hey, OP, do you have any contacts with the people who organize these fairs? Maybe you could pass on to them that fact that most people on the employer do NOT think that “demanding” anything, including contact information, from the employer reps shows “gumption” or any other positive trait.

      3. BananaPants*

        I’m the OP, and yes – this is the reason why. They will pester you FOREVER if they manage to get your contact info.

  9. Abby*

    I’m guilty of forcing my resume upon a reluctant representative, who kept saying that she wasn’t allowed to take resumes, but eventually relented and took a copy. The sad thing was that we were both clearly uncomfortable with the whole situation, but I felt like it was the “correct” thing to go based on vague advice from career-building “experts.” Now, I realize it’s really just as easy for someone to politely take my resume and not read it ever as it is to refuse it due to HR guidelines– but at least the latter has closure to it.

    But anyways, lesson learned! Desperation for that first job after graduation does weird things.

    1. Mimmy*

      I’ve done that a couple of times…if I wanted to give someone a resume, I’d actually bring it to a NON-PROFESSIONAL event we’d both happen to be attending and give it to him/her. My husband still occasionally chides me for it.

    2. ginger ale for all*

      I think we have all been guilty of doing desperate things. I get a lot of students try to drop off their resumes for student assistant jobs at the library and try to schedule an interview with out going through the official website for student jobs. We are strict on how we get our successful applicants and if you cannot go to the student employment website and follow their directions, then we have no hope of them ever being able to follow directions on the job.

      1. Anx*

        I’ve done it. After 3 years of trying to be a good applicant and follow directions and not be a pest or pushy, I was still unemployed, save for one short time seasonal stint. So I brought my resume to a career fair. They had left, so I brought it to their office (they’re an on campus office that was represented at an on-campus job fair). Thank goodness I did, too, because they’ve since switched completely to the more common online application system (more automated) and I’d probably never be able to get this job again without some sort of point of access that wasn’t an online app system.

        1. Didi*

          I hear you. Over the space of a year, I applied to four different jobs at a company I wanted to work with, including an apprenticeship, in the ‘correct’ way. No response after the first one, where they told me the position had been filled weeks ago (but the ad left on their website for months on end — to waste my time, presumably). I still remain baffled that I didn’t get at least an interview, as my education was a dead-on match, I had related experience in a different field, I was going for entry level positions, and I live in a small town where you can’t study this field without going away for university.

          After the fourth rejection, I showed up with my CV and insisted I hand it to the hiring manager. I knew it was unlikely I’d get a job from it, but doing things by the book clearly didn’t work, so it was worth a shot. And a little piece of me wanted to waste the hiring manager’s time, as she clearly had no problem in wasting other people’s time by leaving ads up for six months on the company website.

          Best part is that I finally landed a job in my field, and on my first day two people in my induction group told me how they’d just escaped the other place, and that it was a complete horror show.

          I think most people can follow rules when applying for jobs. But when you hear nothing back from anyone for months or years on end, you start trying other things like showing up in person or doing salesy pitches. And maybe it’s the weaker companies that fall for it, but that’s enough to get your couple years of experience in the field and move on to one of the better companies, whose automated application system doesn’t reject your application anymore.

  10. Liz*

    As a recent grad, we were told constantly to have an elevator speech ready and often had to practice in front of the class/were graded on the quality of our pitch. I don’t doubt that the students OP encountered had to do something similar and were told to lead with their pitch

    1. AnonAnalyst*

      Ugh, yes. I finished a graduate program a few years ago and this was one of the top pieces of advice from our career center. But they weren’t suggesting being able to articulate your background in a few sentences; their sample elevator pitches all ended with the salesy “here’s how I can help you!” type lines. Awful. Almost every time I went in for a meeting, they asked me about my elevator pitch.

      I had actually done hiring before going into the program and all I could think when reading through their examples was that I would almost never pass through anyone to the next round if I got one of those pitches from them, save for the absolutely exceptional candidate.

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      Aha, but I’m sure they didn’t tell you to just blurt it out unsolicited or use it to answer a more specific question about a job/company where it may not apply. Maybe some students took it too literally?

      1. WorkingMom*

        I often wonder about career advice handed out by college professors. Many times it’s great – I won’t deny that. But in some cases, students are getting their “how to get a job” advice or “how to succeed in the corporate environment” from professors who have been in academia for 30+ years. Academia is very different from private-sector corporate world. Very different. Sometimes I hear my younger new-hires share pearls of wisdom from their professors and it makes me cringe!

      2. Turtle Candle*

        I’ve been “coached” on this one before myself and the problem is that there isn’t actually advice on where they intend you to provide it, and the implication is ‘at a moment’s notice, anywhere.’

        I mean, the people who were doing the coaching to me/my cohort were generally either academics–where academic hiring is a completely different animal than most non-academic hiring–or, sometimes, they’d bring in an entrepreneur, who’d coach us as if we were selling ourselves to VCs/angel investors rather than, you know, to hiring managers.

        So it was really not at all clear where we were supposed to use this at all.

        My conclusion was frankly that I shouldn’t use it anywhere, a conclusion that has held me in good stead. :P But I can easily see thinking “well, the point of an elevator pitch is to ‘sell yourself’ in thirty seconds, and I probably only have a minute or two with this person, so….” It’s not a huge leap to make.

        I just wish that people who were familiar with hiring in non-academic jobs (and not entrepreneurs looking for funding) had provided their own advice/feedback!

        1. Turtle Candle*

          I mean, the whole implication between the term ‘elevator pitch’ (which was the term used during coaching) is that it’s supposed to be at a moment’s notice, anywhere. The origination of the term is that you’ve got thirty seconds in an elevator with someone to sell yourself, the ultimate in ‘random drop of the hat.’ At minimum, if it’s meant to be a very context-specific thing to be produced for certain jobs and/or in response to certain questions, that’s a terrible term for it.

    3. BananaPants*

      OP here – I spoke with two of my colleagues who graduated in the last year or two and have started helping with college recruiting themselves. Both confirmed that elevator pitches were recommended by their campus career centers when they were students (different schools, different areas of the country). On the recruiting side they also found the overly-rehearsed sales pitches to be offputting and found that weak candidates were the ones pitching themselves in this way. I’m glad I wasn’t totally crazy!

      I appreciate when the students are able to say maybe 2-3 sentences about themselves, their major, and any internships/research experiences/projects that would be relevant. That’s different from a very stylized pitch with little substance and a lot of meaningless buzzwords. No, 20 year old engineering student, you really aren’t going to “leverage synergies” during a 12 week internship – especially not once I pry out of you that you have a 2.6 GPA.

  11. Come On Eileen*

    I found the elevator pitch to be helpful to me in certain circumstances, mainly because I’m crap at thinking on my feet and it only gets worse when I’m with another professional who I want to impress and connect with. So if I have a few rehearsed tidbits at the ready, I feel much more at ease.

  12. Mirinotginger*

    I have coached several students for a career fair at our school recently, and actually find the concept of an elevator pitch kind of useful for them, in these ways: It encourages them to think about how to introduce themselves, how to connect to the company, and not to go up to the table and stand there awkwardly. In other words, its a starting point for the conversation. An example of this might be, ‘Hi, I’m Miri. I’m a senior in the X major here. I had a class last semester on Y, and I really enjoyed learning about it. I know your company does lots of work in Y, and I’d love to know more about opportunities there.’ This is preferred over “Hi, I’m Miri” full stop and then wait for them to start asking questions. As a person who’s been on both sides of the table, I much prefer students to come up and have something to say, rather than expecting the person behind the table to run the conversation. I disagree with a previous commenter who suggested they were going up to people unsolicited. It’s a career fair. That’s exactly what’s supposed to be happening at these things. Elevator pitches can be very salesy, which is very offputting, but having a 10-15 second intro statement about yourself and why you are interested in that company is better than no preparation at all.

  13. Blurgle*

    Why do “poor candidates” fall for these gimmicks? I have a theory.

    Most people are average. Most people can never and will never be the “rockstar” in any field anywhere ever in their lives, no matter how hard they try, no matter how much time, effort, or money they can put into their education. These people are told constantly in school (generally by fools who think it’s motivational and not excruciating) that the “rockstar” is the only candidate worth hiring.

    More importantly, they are firmly convinced that being a rockstar is a function of pampered privilege and not of any real innate value they bring to the table as an employee. They believe they could do just as well as the “rockstar” if they had the chance, but they never will because they didn’t receive the advantages the rockstars accept as their due – scholarships, time to study, supportive parents, good physical and mental health.

    Is it any wonder that they grasp at any straw, any gimmick that (they imagine) makes them look like a rockstar?

    1. Terra*

      I’m not sure that’s exactly the reason in this case but yeah, it’s very frustrating to have so many people putting this pressure on you that “you must be the best because only the best is ever worth anything”. Especially when realizing that pretty much by definition most people are going to be somewhere in the average/middle. Even Alison is occasionally guilty of this and it makes me want to roll my eyes.

      1. Brisvegan*

        My take on Alison’s approach is not that she is saying that there is 1 or 2 rockstars who will have all the jobs, but rather that when hiring, the hiring manager will hire the person with the best skills and fit for the particular job. I think: of course they will. Would you look at candidates and say here’s the best fit, but we’ll hire this other, not so great person, because life should be fair for all and I don’t care about the profitability of my business?

        However, I think Alison also highlights that if a job seeker is not the best candidate for job Y, they might be great for jobs X or Z, where the skills or fit are different. I also think she has great advice for helping people develop a better set of skills and better ways to showcase them.

        So, instead of saying only the student who tops the class will get a job, she is saying that there are lots of things that make you valuable and everyone can eventually find their way into jobs that are OK. You might just take a few more steps to get there. You just don’t walk into a top flight position without finding ways to develop valuable skills experience etc.

        I think the issue is that we tend to conflate “best” with one set of fixed, already unchangeable, academic or experiential criteria, instead of looking at “better” and seeing that we can all become better in different ways and that different things are “better” for different jobs.

        So, yeah, she is saying that if you are not best in a pool, you may not get job X. But she is often giving advice to help the people in the middle can find different ways to be best in different pools. I have never taken her to mean that if you aren’t best, you’re not worth anything.

        Just my 2c and, please, Alison, coreect me if I am wrong!

    2. I'm a Little Teapot*

      EXACTLY. It’s awful to be constantly be told you’re doomed to poverty and failure if you aren’t a superstar, because most people aren’t and never will be. It does make you desperate. It’s a ridiculous, illogical idea because most people are *by definition* going to be average. And people who go on about how only extraordinary people will have decent lives often also promote the pernicious idea that only super-achievers *deserve* decent lives and the rest of us are worthless moochers and takers.

  14. Dana*

    My husband and I work in the arts (playwriting and screenwriting). We are taught to do elevator pitches to get our story across to someone who may want to hear it. However I can’t imagine how this would work in regular business and academia.

    1. stellanor*

      In academia the idea is basically if someone says “So what are you working on?” you need to be able to answer it in less than 10 minutes (which was a problem I had when I started working on my thesis). I wound up with two versions, one for people in my field and one for laypeople and people in other fields. But it definitely took practice to be able to give a coherent 1-2 minute explanation of my research topic and results thus far.

      I mentioned in another comment that it USUALLY got used on relatives who asked what I was working on. The more conventional use was that I was volunteering at a conference where I was also speaking, and lots of people asked what my talk was about, so I told them. They’re also used if you’re presenting a poster — people will walk up and ask what you did, and you give them the 60 second version. If they’re interested they’ll hang around and you can explain in more depth.

      1. Dana*

        Those all make sense. I guess I meant I can’t see it being told to academics as a job getting tool. It will help you talk about projects but it won’t help sell yourself as a complete picture.

  15. Mimmy*

    I’ve definitely heard of the elevator pitch, and while mine was never overly sales-y, I always felt like I had to have it memorized, or at least remember what my talking points were. It never came out naturally or confidently, so I just gave up. Although I’ll admit that part of it was due to not having a well-defined idea of what I was looking for.

  16. Artemesia*

    I used to work with students before they went home for Thanksgiving about their elevator pitches for all those parties they would be going to where friends of the family would ask what they are doing in college. We strategized about how to quickly be intriguing — not ‘I am majoring in poli sci’ or whatever, but to talk about a project, research or other achievement that might suggest career opportunities. Students who would talk about the business plan they created in a course, or a research project they were doing, or an internship and what they loved about their HR, or accounting or symphony administration experience often came back in December with leads for the job they would need in a few months. I had several students who made the connection for their first job at a Christmas party back home, or similar event. Being prepared to be interesting is a good thing to do when you are job hunting. A tone deaf canned speech, obviously not so much.

  17. Mozey*

    Well, I agree that it shouldn’t be so rehearsed it doesn’t make sense given your organization and context, but…

    You’re talking specifically about engineering interns, presumably at the undergraduate level, in a career fair setting. Based on my experiences, not every student is fantastic in this high pressure setting. The fact that they took the time to prepare, thought about who they are as a candidate, read some advice that encourages them to ask for a card to follow up (I highly doubt they FORCED you to give them your card, they probably just asked because that’s what they’re told to do), is actually pretty impressive for a 19 year old engineering student.

    Obviously Allison’s advice is great, but also… maybe give them a break? If this was someone with 10 years of experience, I can see it as off-putting. But they are trying to figure out how to professionals, and sometimes you take advice too literally. It happens.

    1. BananaPants*

      No, they didn’t force me to give them a card (I couldn’t even if I wanted to) – they’d say something like, “I’m going to need your card now, because we’re going to be talking more about what I can do for Company Name!” It was overly pushy.

      I do try to cut them some slack. There were a lot of students who were nervous and it showed, and I don’t have a problem with jitters if we can have a good conversation in the end. My role at the fair is to collect as many resumes as possible and have a ~5 minute conversation with interested students, and when I get back to work I put them in rank order. By the end of the day only the really good ones and really bad ones stood out in my memory. If someone giving an elevator pitch had otherwise been a really decent candidate it wouldn’t have stopped them from moving forward in the hiring process, but these were mostly weak candidates who we probably wouldn’t consider further anyways (mainly due to low GPA – we have a firm 3.0 cutoff).

      1. Hillary*

        You have my sympathies. I went to an engineering career fair once during my MBA because I wanted to talk to a couple companies presenting. Watching those undergrad engineering students (especially versus the business students I mostly encountered) was painful. A couple probably disqualified themselves from any employers in the room with their behavior during the Q&A.

  18. Elysian*

    I fell for the “elevator pitch” thing in law school. The career center had a whole lunch-and-learn thing on it that a bunch of people in my class went to. For me, I think I fell for it because I’ve always felt behind on networking-type things. I grew up really low income, and my outlook on life has basically been to do great work and good things will follow. When I got to college I realized that I just don’t understand a single thing about “networking,” and that I just don’t have the cultural capital to connect with a lot of people in my field. We don’t share a lot of the same experiences, they don’t know my parents, I don’t know anything about XYZ thing they care about. In college I couldn’t even talk about my most recent vacation or _other seemingly mundane thing here_ because I had never been on one. I just felt very disconnected from the people I was supposed to be networking with.

    I thought the elevator pitch would be like, this secret thing that “rich” people grew up knowing how to do that I was never taught (like which fork to use, or to hold your glass with your left hand at parties). One of those things that seems to come intrinsically to those in the know. So I fell for it. I’ve recently given up on such things and have tried to just be a genuine person having a conversation with another person about what they do. And also, try to be understandable. Neither “persona” has really served me well in a career sense, but at least I’m a lot more comfortable with my second strategy.

      1. Kelly L.*

        Oh! So your hand isn’t cold or wet when you shake hands. I never learned it as an etiquette rule, but picked it up as a practical thing at some point.

      2. LBK*

        It’s because you generally shake hands with your right hand and you don’t want it to be clammy from the condensation coming off your drink (or to have to switch your drink every time someone wants to shake hands). Actually a fairly practical bit of advice rather than an arbitrary etiquette rule, assuming you’re at an event where you’ll be shaking hands with people.

        On a side note, this is why French horn players tend to shake with their left hands if they’ve just been playing – because the right one will be moist from being in the horn bell.

        1. Elysian*

          Yeah! A very kind college friend told me when she saw me at a networking event awkwardly switching hands all the time and stuff. I need to be told stuff like that and never figure it out for myself – I am forever grateful to her for just being candid and teaching me something I didn’t know that has been so useful.

      3. Daisy Steiner*

        One of the best pieces of job interview advice I got was when my sister advised me, before going into the building or the interview room, to make sure that your right hand is empty. Transfer all bags and coats (if you’re carrying them) to your left hand and shoulder so that you’re ready for a smooth handshake straight away, without having to juggle and faff with your things.

    1. Texas HR Pro*

      Me, too! Grew up low-income, and always felt that I would never be good at networking or connecting with professionals, until one day someone told me the “secret” to networking: Networking is just meeting people and telling them who you are and what you want to do. Then just chat naturally, like you described above. Until then, I never felt comfortable networking.

      After that, I revised my own elevator speech to a very short, “Hi, I’m Texas HR Pro, and I really love Human Resources. I’ve been doing it for X years at Teapots, Inc. I’m looking for a recruiting job in the Z industry. What do you do?”

      Ever since then, networking has been much less anxiety-producing!

  19. JGray*

    I agree with other posters that the elevator pitch has a useful time & place but unless its focused than it isn’t effective. I think that you have to be able to back up what you are saying in your elevator pitch. I am also not really a fan of giving out specific people’s information when it comes to hiring in regards to the size of the company. I work for a small company (30 employees) and so we always get people that seem to think that if they contact our CEO directly it will get them a job. Our CEO has other things (like negotiating contracts or facilitate relationships) to do than review resumes or give you examples of the types of projects that you would be working on. People always get really frustrated with me when explain this or explain our process. You may not like it but this is our process so yes it might be a pain but this is how we do things. I know how job hunting can be but if you can’t follow instructions (like how to apply) than what are you going to do as an employee(?).

  20. A Minion*

    My name is Inigo Montoya. As a senior at the Medieval School of Vengeance and Swordplay, I’ve already earned several accolades including, Most Vengeful Student, The Outstanding Left-Handed Swordplay Achievement Award, as well as being the recipient of the very competitive Expert Identification of Six-Fingered Villains Scholarship. I consider myself a thought leader in Medieval times and I volunteer my free time at the Compassion for Giants charity. As a sworn vengeance seeker, I’m motivated and a self-starter that thrives in new and challenging environments and I’m not averse to a little pirating in the interest of attaining revenge. I have a fairly wide vocabulary and can usually tell when someone is using a word incorrectly and my tracking skills are unparalleled. I know I’d be an asset to your company and…wait….is that six fingers on your hand? You killed my father! Prepare to die!

    1. HeyNonnyNonny*

      “I have a fairly wide vocabulary and can usually tell when someone is using a word incorrectly”

      This is where I lost it and had to smother the giggles.

  21. VictoriaHR*

    Recruiter here for a software engineering company, fresh off of the rounds of fall career fairs. When it’s a specific field/industry and every candidate has similar skillsets, I find it useful for them not to be tentative and shy but come straight up with a handshake and a “Hi there, I’m Soandso and I’m looking for…” so I don’t mind elevator pitches. It does suck a bit when candidates assume I have an internship and I don’t (I’m usually only hiring for full-time post-graduation jobs). But overall I don’t mind these.

    I much prefer an elevator pitch to the rude ones who say things like: “oh do you work for (company)?” “Yes.” “Oh cuz I wasn’t sure cuz you’re sitting down and everyone else is standing up….” I just blinked at him, like, yes I’m sitting behind the table, with a laptop, and I happen to have thrown my back out so no I can’t stand. Us old people have that problem sometimes and why on earth would you bring something like that up.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      Lol. Nope, I don’t work for the company, I just enjoy the hell out of a good career fair. Seriously, what else did he think you were doing there?

    2. Didi*

      I’m curious as to why you find this rude. They weren’t sure if you worked as recruitment for the company so they asked you. If you’re behind a laptop that’s a signal to me that you’re not waiting for people to approach you.

      1. Julia*

        Probably depends on tone of voice. Maybe they should have stopped talking after Victoria said yes.

  22. Menacia*

    I just saw an email that was sent out to the students of the university I’m attending online which reads “Networking and Elevator Pitch Workshop”, I had never even heard of this, but then again, I’m OLD and would never do this! From the sound of it, it’s very obnoxious!

    1. Artemesia*

      It isn’t necessarily. What is a drag is having people hem and haw and not get to the point. Helping someone figure out what they have to offer and then be engaging about that is a lot more likely to help them succeed in the job market than leaving them to flounder. For the same reason, practice interviews are tremendously helpful; student hone their responses. This too could then come across as ‘canned’ and ‘salesy’ but of course the point is to help them sort themselves out and be their genuine selves. People don’t pay attention for long. If you don’t hook them in the first 2 minutes of a speech or interview, you are likely to have lost them.

      Alison teaches about how to write cover letters that are likely to attract interest — this is not at all like gimicky things like sending the shoe, sending chocolates, sending a framed picture with ‘your next VP for marketing’ under it (yes I have seen that) or writing a corny letter. Same with ‘elevator speeches’. Being able to engage people with something interesting and work relevant about yourself does not have to translate into cheesy, salesy, off putting aggression.

  23. FTW*

    I will respectfully disagree that an elevator pitch is out of place at a recruiting event. When I represent my firm for recruiting events, I expect to have a conversation with potential candidates about not only what we do, but also their background and interest. It helps me discuss opportunities with them.

    I 100% agree that ineffective and poorly timed elevator pitches are out of place. It should not be a candidate’s lead into a conversation. It should be brief, 45 seconds max. It should reference concrete background and current professional goals (e.g., looking to go into brand marketing).

    The problem lies in some students’ lack of situational awareness and coach- ability, which to me is a red flag. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the qualified students the letter writer mentioned used an elevator pitch, but used it effectively so it did not come across as awkward or inappropriate.

    1. Artemesia*

      +1 — all that ‘naturalness’ and genuine expression of effectiveness of the better candidates is likely to have also been planned and rehearsed.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        Yes — I think there is being prepared to present yourself in the best light, and then there is Having An Elevator Pitch.

    2. Terra*

      I agree as well. Elevator pitches are also especially useful to candidates who are naturally shy/introverted since having a “script” for social interaction allows them to participate in social interactions without falling on their faces. It’s just like public speaking or being good at politics, it can be taught to people who want to learn but people who don’t do it well are the problem rather than the entire idea.

    3. Observer*

      In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the qualified students the letter writer mentioned used an elevator pitch, but used it effectively so it did not come across as awkward or inappropriate.

      This is what I was going to say.

    4. BananaPants*

      “In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the qualified students the letter writer mentioned used an elevator pitch, but used it effectively so it did not come across as awkward or inappropriate.”

      This is probably true. I appreciated the students who clearly put some thought into what they wanted to say and demonstrated at least some very basic knowledge of the company, and who spoke without making it seem forced or rehearsed. It didn’t feel like a sales pitch and it was a good way to start the conversation.

      What turned the elevator pitch into a negative was when every word was clearly memorized/rehearsed, when body language or tone of voice came across as aggressive or pushy, or when the student made claims about their skills and experience that seemed to be potentially exaggerated.

  24. Survival of the Fit Enough*

    “You also touched on something I’ve noticed about pretty much all of these overly salesy job hunting approaches: They are nearly always (possibly always-always) employed by weak candidates. Strong candidates, practically by definition, don’t do it. ”

    While these approaches are annoying, I think it’s dangerous to assume that the market naturally finds the strongest candidates — it becomes a sort of circular reasoning, where since the market “naturally” finds top talent, and the market “naturally” found me, I am therefor top talent and that is why I was naturally found. This is giving the market way too much credit, IMHO.

    Most businesses past a certain size don’t need strong candidates; they need “strong enough” candidates, and the larger the business, the lower the minimum requirements for “strong enough” tend to be, as they have the resources and momentum to push through almost any non-major setback. A lot of things involving hiring have little if anything to do with the strength of the candidate — if they will cause office political problems, if they are a “safe” candidate for those involved in the hiring process to sign off on, if they will make their boss look good instead of incompetent (even when the boss is suffering from the Peter Principle), and generally that they are a good “cultural fit” or at the very least someone who can be used to showcase diversity.

    The larger a company gets, the more it tends to be influenced by the “principal / agent problem”, where what is best for the company is decidedly not what is best for those individuals who currently work at the company.

    1. CMT*

      Plus this line of thinking just enables structural discrimination against underrepresented minorities to continue.

  25. Margaret*

    I think I agree with the gist of the answer, but I think “you shouldn’t use an elevator speech” isn’t really accurate as to what the answer is. The last sentence is key – “If the other person is thinking, “oh, I’m hearing an elevator pitch,” that’s a failure.” I graduated college 8 years ago and was told to prepare an elevator speech for recruiting events (in accounting). But, I’m pretty sure we were also told to not give it as we were reciting something we memorized, but to use it to have key phrases and points to make sure we fit in quickly in case the conversation was short, and to open up the direction if the conversation continued.

    The problem isn’t that poor candidates do elevator speeches, it’s that they don’t understand the concept well enough to do it properly.

    1. Honeybee*

      That’s not really a pitch, though, that’s remembering a few key phrases and points that you want to make. I think that’s my contention – not with the concept of having a way to introduce yourself quickly, but rather with the terminology “elevator pitch” and what that implies (a rehearsed or semi-rehearsed speech to give to people).

    2. Artemesia*

      I do a lot of public speaking. I always prepare. I never write out a speech or memorize it. I think usually it comes across as fairly natural and conversational because I organize around a few key points, have a clear opening grabber and closer, and work from list type notes to keep on track — If I am using slides, I don’t even do that but let the slides keep me on track.

      A good elevator pitch would be like that. Carefully thought through — probably 3 ideas to get across anchored in concrete examples or stories — but not memorized.

  26. Three Thousand*

    I agree with the idea that elevator pitches absolutely aren’t out of place at a career fair. There’s no better place for them. The problem is that a 19-year-old engineering student who calls herself a “strategic thinker” or “thought leader” is laughable in 99.99999% of contexts (and if these terms really do apply to such a person, she probably isn’t attending college career fairs). They pour this poison into everyone’s ears in business school, and now it looks like it’s getting to other fields as well.

    There are reasonable ways to give an elevator pitch that don’t make you sound idiotically pompous or overly rehearsed and salesy. You should have a handful of talking points ready to go no matter what, and the more people you talk to the more natural it will feel to give them.

  27. CreationEdge*

    My college also encourages elevator pitches, but not at all like the kind described in the post. They advise against some of those exact things: being overly self-praising/exaggerating skills, being pushy, etc. Perhaps the students OP ran into were taught they same things, but paid as much attention to them as their other studies.

    I had very good success just opening up with “Hi, I’m so-and-so, I’m a Junior in (this), but I transferred with a (other degree), and I’m looking for….” then just starting a conversation from there.

    Having a simple opener like that made it very easy to start the conversation, and get the basic facts out. It was more than enough for the recruiters to work with, and several times it let them get the “right” recruiter to talk to for my specific field. I feel like it was just introducing myself effectively, rather than trying to sell myself.

  28. AthenaC*

    Last time I went to a job fair (which, granted, was some time ago), I usually opened by a hello and a handshake, and then, “What are you looking for?”

    It seemed to me to be a good question, but I was surprised how awkward a question it turned out to be. Recruiters were stunned! They stammered and struggled to describe the type of candidate / candidates they were looking for.

    I ended up giving out a lot of resumes and getting a few interviews, so that was good. Don’t remember if I got any offers, though.

  29. noah*

    I 100% disagree. I made a career/industry change a couple of years ago and realized that I needed to start going to meetups and networking events. Oftentimes I was asked about my backgound or what I was interested in or something that required an explanation. It’s good to have a couple of points or sentances that you can comfortably say to other people. “This is where I was, this is what I’m up to now and that is what I’d like to do” is a good narrative. It shouldn’t sound rehearsed, but it should sound like you know about yourself. It’s probably not best suited to a cold, first time meeting (unless asked), I did find my story to be helpful when getting warm intros to other people.
    In short, having something like an elevator pitch about yourself isn’t a terrible idea, but you should definitely know when to use it and when not to.

  30. RecentGrad16*

    I’m a recent grad who just finished school in May, and I know I’ve been a victim of uncomfortable conversations with recruiters. I recently went to a networking event hosted by a company who I was interesting in working for, and found myself talking to the hiring manager, (her role in the company wasn’t listed on the name tag!), and probably flubbed through this sort of conversation because I was so nervous. I’m hoping these sorts of things aren’t held too harshly against me in these moments. I know I have probably made plenty of embarrassing mistakes and errors so far, and just try to hope I’ll figure it out eventually. It’s nerve-wracking though, and there’s no real how-to guide for how to do it.

    Sometimes these posts can be discouraging because I think I probably identify too closely with the students in the messages that are making a lot of mistakes and coming across poorly, and it’s hard not to worry that this sort of negativity is reflected upon me as well. And I sincerely hope that these mistakes aren’t seen as some fault of character, or inability to do the job effectively. I remember some post about the biggest mistakes made during job seeking, and most of the mistakes posters discussed seemed relatively minor, whereas I feel as if I’ve made fifty in the last week. I think I’m stumbling through it a lot.

    Anyway, this blog definitely helps out a lot! Hopefully this didn’t come across too negatively. Usually it’s really helpful to sort through the whole thing, and I’ve gained a lot by reading it each week.

  31. Observer*

    I’ve been thinking about this post. I have to say that it seems to me that you are focusing on the wrong thing. The problem is not that they have an elevator pitch. As others have noted, that’s quite common, and you may even have experienced them without even knowing it. The problem is that these young people simply don’t know how to behave. Would you have felt any better about these candidates if they had done the same things without the rehearsed nonsense? The general behavior you describe is pretty appalling and the over all attitude is, as well.

    Of course, the pitches you describe are useless and annoying to anyone who is subject to them, but I think they are a symptom of the underlying problem, which sounds to me is that these folk think too highly of themselves, and haven’t learned the difference between fluff and substance.

    1. "What's it worth? What *isn't* it worth!"*

      Sadly, “think too highly of themselves” often seems to be a euphemism for, “are attempting to get a salary that will allow them to repay the cripplingly large student loans they took out for their degrees, that their colleges convinced them were a ‘good investment’ that businesses would pay higher salaries for”. :-/

      1. Kelly L.*

        This. And “think too highly of themselves” also seems to be a euphemism for “are doing exactly what some older, presumably more experienced advisor told them they had to do.” One person doing it might be overconfidence. An entire cohort doing it is bad advice from above.

  32. CM*

    I wish I had the elevator pitch advice as an undergrad! (At least, the sensible version from most commenters to briefly describe who you are and what you’re looking for, not the “leveraging synergies” sales pitch that the OP is describing.) It would have saved me from lots of awkward conversations at career fairs when I walked up to a table and said, “Uh… hi?”

    @RecentGrad6, don’t worry, everybody messes up, and we all do it lots of times! Especially with first jobs. I cringe when I think of the many mistakes I made when interviewing for jobs my first few yours out of school. I think the only way interview mistakes have a major long-term impact is when they’re caused by someone being a jerk or lacking integrity, rather than just saying or doing something dumb. And I also think recruiters expect people who are new to the professional world to not really understand hiring norms yet. You’re way ahead of the game by reading this blog.

  33. Dr. Johnny Fever*

    I’ve been in corporate tech for more years than I care to mention :) I lived through elevator pitches as THE THING 10 years ago, and Personal Brands (TM) 5 years ago.

    The trend today is authenticity. The pitches you describe are woefully tone-deaf to office norms where many of these engineers will go. This type of pitch is a salesy, insincere technique – if you as a recruiter find this offputting, imagine how well this goes over with experienced professionals and leaders?

    Career centers are doing these engineers a huge disservice. Having some talking points in mind so you can speak concisely and sincerely about your work is an excellent thing. The “pitch” isn’t needed – instead, they should speak to what they do and their results and consider it as an brief example of current role and current value. The delivery shouldn’t seem like oratory, but more like extemporaneous or impromptu speaking with a very compressed timeframe. Most importantly, it should come across as sounding like *themselves* not like a polished version of everyone else.

    Oh, and most importantly

  34. Solidus Pilcrow*

    I’ve gotten the elevator speech advice out in the working world as well (granted it was about 10 years ago). I worked as a consultant and we were advised to have one to promote ourselves. It may have been beneficial for upper management types, but us worker bees never really used them.

  35. Twyla*

    In my 46 years of life and nearly 30 working, I have never needed an elevator speech and I wish they would die a fast death!

  36. Monika*

    There’s nothing wrong with rehersals for common recuiter questions. Interviews can feel nerve racking and having at least some practice can help with nervousness.
    I guess what most of us hate with passion is the tone deafness, the sales-y approach, the lack of knowledge about the company/department, or in short, the general cluelessness of the students. The colleges/universities/parents are not helping the students with their bad advice. We have to keep in mind, though, these are often young adults with no prior real world experience, so at least some slack cutting is in order, IMO. Oh, and some hitting with a clue-by-four for the carreer coaches!

  37. Ccat*

    After reading this I feel that I have been misled by my college’s career center. I graduated 3 months ago with my 4 year degree in business management. Every business major was heavily advised to create a personalized elevator pitch to use during career fairs. There were regular business plan elevator pitch competitions sure, but this makes me wonder is the career center is clueless since they are really hammering it into students minds to do this.
    Not all my classmates followed this advice because 1. it was too difficult to formulate 2. turned off by the “salesperson” pitch and didn’t bother to try at all.

Comments are closed.