how much do you need to self-promote when you apply for a job?

A reader writes:

When you’re applying for a job, and especially in something like a cover letter, where is the line between necessary self-promotion and overconfidence?

I’m looking for jobs right now, and I’m finding it really hard to hit the right note to convince a hiring manager that I’d be great at the job without going overboard and sounding delusional about my own value. I’m not coming out and declaring that I’ll be the best accounts manager they’ve ever seen, but even when I say that I’m confident I have the skills necessary to excel in the job, I still feel a little dishonest. I’ve never done this job before, so how would I know? On the other hand, if I honestly state that I think I could do 50% of what they ask really well, 40% adequately, and will work hard to learn that remaining 10% as quickly as possible, that’s hardly going to get me the position when there are experienced people applying who have already done the job 100%.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. Mental Lentil*

    Just move straight into why you think that. That’s the part that’s compelling.

    1000% this. And if you’ve followed Alison’s advice to include accomplishments on your resume, it’s all the easier. You’re just telling them what to look for in your resume.

    I really do think the job hunting process is so intimidating that a lot of us tend to overthink it.

  2. Arctic*

    Man, I literally just completely bombed an interview (remote of course) this morning because I couldn’t do this. Well, not just because of that. I sucked on multiple levels. But I kept minimizing any accomplishment.

  3. Cordoba*

    “I’ve never done this job before, so how would I know? ”

    This seems like a good time to make some reasonable conclusions based on what you *do* know.

    I’ve never driven to Las Vegas before, but I know:
    1) How to drive a car
    2) How to use a map or GPS
    3) That there are roads between where I am and where Las Vegas is

    So if somebody asks me if I can drive to Las Vegas I can answer “yes” pretty confidently.

    I’ve never been an NBA player before, but I am very confident that I could not excel in that job based on what I know of my own strengths and weaknesses. If I can make that determination, I can do the same thing in reverse.

    1. Mental Lentil*

      This is Vulcan-level logic.

      And ideally, this is what part of the interview is for: seeing if you can adapt your strengths to their needs. (And if you want to—interviews are two-way streets.)

  4. The Magic Rat*

    “Look at it this way: You’re applying for the job because there are specific reasons that you think you’d excel in it, right?” LOL no I don’t, I think I could probably do a competent job. If there’s someone applying who actually would excel I’m not getting the job, I’m just hoping nobody actually good applies.

    1. Zephy*

      Well, what specific reasons do you have that make think you’d be competent at this job, then? I mean, sometimes you are applying for jobs that could be done by a trained monkey. Sometimes it be like that. But coming off like you know the job is beneath you and you’re settling for it is a bad look.

    2. Domino*

      Yeah, that stood out to me too. If I need to think I’m going to excel at something before applying, I’ll literally never send out another résumé in my lifetime.

      1. Liz*

        I’m in the same boat. I’m not sure if it’s impostor syndrome or what (my manager keeps telling me I’m doing an excellent job, but he doesn’t see the amount of time and effort it takes to get my brain into gear and make it stay there!) but I don’t assume I’ll excel at anything. If I look at a job ad, I’m usually trying to figure out what sort of tasks it actually entails (not always clear in job ad speak) and I try to picture whether or not I’ll be able to get through a day of doing those things. My evidence for “yes I think I can probably do that” is usually just “this is what I am doing already and people have assured me it was good”. It doesn’t help that 90% of my job is soft skills that can’t be quantified, and I don’t feel I can put “people say nice things about me” on a CV!

        1. Forrest*

          >> the amount of time and effort it takes to get my brain into gear and make it stay there!

          That’s not incompatible with excelling. Excelling is about whether the product is good, not whether you find it easy. That’s an important distinction to make!

          1. The Magic Rat*

            A “good” product isn’t excelling, it’s good. Excelling is “better than anyone else could do,” which seems like an unlikely thing for me to be able to do

            1. Allonge*

              No, excelling is doing very well. Better than a lot of people would, but not better than everyone else. I am an excellent librarian and budget wrangler, but that does not mean I am the best in the world. Nobody is.

              By the way good does not mean faultless either.

              1. Allonge*

                Sorry, this was not meant to end there. My point is that I am a nobody, bad at a lot of things, good at some, and there are a few things where I excel. This is true for everyone.

                Some people are taught somewhere along the way to expect perfection and consider everyting else as failure, which can lead to thinking excellent is impossible. Not true! You really can excel at a role.

    3. Anna*

      I have felt that way before about applying to jobs. What I have found in several that I have landed is that what I consider competent is often what an objective observer considers excellent. My guess is that this is related to the statistics about how women apply for jobs they meet all of the qualifications for, while men are more likely to apply if they only meet most of the qualifications. What I have found works is stating what I can do as clearly as possible and playing up my excitement about some aspects of the job posting (necessary because I rarely naturally use the word excited about anything).

    4. Jennifleurs*

      Yesss, this is my problem. So much AAM advice seems to assume people excel and their jobs and have endless accomplishments and achievements to put on their application … like … some of us are just rubbish …

      1. The Magic Rat*

        OR, more likely, we’re just ok! We’re good enough! We get through the day without getting fired! Whither us ordinary people, I ask you.

      2. NapkinThief*

        And yet, rubbish people continue to get jobs – so there’s hope!

        When I’m tempted to feel hopeless because I’m not a “rock star” at my job, I think of my top 10 terrible past & present coworkers and think, “once upon a time they were just an applicant, and they got hired somehow – why can’t I?”

        1. The Magic Rat*

          Lol I think that too, but it makes me feel worse, not better. “I’m not even *that* good an applicant?”

    5. PotatoEngineer*

      Yeah, that “first professional job” application was no fun whatsoever. “Write a cover letter that talks about how good you are at things!” Well, I graduated college with a B average, my degree is relevant to this position, and I guarantee that you’re going to have to train me further for me to be of any use at all to the company. There are a thousand people just like me, and at least one of them has a B+ average instead of a B. I have no extracurricular activities that are relevant to this position, but I am an Eagle Scout, which is nice, but not quite as good as graduating from Harvey Mudd like your other candidate did, or that other guy who’s part of some Greek society that is specifically and directly relevant to the job.

      I’m all right. Hopefully there’s nobody better who applied to this.

  5. Colleague’s Dog’s Viking Funeral*

    “On the other hand, if I honestly state that I think I could do 50% of what they ask really well, 40% adequately, and will work hard to learn that remaining 10% as quickly as possible”
    I have no advice for you, OP, but I do have thanks.
    I think this is great concept for taking on new projects at work. Instead of thinking “I can do that; I’ll volunteer.” or “Well, I can’t really do that, pass” I will try to realistically quantify my knowledge.
    thank you.

    1. Zephy*

      This is probably a more useful approach for taking on projects than interviewing, honestly. In that situation you probably have a more realistic idea of what will be needed. It’s so common for a job to end up being different than advertised for any number of reasons – business needs change, the role has evolved since last they were hiring for this position and nobody bothered to update the listing, the manager doesn’t actually know what this role does day-to-day and didn’t bother to find out until after the last person left so the job ad is a best guess/list of ideals with little basis in reality, etc.

    2. OP (way back when)*

      Thanks! And, in the spirit of sharing good news, I got a great job after this advice 4 years ago, and am still in the same team but 2 levels up, so no advice needed right now :)

      I still use the same mental apportioning techniques for picking up project work though, and find it really helpful when I want to volunteer but need to flag at the start that I’ll need help/advice with certain portions. Gives managers a chance to say, “Oh, no, actually that’s a much bigger part of this than it sounds, so while you’re welcome to help, probably better for someone else to lead” or point me toward who I should talk to when it does come up. Happy to hear it might help you too!

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I would like to do this in interviews (i.e. math-based stuff) but it’s very hard to do without clueing them in that I have an LD. I’ve learned to ask a lot of questions about the actual work, including non-math aspects as well, to determine whether I’d struggle in the job.

  6. selena*

    Alison’s advice of thinking of a cover-letter as ‘explaining to a friend why you would be good at the job’ has really helped me in the past, when the only other advice i got were empty frases (loudly declaring your enthousiasm for the job)

  7. Fricketyfrack*

    When I was about 26, I ended an interview by fist pumping and saying, “I’m awesome!” when they asked why they should hire me. The interviewers fist pumped back and said, “You’re awesome!” and then they hired me, so maybe try that.

    I kid, don’t try that. I mean, I really did that and they really hired me but it’s one of those moments that comes back to me when I’m laying in bed at night and then I just curl up into a ball and cringe. These days, I just read over the job listing and think of specific skills I have that lend themselves to the duties so that I have concrete examples of why I would be good at the job. For my last interview, no I’d never worked as a teapot buyer, but I had worked as a spoon buyer, and the skills to find sellers are the same in both fields. My work registering china companies made me familiar with the relevant laws and how to apply them. Stuff like that.

    1. Elmer W. Litzinger, spy*

      Pffft. I was advocating for why I was right for the job and told the interviewer (a fellow Midwesterner) “When you’re from Wisconsin you’re either a hard worker or a cannibalistic serial killer. I’m a hard worker”. Weirdly, this worked. I got the job.

  8. Lana Kane*

    I want to support Alison’s advice by giving my perspective as a hiring manager.

    I get loooooots of resumes for any job I post. The trend in the most successful candidates (quantifying “success” as moving to the interview stage) is that their resumes and cover letters give me the proof as to *why* they are confident they would do well in this role.

    Just seeing “I am an excellent communicator” isn’t enough. Neither is, “I excel at X”, “I’m a hard worker”, “I am an Excel ninja”. First, some of these are incredibly generic. Second, I haven’t met you so how would I know how good you are at self assessment? Third, if you are going to say these things and your resume doesn’t back it up, I already know you may not be the excellent communicator you claim to be!

    So yeah, look at it not as boasting or self promotion, but as writing a convincing argument. Why would I do well in this role? Because I’ve done X, Y, and Z, and achieved A, B, and C.

    The roles I interview for may not always have the ability to give hard achievements, like, “Saved ACME Co. $3million a year by buying less paperclips”. But there are still things you can list that, if I needed to, I can ask about when I run a reference check. “Became the team’s resource for training new staff and for questions” is something I can easily ask about if you get to the reference stage, and it’s something I keep in mind.

    1. A Person*

      And the specificity of X, Y, and Z really matter! If I’m hiring for a job grooming llamas, I don’t want you to say “I groomed llamas at ACME Co.” – hopefully I can read that from your resume.

      I want to read things like:
      “Groomed llamas daily at ACME Co, concentrating on fluffiness and shine”
      “Sole llama groomer at ACME Co., improved grooming procedures to take half the time”
      “Single handedly created a llama grooming department at ACME Co.”

    2. Sweet Christmas*

      Another hiring manager who came to do the same thing (offer a perspective that supports Alison’s advice). We routinely get 150+ resumes and cover letters for roles that we post, and when I’m looking at a resume and cover letter, I am looking for the same thing – WHY do you think you would be a good fit? It’s obvious to me that you want the role, as you are applying for it; and also that you think you would be at least a competent fit, because…you’re applying for it. What interesting things do you have to tell me that give me an insight into why you want this job and how you would approach it should you be hired?

      You’re just saying, “Aha, I see that you have a business problem — this vacancy — and I might be the person who can solve it with you.” (You’re not literally saying that, of course, but that’s how you should be thinking of it in your head.)

      Yes, yes, yes, this is what I want! My job ad, hopefully, told you what our problem is. Please tell me how you can help me fix my problem.

    3. Jean*

      This! Share the things you accomplished at previous jobs if you think they would be relevant to the job you’re going for – big projects, client feedback, anything concrete like that even if it’s not hard numbers or $ amounts. I have leading a training project, winning an internal service award, and my high KPI ratings listed on my resume because these are all relevant to jobs in my field. These are great ways to self-promote because they’re not just “I’M GREAT!” they’re actual data.

    1. Qaoileann*

      Haha I have a similar trick – I change the name on my cover letter to a friend’s (or someone I think is awesome). Much easier to write it like that – just make sure to change it back before you send it ;)

  9. Kelly*

    I’ve re-done my resume a few times to sound more like that, but after a few months I would suddenly find the wording embarrassing and go back to just listing my basic tasks (which did get me a few interviews, which I was more comfortable with because I didn’t feel there was a mismatch between the passive wallflower I really am and how I presented myself on my resume).

    Somewhat unrelated. As a hiring manager, what is your advice for a candidate who looks strong on paper but comes across as unimpressive during the actual interview? One thing I’ve noticed is that I would always start a job as a low-level participant no one expected much from, and over time become an SME of sorts who drives the project I was supposed to only help with to completion. So I know I have what it takes when applying for a certain position, but I struggle to convince hiring managers that, in the long run, I would be a better choice than someone who may be more confident and better spoken than me.

    1. Forrest*

      Practice would really help. If you’ve got a mentor or friend who sits on hiring panels, or you can afford careers coaching, get them to go through a job description with you and ask typical questions related to the hiring criteria. It can make such a big difference to how you phrase things and help you get comfortable with, “yes, I did literally do this, I can SAY that I did it and how I did it and feel OK about it!”

  10. Tag Me in, Coach*

    I’m currently applying for jobs as well, and this time around I’m trying to follow this advice, so we’ll see how it goes.

    I’m in a creative field so I’m finding that job postings nowadays are both more general and more specific. More general in the sense that companies are looking for someone who can essentially do the work of an entire creative team (graphic design for web and print, web design, social media, UX/UI, and, oh yeah, motion graphics and video editing skills a plus). But they also want candidates who have worked in their EXACT niche industry for years (ad agency, publishing, healthcare, etc.).

    As someone with shaky confidence trying to jump out of a niche industry (that I didn’t really pick to begin with), it’s been dispiriting. Fingers crossed, I guess.

    1. Forrest*

      If you can do any informational interviews with people in the industries you’re aiming for, it will really help. Just to learn the jargon and the issues and the types of stakeholders they work with and things like that. A lot of the time, “experience in XYZ” means, “please don’t make us teach you the basics”, and you can pick up a lot of what “the basics” are with a few targeted interviews with people in your chosen sector area.

      1. Tag Me in, Coach*

        Thanks for the solid suggestion—if I can find a way to do this, it would probably be helpful. It may also come down to making more spec work for my portfolio to show a wider range.

        The catch-22 of creative work is that once you’re out of school, the work you have to show mostly depends on what jobs you have had, so it makes it difficult to jump industries (in my experience, anyway). If you’ve worked in, say, corporate branding, you might not have much applicable work to show if you want to work for a publisher. It sucks having to make spec work for no one and no money, but I think that’s my next area of focus.

  11. CCSF*

    In the final interview for the job I have now, I answered the “Why should we hire you?” question like this:
    “It’s as if this job description was written for me because of X experience, Y experience, and Z experience (that were all in the description). The other reason is that I know what I want; I’m not testing this out. I’ve done all of those things before. I know I’m good at them, and I know I enjoy them.”

    My great-grand boss remembers it as me saying, “You’d be crazy not to hire me,” and always adds, “And we agreed!” when she tells the story at introductions. I don’t hate it. lol I wouldn’t say that verbatim, but it is essentially what I said.

  12. Judy*

    I’ve been interviewing for the past six months and the “in” question these days seems to be “So tell us why you think you’re the perfect person for this job.” Who said I thought I was? It got to the point where I would answer “I don’t know that I am and this is why I’m speaking to you about the position so we can determine if I’m that perfect person.” (Btw, the last time I job hunted (a few years ago) the question was “Tell us your idea of your dream job?” Again, what did that have to do with anything? I felt like it was a set-up for them to then tell me how their position wasn’t going to fit my dream job).

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