Wisdom//

Here’s the Resume and Cover Letter Strategy Most Likely to Get You a Job Interview, Says Science

Want a better shot at landing a job interview? Let science help you create the perfect resume and cover letter.

Africa Studio/Shutterstock
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

While a resume is never enough to get the job you really want, you do need a good resume and cover letter to land an interview — and you need to be prepared to answer the most commonly asked job interview questions.

But how do you define “good”? 

To answer that question, researchers at the University of Michigan conducted a study “systematically examining the impression management (IM) content of actual resumes and cover letters and empirically testing the effect on applicant evaluation.”

Or, in lay speak, the researchers tried to figure out what works when it comes to landing an interview, and what doesn’t.

They broke down “impression management” — an attempt to influence the opinions of others, which is the point of a resume and cover letter — into eight basic categories:

  • Four involved self-promotion (“I’m so darned awesome”)
  • Three involved ingratiation (“Your organization is so darned awesome and I would love to work there”)
  • One was a hybrid category, an expression of personal values that also reflects on the company (“I’m so darned passionate about taking on challenges and would love to embark on your incredible mission with you”)

Self-promotion involved the use of adjectives like efficient, organized, experienced, creative, articulate, energetic, confident, dependable, results-oriented, professional, 
motivated, proficient, skilled, knowledgeable, detail-oriented, dedicated, focused, and industrious.

Self-promotion also involved statements like, “Designed, negotiated, and wrote new financing agreements never before done on x, far exceeding the national average.” Or old standbys like, “My work experience and education uniquely qualify me for the position,” and, “I am the perfect candidate for this position.” 

Ingratiation could go several different ways. One is institutional. You might say, “The university is a renowned institution. Go, [university team nickname]! The campus possesses beautiful natural grounds and extensive facilities for educating students. It is with great pleasure that I’m seeking to explore an employment opportunity within your organization.”

Or ingratiation could be individual, like, “I would very much like the opportunity to discuss, in person, how I might add value to x. It is my sincere hope that we will meet for an interview to discuss this position. Thank you for your time and consideration.”

Or you could really hammer the ingratiation home by saying, “I enjoy the challenges of implementing new programs and building successful teams. I have a genuine desire to make a positive difference in the lives of college students. I have approached previous positions as opportunities for career enhancement and discovery. I’ll bring the same entrepreneurial spirit to this job. I’m excited for the opportunity for an effective partnership.”

I know what you’re thinking. You’ve seen all that before. None of it stands out.

But it works.

Here are some of the key findings from the research:

1. “Male applicants engage in more frequent self-promotion and use more intense self-promotion tactics than female applicants.” (No surprise there.) 

2. “Job postings that contain more IM-inducing content will elicit more frequent use of IM-relevant words in resumes and cover letters than postings with less IM-inducing content.” In short, the more frequently an organization uses words like “excellent,” 
“outstanding,” and “superior” in job postings, the more likely it is to receive cover letters and resume​s that include those words.

3. “The less intense self-promotion condition will result in more positive evaluations of job fit and organizational fit compared to the more intense self-promotion and no self-promotion conditions.” Yep: As in many things, it’s all about moderation. Candidates who don’t self-promote at all end up in the “no” pile. But so do those who go crazy with the self-promotion, especially when it doesn’t match their actual accomplishments. Why?

4. “More intense self-promotion will result in higher ratings of manipulativeness 
compared to the less intense self-promotion and control conditions.” 
Sellers sell… and people don’t always trust heavy-handed salespeople.

Unless they implicitly ask to be sold:

5. “When ingratiation tactics are included in the cover letter, organizational fit is expected to be rated higher than when ingratiation tactics are not included.” So while it does sound cheesy to say something like, “Your company is changing the world, and I would love to be a part of it,” it works — especially if the company claims to be changing the world.

According to the researchers, “Ingratiation in the form of expressing values similar to those of the hiring institution or organization is likely to increase perceptions of person-organization fit. Furthermore, the goal of ingratiation is to increase one’s likability, and its use has been found to have a significant effect on judgments of interpersonal attraction, which has been linked with organizational fit perceptions.”

In other words, organizations want you to say you embrace their values and their mission. 

Which is why the successful candidates do just that. 

So, what should you do? 

If you’re hiring a new employee, consider the language you use in your job postings. In all likelihood, what you will get back is what you put out, which often does little to help you find the perfect candidate for your job.

If you ask for adjectives, you’ll get adjectives. If you ask for ingratiation, you’ll get ingratiation. 

The better approach is to say you’re seeking a person who has accomplished certain specific things; then you can decide whether what a candidate has done matches up with what you need them to actually do

If you’re a job candidate, read the job posting carefully. Your goal is to strike the right balance of self-promotion.

If the posting includes a number of superlatives, feel free to use a few yourself. See that as a sign of what the company is looking for. 

But don’t go too crazy. If the job posting is light on superlatives, go light — otherwise your “more intense” self-promotion will be seen as manipulative and off-putting.

Then say you want the job. And say why you want the job.

Explain why you’ll be a great cultural fit. Remember, “expressing values similar to those of the hiring institution or organization is likely to increase perceptions of person-organization fit.”

Say you’ll fit, and show why you will fit.

If you’re hiring, don’t create a boilerplate job posting to use for most openings. Tailor each posting to what you need.

And if you’re trying to get hired, don’t shotgun a copy/paste cover letter and resume at every opening. Not only do you need to tailor the skills and qualifications you mention to the particular opening, you also need to tailor your self-promotional language to that of each job posting.

While that does mean a lot more work… that’s also the best way to get the interview.

Originally published on Inc.

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