I’ll never forget my first really important interview: I knocked it out of the park. I was 23, I’d just moved to D.C., and I was on an energetic job quest fueled more by passion than by an understanding of what it really takes to be an effective job-hunter.
Still, despite my inexperience, I knew this interview had gone well. The hiring team assured me that I would be called back to meet with a senior manager the following week. As I was preparing to leave the conference room, one of the interviewers offered to walk me out of the building. We chatted easily until we stepped into the elevator and bumped into the interviewer’s boss, who happened to be the senior manager I would be meeting in Round Two.
The interviewer seized the opportunity to make an introduction, clearly expecting me to impress him. “This is Ashley Stahl,” she told the manager. “She’s one of our candidates for the intelligence manager position. We just had a great meeting with her.”
He perked up. “That’s great! I look forward to chatting with you about the job. Why are you interested in working here?”
He was so casual about it, but his question nevertheless caught me off guard. I frantically racked my brain, trying to come up with the words to express myself, but I was completely frozen.
Instead, I nervously rambled about how excited I was to be considered by the company and how much I admired their work. There were lots of hand gestures, generic adjectives and emphatic “thank yous”…In short, my answer was mediocre, and the look on his face taught me my first lesson about job hunting: No one wants to hire mediocre.
We rode the rest of the way down in silence.
It probably goes without saying, but I didn’t get the job.
I’m a career coach now, but I had to learn how to job-hunt the hard way – through trial and error. Now the memories of those experiences inspire me more than they haunt me, and I’m determined to share them with the emerging workforce as they begin navigating the job-hunting process.
Here are a few unexpected mistakes to learn from, and my best practices for avoiding them.
1. Not having an elevator pitch. I may have learned it the hard way, but the truth is that in every interview, you’ll encounter some variation of the “tell me about yourself” prompt. This is a direct invitation to outshine your resume, tell the employer what value you’re bringing to the table, and address any weaknesses or anomalies in your employment or educational record. Too many people think they’ll be able to “wing” this part of the interview, but scientifically, it’s just not possible: The average human attention span is five seconds, so if you aren’t ready to go when the moment comes, you’ll lose the interviewer’s interest in the time it takes you to craft a response. This completely defeats the purpose of the elevator pitch, which is to start – not conclude – the conversation.
2. Asking for feedback after being rejected. Requesting feedback or suggestions for improvement may demonstrate your humility and dedication to personal growth, but it puts the hiring manager in an awkward position. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that you’ll actually get a straightforward response, because most feedback can create a legal liability for the employer…Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, responding to requests for feedback takes up time the employer doesn’t have, which is often seen as intrusive and irritating. So, please, reconsider asking for it.
3. Being too proactive after you’ve submitted your application. I realize that defies the message most job hunters were raised with, but when it comes to applications, your stick-with-it-ness isn’t always appreciated. As a general rule, unannounced follow up phone calls are never a good idea, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take on a more strategic approach. If you’re looking to build a bridge (and not burn one!), send a cold email to the hiring manager, innocently following up on your application and asking if there’s anything else you can do to stand out as a candidate. This is non-threatening and allows the hiring person an opportunity to notice you, while still holding his or her own.
4. Not having questions for the hiring manager at the end of an interview. As with the elevator pitch, it’s best to have a smart, genuine question prepared before the interview. All too often, people to go into the interview with the expectation that a brilliant question will materialize somewhere between the hellos and the wind-down, but it just doesn’t work that way.More often than not, when the hiring manager says, “Do you have any questions for me?” the candidate feigns a thoughtful look for a few moments before replying, “No, you answered all of them for me.” Having a thoughtful question or two speaks volumes about your interest in the position.
5. Taking a one-size fits all approach to your resume. Job-hunting is an endeavor that exerts all of our capabilities, and crafting the perfect resume also tests our tolerance for tedium. Going through each line and word with precision and scrutiny, revision after revision, makes even the most seasoned editors want to pull their hair out. The idea of going through that process for every single job application is deflating, but once is never enough. If you really can’t rework the resume for each application, think about constructing a few different versions targeted to different jobs or industries. It will pay off: 71% of hiring managers prefer receiving a resume that has been customized for the job.
6. Letting the employer know you’re not local. A very close friend recently asked if she could use my Los Angeles address on her resume. She was gearing up to move across the country and was planning to stay with me for a few weeks while she job-hunted, so I obliged. If you can swing the travel and lodging logistics on your own dime, there’s really no need to let the employer know you aren’t local…as long as you aren’t outright about it when asked. Recruiters often disregard candidates who are not local, and thus it’s of huge benefit to list a local address if you have one. While your investment in job-hunting travel won’t always translate into offers, the muscle you build when you’re in the habit of saying “yes” to big opportunities will always bring you to the top of your career game. If you don’t have the means to cover costs, don’t despair: Take advantage of face-to-face digital tools like Skype and FaceTime to build a network in the town you hope to land a job in, even if you’re currently 5,000 miles away.
These are just a few of the weaknesses I see in my practice, often from the most qualified and impressive candidates. They’re usually hell-bent on getting their foot in the door at the leading company in their industry, but in their eagerness to showcase their qualifications, they become blind to the fact that job hunting is a skill they’ve been too shortsighted to master.
Compare yourself, as a job hunter, to professional athletes.
They spend their lives training, honing their craft, building their bodies and perfecting laser-sharp focus: In other words, the way they live their lives is the embodiment of high intention. Yet when they step out onto the turf, ice, or court, they aren’t getting attached to the results – they’re simply applying what they’ve been working on day after day, year after year. That well-honed skill, coupled with the looseness and levity they embrace on game day, is the key to consistent, steady victory. Likewise, if you can approach the job hunt with high intention and low attachment, you will get results.
If that idea intimidates you and you’d rather just continue to rely on luck, have at it.
But I’ve seen this lesson from my first great job interview play itself out for hundreds of my job-seeker clients ever since, and the message is loud and clear: It’s a tough market for mediocrity.
This article first appeared on Forbes.