Job applications and interviews: The Anonymous Applicant Syndrome

It's a truism in advertising that a product must have an identity, some sort of profile. That applies in recruitment, too, because although there's a process line, the idea is to get someone for the job who is clearly identifiable as the right person for that job.

Not as easy as it sounds. Given the criteria for any job, the applications for successful candidates are going to be within a cookie-cutter template. So all applicants are more or less equal, to that extent. Qualifications and experience vary, but the job doesn't. This is getting the right pegs in the right hole, at this stage.

A good covering letter adds some identity, and an 'anonymous' covering letter can be the wrong move, because all other letters will read much the same. It's no secret that employers give weight to good cover letters, because really, that's about all they've got to work with. Letter templates are good, because they allow you to develop your presentation. They're the foundation, but it's your house you're building when you write your letter.

CV formats vary, but overall there is such a thing as the current style, and that's what's expected. So there's another anonymizer, if you don't add content and depth. It doesn't have to be a major production, but it does have to stand out.

Imagine everyone's going for a checkout job. Everyone has roughly the same qualifications and experience, and everyone's written pretty much identical applications. (It does happen.) Standardized formats exist because there's a required level of information, and that's unavoidable. 100 almost identical applications, however, don't add any level of interest for the employer, when they're being culled.

The danger is that a really uninteresting application will be the result of the normal, parrot-style, application. It's avoidable. A word or two in a covering letter or CV can make a difference:

?I gained valuable experience across a range of related roles in my previous job at Wal-Mart, including temporary supervisory duties, bank reconciliations, and bookkeeping?.?

The words are 'valuable', 'range of related roles', and 'Wal-Mart'. The skills then mean something, and Wal-Mart is the identity. It's like putting a name to a face. It's also up-valuing the experience. It is worth doing.

The same thing applies in interviews, because of the standardization of qualifications. Same questions, same level of required responses. Your opportunities to add content have to be used properly. Interviews are competitive, and people can't hire you on the basis of what you haven't told them, or don't know how to express.

There are a few general themes which will help you express yourself:

  • Familiarity with the work. If you have that experience, use it. Make it clear that you do know how a certain operation works, give an example, as part of an answer.
  • If you enjoy the work, don't keep that a secret. ?Positive attitude? means 'positive approach', and if you show a higher level of application to your work, it's a significant plus from the employer's perspective.
  • Be yourself. A good fit between a workplace and a worker is that a good relationship is created. Talented people sometimes sabotage themselves by not expressing themselves normally, trying to give a 'required' answer which is below their own level, and is almost identical to the answers others give. They're reciting, and it shows. It doesn't distinguish the applicant from all the others.
  • Forget about being 'nervous'. What comes across is a person who's uncomfortable, understandably enough, but it produces some lousy answers. What comes out is a mix of quality and a mix of signals. Get down to business, like you were already working there, give your own honest answers.
  • Expertise. If you really know your stuff, particularly for professionals, expand the answers enough to make it clear that you do. Where appropriate, and you're sure of your content, add a bit of knowledge, whether it's current research, market information, or technical information. Don't talk them to death, but make certain they know you're the class applicant.

The idea is that you establish your identity, throughout the entire process. They remember who they interviewed, and you're not just a face in the crowd. This is a filtering process. What is seen at the various stages of the application is the sole criteria, and only the people who are more visible are likely to get through.

I've worked on interview panels, and it's true to say that some people can do themselves more damage in the course of an interview, or job application, than they would in a train wreck. They seem to be working on the idea that they're supposed to be something or someone they're not. People seem to lose their own identity in interviews, and it really doesn't help to have an identity crisis when applying for a job.

That applies to:

  • Their applications, going for jobs where they get the requirements of the jobs totally wrong, even when they're doing the jobs as temps,
  • Their CVs, where whole books of irrelevant information arrive unasked-for, literally inches thick. I've seen it for myself.
  • Interviews where the only memorable thing was total silence, after giving the wrong answer to a question about something they did every day.
  • Insisting on answering questions like they were in primary school, you could almost see the quotation marks around every sentence. (No kidding, if someone had mentioned Jack and Jill, I wouldn't have been even slightly surprised.)

Most of these people, in fact, would have had some hope of getting the jobs, if they'd simply stuck to their own knowledge, and projected themselves as people who knew the work.

What they came up with was nothing more or less than a mess. I wouldn't have been able to employ them on a bet. Any claim they had to the jobs got vaporized in a verbal vacuum.

Your identity is your own. You're the person going through the ordeal of the job applications and interviews. What distinguishes you as a job candidate is who you are, not some theoretical person, or behavior. Identify yourself, show your skills, and make sure you get seen and heard.

Do yourself a favor: Don't be an Anonymous Applicant.