How to get a job, using cognitive science

Avoid red flags that can eliminate your application in the first sift and boost your chances of making the interview shortlist, in this excerpt from Bring Your Brain to Work from Harvard Business Review Press

At each stage of the application process, recruiters think differently. Put yourself in their position for a moment. They advertised a job, and lots of people sent in materials. At this preliminary stage, the recruiters’ goal is to narrow down the initial applicants to a manageable number that they can look at in more detail.

Even though recruiters ultimately want to find a great candidate, their first task is to reject as many applications as possible. Studies by Eldar Shafir [a behavioural science professor at Princeton University] suggest that people tend to give weight to information that is most compatible with the task they are performing at that moment, regardless of their overall goal. That means the first pass at evaluating your application will be looking almost exclusively for information that will enable the recruiter to reject you. Any red flag can keep you out of the pile that gets further review – even if your strengths rival those of the best candidates in the pool.

Avoid red flags

The first thing you must do is avoid giving any obvious reasons for rejecting your application. Proofread all your materials. It’s fairly easy to catch spelling errors, because most word processors highlight them. But read over your application in any case. You must make sure that the names of the position, the company, and the contact person in your cover letter are updated for each application. Addressing a cover letter to the head of HR at another company is a great way to land your application in the wastebasket.

The formatting of your materials may matter as well. A résumé that’s hard to read can lead a busy recruiter to reject it. Even a poor font choice (Comic Sans, I’m looking at you) can be a problem. Make sure you have eliminated factors that might keep you out of the next round.

You also want to take an honest look at the job description. If some qualifications are listed as necessary, make sure you actually have them. In this first stage of the process, recruiters aren’t looking at all the other amazing things you’ve done. They are using required qualifications to filter the applications.

From reasons to reject to reasons to shortlist

Luckily, once recruiters finish weeding, their mindset shifts. They move away from finding reasons to reject applications and towards finding reasons to put people on the shortlist that will get significant scrutiny and (potentially) an interview. They begin to focus on an application’s positive aspects. That means your materials should maximise the impact of the positive information.

When you’re preparing your materials, you may assume that you’ll be evaluated using an additive strategy. In other words, the people reading your application will add each accomplishment you present to your total goodness. If your application were being evaluated that way, even an honourable mention would increase the strength of it.

But, in fact, people making evaluations average together the information they get. So three big achievements plus a few lesser accomplishments may actually result in a lower average than three big achievements alone. Be selective about the positive information you present. Focus on your greatest strengths. Resist the temptation to cram your résumé full of mildly positive elements. Less is more.

Make your strengths clear

Often, people putting together applications assume that others will understand the significance of everything they present. As a result, they miss opportunities to highlight their strengths.

One problem is cultural. Your social brain has probably been programmed to avoid boasting (particularly if you’re a woman). It’s unseemly to tout your accomplishments in public. You run the risk of alienating other people or getting negative feedback if you spend too much time talking about what a great job you’ve done. Modesty is the best policy most of the time. But not when you’re applying for a job.

Again, you have to put yourself in the position of the people reading your application. Recruiters have a large stack of applications to consider, and they may well be trying to fill many positions at the same time. They are looking at a lot of résumés. You cannot assume that a recruiter will understand the significance of your achievements without some guidance.

Your aim is to be called in for an interview. Quite a bit of research in psychology has focused on reason-based choice. In many situations, particularly when people will have to justify the choices they make to others, they seek a reason for those choices – a brief statement of why they chose as they did. Recruiters will most likely have to justify their choice to someone else, or on forms documenting the search. Help them construct that reason throughout your materials.

Be realistic and ready with examples

Finally, be aware that you must be able to back up any claims you make in your application. The number of high-profile cases in which prominent people have falsified credentials makes it worth reiterating that any concrete elements on your résumé should be as accurate as possible.

More important, perhaps, be realistic about your accomplishments. Research on egocentric bias suggests that people generally overestimate the importance of their own contributions to the success of a venture. Indeed, if you asked everyone on a team to assess the percentage of effort they contributed towards a final product, the total would be far more than 100 %. Nothing is inherently wrong with overestimating the importance of your contribution in the context of a job application, but be sure that you can provide specific examples of what you did.

This is an edited excerpt from Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career by Art Markman (Harvard Business Review Press, 2019).

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