4 surprising ways to stand out in your job search, according to a CEO

Last year, my firm was looking for an Executive Assistant. In a small (but busy) office, this is a critical job function. Not only is this person client-facing with prospective and existing clients, they must also manage me — a busy professional with far too many balls in the air.

Our job posting resulted in an avalanche of resumes and cover letters, all of which looked or felt the same, and too many of which were riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. We just didn’t feel like we had a good pool of candidates.

In order to change the game, we asked for a writing sample from all applicants. Not just a cover letter, but a writing sample of their choosing. Our goal was to try and gain a sense of the person’s personality, verify they had great spelling and grammar, and try and find the stand outs.

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Two things became clear when we changed our process: most people didn’t follow directions. But those who did follow the process and took the time to be creative with their application? Wow, did they ever stand out!

The best one? The woman whose writing sample was her bio, that she explained was going to be on our website.  Not only had she gone to our website to do her own research, she wrote her bio in the style that we did. Super impressive!

You may be surprised that standing out isn’t all that hard. Here are 5 surefire ways to have you standing above the crowded field of applicants:

1. Actually follow directions

Does the application call for a cover letter and resume? Then, send both. Does it direct you to apply via a website rather than directly with HR, or vice-versa? Then, do that. The applicants who don’t follow basic directions get dismissed before their resumes are even considered.

2. Answer questions before being asked

Have a lot of jobs, with no real tenure? Took time off to take care of your kids or sick parents? Let your potential employer know some of the reasons why there may be gaps in your resume. You can do that effectively in a cover letter, or even on the face of your resume.

3. Do your research, and find your mission

If you’re applying for a job with a company, there must be a compelling reason (i.e. it’s more than the money!). Tell them that reason. As an example, “I am impressed with your consistent support of our local nonprofit. That organization is near and dear to my heart because….”  Or, “Your reputation as a leading CPA firm in our region is impressive. My work ethic and dedication to clients will ensure that I help you keep that reputation.”

4. Show that extra spark

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and show that you stand apart from the others. I once talked to a CPA candidate who was obviously older than the rest of his peers, and had an obvious blank job history for nearly all of his 20’s. When I asked him about that, he told me he had been a fisherman on the Bering Sea in Alaska (think: Deadliest Catch) and didn’t think the experience was applicable to the field of accounting. I told him he was wrong. Being a fisherman on the Bering Sea? What does that tell me? It tells me that you have an incredible work ethic, that you can withstand difficult situations, and that you are loyal — going back season after season to do one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs there are. I implored him to put that experience on his resume, and assured him he would stand out above all!

I know you’re going to get the interview using some of these basic techniques. Let me close by bringing you in on a little interviewing secret that will really make you stand out: when I take the time to interview someone and they’ve clearly done their homework and ask questions that are smart and engaging, they are going to be tough competition for everyone else. Remember, a job interview is not just about whether you fit with the firm. You should interview us to make sure we’re a good fit for you. Employers like me are looking for people who will stand out above the crowd, who will bring their originality and personality to our workplace, and who aren’t afraid to go above and beyond to get the job.

A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits, and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards, and career advice.

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