There Are Four Kinds of Job Applicants But Only One Gets the Job

mm Russ Finkelstein

I think I’m a very lucky guy because I often get to interview and hire people.

This might be an unusual perspective because many others dread running a hiring process, but not me. Even if they don’t get the job, candidates I meet during my hiring processes often remark on how much they appreciate the clarity of communication, and the opportunity to share what they did well. I love helping people feel like they did their best job sharing themselves, and I will share their name with recruiters I meet for other positions.  

We all have our unique interests: Some people love the eternal search for the best nachos, others enjoy knitting toilet paper cozies, while some are called to offer comfort to those in need. I just seem to love all the aspects involved in helping people find good work and helping institutions find good people!

I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about hiring after having run several hundred processes. I think that there are four buckets applicants fall into, and it is overwhelmingly the fourth bucket, which produces recipients of job offers. Here is how you end up in the fourth bucket more often.

Carefully consider the kind of candidate you are against my criteria below, and it should help you determine whether you should consider applying for a given job at all, or at least, what it might take to push yourself into being closer to an employer’s ideal candidate.

Falling into the other three buckets, as 95 percent of job applicants tend to, is essentially a waste of your time. Sorry to be so blunt, but I know you want me to be helpful. So ask yourself, bluntly: “Which bucket do I fall into, as an applicant?”

Bucket One: You want a job.  

The candidate’s cover letter may or may not have followed the applicant instructions, but their application did get to the correct email address. They make it clear that they are in the market for a job. It’s not clear whether their skills are appropriate for this specific job, though, and the person seems to be just throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall, and hoping some of it might stick.

My assumptions about a candidate in bucket one are pretty negative. It’s not clear that they can even do the job because their skills seem so disparate, you don’t know if they’re passionate about the area of work you’re recruiting in, or whether they might fit in. When you share an objective that says rather broadly that you are interested in being a wedding planner, landscape architect or actuary, it is hard to get taken seriously, even if the role I’m recruiting for is in one of those fields.  

As a result, candidates like this never get invited for interview. (Let me share one caveat here: There are desperate employers that pay poorly and/or don’t have an organized or thoughtful hiring process who might interview someone here, but chiefly out of desperation! And in most cases your tenure with them would likely be short.) The surprising thing, perhaps, is that a substantial percentage of job applicants fall into this bucket, even at fairly advanced stages of their careers. They just want a job, any job, and are treating your recruitment email address as a receptacle for their unfocussed needs. I’m not without empathy, but as I said, I don’t want you to waste your time. So: I hope you’ll listen to me and follow my advice.

Bucket Two: You want a job in a particular field or role.

The candidate’s cover letter makes it clear that the candidate wants a job in the specific field, but that’s where it stops. However, the field and more often the role itself may be aspirational. Most often they haven’t had the experiences to make a strong case in the cover letter or resume. For example, in their documents they might write, “I’m looking for a job in marketing” and then offer up bullet points that reflect the kinds of things that are generally important in this field or area. But they likely haven’t yet had sufficient experience or lack an ability to take the experience they have and advocate well for themselves.

My assumption about this person is that they have a base level motivation to do this job, but just don’t really understand the job and perhaps the field itself. Often they compensate for a lack of experience and knowledge with a surfeit of enthusiasm, but it is not enough to compensate for those other shortcomings.

As result, candidates like this are infrequently invited even to a screening interview. The majority of applications end up in this bucket. Often, more tweaking of the collateral material such as the resume or cover letter could move them on to bucket three. Even if you don’t have the requisite experience to land the job, you could better advocate that you get the nature of the position, so try to move along a little.

Bucket Three: You want this job.

This applicant wants this specific job and their application smells pretty good on a first whiff. They have listed bullet points in their resume that reflect the specific position description, as advertised. And they have shown a grasp of the industry’s language and priorities in their cover letter, and demonstrated not only an understanding of why they are interested in this particular field, but also, why this particular position stands out to them.

My assumption with these candidates is that they either haven’t spent as much time as I would like, making a compelling case for why they would be a great fit, or they don’t have the experience to do so. If I am working with a group that chooses a candidate to interview from this bucket, I will often caution them that this candidate requires lots more vetting.

There is a pretty decent chance that you could be called to interview in this bucket. However, it is a bit like having a casting call for actresses of a certain age to interview for a movie part where everyone else is an unknown, except for Meryl Streep. They want her, and if she is interested, the part is all hers. So these candidates rarely get hired in a well-executed search. Moreover, if they do get hired, then it may be that the would-be employer isn’t quite sure what they’re looking for, which is another alarm bell to pay attention to.  

Bucket Four: You want this job and can do this job.

This applicant has made the case in their written materials that they get the position and organization, but even more than that, they build on their specific ability to do this work and their great desire to do it in this context. The application offers scale and impact examples that convey an easy ability to handle the tasks and resources associated with this specific position. These candidates make a compelling case that they understand the challenges of your field, and the specific challenges facing your organization, that they have read the position description clearly, and that they are responding authentically and from the heart to your recruiting needs.

I read these applications with tremendous glee. The first one of these to pop up is what helps ease your fear that there won’t be any great candidates. They come across as knowing about this organization and having a sincere interest in working here. I know that this candidate can do this job, is passionate about the work, and that they are thinking carefully about their culture fit. As result, candidates from this bucket are almost always the ones who get hired, and I hope you can work hard to fall into bucket four, more often.

The one caveat here is that of course there is often more than one person in this final bucket. As such, being here doesn’t guarantee you the job, but it positions you to advocate in person for your being their hire.

Why clarity is so important in your job search

I run an organization called Clearly Next, which helps coach people to get to clarity as they pursue the next step in their careers. And it also helps employers think harder about the kinds of cultures they need to create to retain talented, focused, would-be employees.

It is incumbent upon employers to work hard to create thoughtful job descriptions describing the position they are recruiting for in great detail, and offer benefits that can interest and sustain the best candidates. They also need to create organizational cultures that help their employees to do their best work. These are the best places people can work.

For job seekers, clarity in a career search, it turns out, is at an absolute premium in America, where so many drift unintentionally from job to job without proper consideration, and where our lack of certainty about what we want to do can make the jobs we want beyond our reach.

I hope that by considering which qualities you possess in your job search, you can get clarity about what’s possible, and get the jobs you want at the organizations that deserve your talents.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >