The hiring process is a terribly imprecise thing. That’s part of why it’s so frustrating. You can do everything right and be the perfect candidate for the job and somehow still not end up getting it. What gives?
Well, it’s because the process is, unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), run by humans. Our brains do all sorts of behind-the-scenes shortcuts that subconsciously affect our decision-making. Even the order in which you interview may have an impact. It’s not always the most logical thing, but that’s just the way it is. Bummer, right?
Well, maybe not. Read on for a few of these mental shortcuts (read: biases), and how to use them to your advantage during your job search.
1. Big Accomplishments Overshadow Everything Else
Ever hear something amazing about a person—say, that he built a $10 million company out of his garage or that she graduated college and started working for Google at 19? Even knowing nothing else about that person, he or she probably sounded pretty great.
That phenomenon is called the halo effect. In short, it’s the assumption that a positive attribute or impressive accomplishment in one area implies aptitude in other unrelated areas.
One way you can use this to your advantage is by making sure any particularly impressive achievements stand out on your resume or cover letter. If, for example, you graduated from an Ivy League school, were an early employee at Facebook, or happen to be an Olympic athlete, you would want to feature that information prominently. In any case, you’ll want to make sure to feature the most exciting and relevant parts of your background front and center. On that note:
2. What’s First and Last Matters Most
So, when I say “front and center,” what do I actually mean? Turns out, the order in which people are introduced to information impacts what they’ll be able to remember.
The recency effect, part of the serial position effect, is the notion that the thing people remember best is the last thing on a list. For you, that would mean the end of the resume or cover letter. The primacy effect, or the first thing people are introduced to, is about the second best thing they can remember. To take this one step further, the brain assumes that if something is easier to remember, it must be more important—a phenomenon called the availability heuristic.
That means, the prime real estate in your job application materials is the very top and the very bottom of your documents. On your resume, tuck your relevant and halo effect-maximizing accomplishments at the top in a killer “Summary” section, and create a “Skills” section packed with your most impressive abilities for the bottom.
3. How You Look Actually Matters
You know it’s important for you to look your best on your LinkedIn profile photo or when you’re going in for an interview, but did you know people are actually naturally biased toward people who are more attractive? A study conducted by the Institute for the Study of Labor showed that higher wages and employment rates were both correlated with being more attractive. It’s not fair, but study after study has shown that it’s the truth.
With the knowledge that it’s important, go out of your way to look nice. Even if the recruiter says that the company is extremely laid back—don’t go in looking sloppy. It’s a subconscious thing, so there’s no avoiding it. You want to look your best.
4. It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It
Say there is a drug that heals one out of every three patients and another drug that fails 66% of the time. Which are you more likely to go with?
It’s a trick question (the likelihood of success are roughly the same for both), but most people are much more likely to go with the first drug. It’s called the framing effect, and it’s the reason why how you present information is so important.
On your resume, this means writing your bullets out as achievements and not as responsibilities. And in an interview, this is why you want to keep all your language somewhere between neutral to positive—even when you’re talking about a negative experience. “I certainly could have had a better relationship with that client—it’s an experience I learned a lot from,” sounds a whole lot better to a hiring manager than “I hated working with that client.”
5. …Or How You Make People Feel
You know the famous Maya Angelou saying, “At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel?” It’s more than a pretty sentiment, it’s true.
The affect heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on an emotional response to help make a decision. In other words, having an enjoyable conversation might be just as important as having a substantive conversation during an interview. If the hiring manager thinks back to the interview and remembers a particularly good turn of phrase you used and chuckles to him or herself—that’s a huge win.
Who can say how much any of this will help, but at the very least don’t let these cognitive biases put you at a disadvantage. It’s important to understand that recruiters and hiring managers are human beings. For now, while humans instead of robots still make all the hiring decisions, this is the kind of imperfection we have to be ready for—and maybe even use to our advantage.