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Advice / Job Search / Finding a Job

5 Ways to Stand Out When You're Competing With Really Qualified Candidates

You’ve got your eye on an amazing opportunity. You update your resume, perfect your cover letter, and line up your references. So far, you’re doing everything right. But before you submit your application documents, ask yourself this important question: What sets me apart?

You may have an extraordinary cover letter and resume with strong references. Great—but there will probably be other candidates with very comparable documents. So if you really want the gig, you have to be bold and prove your worth—before you’re asked to.

When I was a college student and member of the campus newspaper staff, I participated in interviewing a candidate for Director of Student Publications. While perusing her application materials, I noticed something unique: a newsletter she created announcing her hiring. It demonstrated her design and writing ability, and it made a bold statement about her desire for the job—which she got.

I still remembered that director about 10 years later, when I really wanted an open position with my alma mater, but assumed there would be other qualified individuals who wanted it, too. I asked myself what I could do—beyond writing a standout cover letter and resume—to showcase my abilities.

I ended up developing and submitting a program proposal that demonstrated my ability to plan an event grounded in theory and research, my strong writing skills, and my ability to think creatively. Less than three weeks later, I started in the new role. The proposal had served the exact purpose I wanted it to: It caught the hiring committee’s attention, confirmed my abilities, and showed a level of drive and enthusiasm that none of the other candidates demonstrated in quite the same way.

To be bold in your job search, you need to provide quality information to your potential employer beyond what a standard cover letter and resume convey. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. My approach for a position in higher education probably wouldn’t work at a corporate accounting firm. So, how do you make this work for you and your unique situation? It comes down to simply providing evidence that you are the ideal fit. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

1. Submit a “Pain Letter”

Follow the advice of Liz Ryan, and substitute a pain letter for your cover letter. A pain letter identifies a challenge the company is facing and explains how you, if hired, would solve that problem. This demonstrates an uncommon depth of company knowledge and your unique ability to solve problems—which can seriously boost your appeal as a candidate.

2. Connect With an Insider

Don’t rely on a recruiter to understand your value solely based on what you put on paper as your cover letter and resume. Find someone influential on the inside of the company and send your information directly to that person—or, depending on the relationship you form, ask that person to vouch for you. It’s a gutsy move (especially if you have no prior connection to that person), but a personal reference almost always results in a higher success rate than relying solely on your cover letter and resume to get you the job.

There are a variety of ways to connect with that influencer: Try connecting on LinkedIn, joining a professional organization he or she is a member of, or use your personal network to garner an introduction. Then, continue forging that connection by conveying your passion and the value you can bring to the role.

You could send an email or LinkedIn message, for example, that says:

Hi, John,

I was researching your company because I am applying for the open marketing position there, and I came across your profile on LinkedIn. I saw that you recently published a post about the BuzzFeed approach to viral content. I’m sending a link to a website I helped develop as a marketing intern for my university’s Division of Student Life, which used a BuzzFeed approach.

As you can see from the data I’ve included, it increased traffic to online campus resources by 25%, supporting your theory. I thought this site might be an interesting resource for you. I would be happy to provide you with more details if you are interested, and I would greatly value your support in my pursuit of the marketing position.

With this, you’re making a meaningful connection, without just asking for a favor.

3. Showcase Your Skills

A cover letter and resume can only go so far to describe what you can do; a portfolio provides concrete evidence of those abilities. Have you done a lot of writing in your previous roles? Don’t just tell an employer that you have strong writing skills on your resume; include samples of your writing in your portfolio.

You can bring this portfolio with you to the interview, but that assumes you actually get an interview. Instead, do yourself a favor and build an online portfolio that employers can access immediately when they receive your application materials. Your portfolio then becomes a tool that helps you land the interview, instead of something you showcase at the interview.

Plus, an online portfolio also allows you to include media that a traditional portfolio doesn’t. Do you have experience developing proposals and securing funding for projects? Include a proposal, timeline, and photos or a time-lapse video of the project in your portfolio.

4. Demonstrate Your Value

In addition to an online portfolio, consider submitting additional documents that can demonstrate your value to the company. Think about what the company needs, and develop something unique around that. For example, you could develop a proposal for a new program, an out-of-the-box marketing tactic, or a grant opportunity. The opportunities are endless—you simply have to use your knowledge of the company and your creativity to develop something relevant and realistic.

This approach will demonstrate your depth of knowledge of what the company needs and your ability to realistically meet those needs. It also proves your effort and enthusiasm—qualities that any sane employer wants in every employee.

5. Ask Bold Questions

When you snag an interview, you’ll certainly need to prepare for the questions that interviewer will ask you—but don’t forget that the interview is a two-way street. You should prepare a few questions of your own to help you decide if this is the right position for you and show just how interested you are in pursuing the opportunity.

This doesn’t mean you should be overly aggressive—but being willing to ask straightforward questions will show you know what you want. Lily Zhang suggests three strong wrap-up questions here.

I recently interviewed for a new opportunity on campus. I came to the interview with two proposals—one for a new counseling practicum position and one for a new student group—both closely aligned with the goals of the office. I hadn’t been asked to develop either item as part of the application process, but I saw an opportunity to showcase my potential impact in the role.

I closed the interview by asking one of Zhang’s bold wrap-up questions (among several other pointed questions), and in general, I did everything in my power to make it easy for everyone involved in the hiring decision to see what I envisioned for this new role and to understand that I had the experience to pull it off. And guess what? I started my new job April 13.

In your job search, you can submit the same old cover letter and resume like every other job seeker, or you can look for a way to stand out from the competition for all the right reasons. Will you make the investment in yourself?

Photo of pink bird courtesy of Shutterstock.