How to stand out on the job market

It’s hiring season in the education sector right now. I’m supporting several clients through their search process. Here’s the number one tip I offer each and every one of them – craft your application around one central question:


“Why should we hire you over every other qualified candidate?”

The Problem

Here’s the problem. Put yourself into the shoes of a really busy HR director, principal, or hiring committee member. After a long day of putting out fires, they finally find a quiet moment to sit down to scan a big stack of job applications. They’re tired and a bit frazzled at the edges (who isn’t in the education sector these days?) Their job is to divide a pile of applications into qualified and unqualified stacks, then take the qualified pile and divide that into a set to interview and those who won’t be offered an interview.


Sometimes step one (qualified vs unqualified), is done for them by an automated computer system or an HR department staff member. More on automated systems later… for now, assume it’s a tired, frazzled human being scanning your application.


Most cover letters and resumes read like a laundry list of everything a person has ever done. Educational qualifications… Check. Job experience… Check. Three references… Check. Yawn... By the fifth application in a stack, the busy reviewer’s eyes have glazed over and it’s just a wash of words. I’ve reviewed many hundreds of job applications in my lifetime and admit that I only fully read every word on applications that make it into the interview pile, or nearly do.


Thus, the first problem is to capture your reader’s attention long enough to convince them to keep reading. You have twenty seconds to engage your reader. Twenty seconds. A laundry list won’t cut it, no matter how impressive.


The next problem is that different readers like to start in different parts of an application. Most like to start with the resume. I prefer starting with the cover letter. My favorite colleague from my university days liked to start with a reference letter. You won’t know where your reader will start reading. And you have twenty seconds wherever they choose to begin. Thus, it’s important for every part of your application to hold together with a common, underlying message that jumps out from every page.


The Solution: Hub and Spoke Model

I’ve been an applicant and a reviewer. I've listened to the career transition gurus and coached dozens of leaders through the search process. My recommendation is to craft your entire application around a single hub: your elevator pitch answer to the question, “Why should we hire you over every other qualified candidate?”


That question, or a variation of it, is one of the most common questions asked in interviews. It invites you to explain how this role relates to your central passion. What is your purpose? Your mission? Your calling? Your WHY (à la Simon Sinek)? What is the guiding passion that drives you and makes you shine? And how does that central passion make you the perfect person for this job.


Before you even begin a resume or cover letter, write a three sentence answer to that question. That is the hub around which everything else in your application revolves. Hook your audience. Intrigue them. Entice them in. Here’s my hub:


“Within every leader and team doing good in this world, there is a LIGHT. My superpower is seeing the light within and coaxing it to shine brighter. I hold space for powerful conversations that change people’s lives and that draw out the collective wisdom of their teams.”

Surrounding that hub, are the spokes of your portfolio:

  • Cover letter

  • Resume

  • Letters of reference

  • Interview

  • Artifacts

  • Public presence

  • Word on the street


All the spokes surrounding your hub offer supporting evidence that describes (a) HOW you do what you do through the unique set of values, skills, and talents you bring to this world, and (b) WHAT you’ve accomplished that offers tangible evidence that you are what you say you are. Again, see Simon Sinek’s work for more on WHY, HOW and WHAT.


A hub and spoke portfolio stands out because it’s the opposite of a laundry list. Rather, it’s a persuasive essay with a strong thesis statement, binding the application together as a cohesive narrative. It’s an opportunity to describe how you’ve lived your mission and calling your whole life, gathering the skills and experiences needed along the way. It’s a chance to provide evidence that this role is the most logical, natural next step in your journey.


The Spokes

Taking the persuasive essay analogy further, each spoke is a supporting paragraph for your thesis. Just like any good supporting paragraph, it should clearly support your thesis with examples, stories, and evidence.


Resume - Of all the spokes, this one has the greatest tendency towards reading like a laundry list. In a way, that’s necessary because this is the place where the organization will go first to see if you are qualified. In fact, if the initial screening process is automated, it’s essential that your resume include keywords from the job description. For instance, if the job requires “California administrative credential, five years of teaching experience, and three years of administrative experience” make sure that your resume lists your exact credential and includes a section that lists your job experience in chronological order with clearly stated dates of employment as a teacher and administrator. This great blog post from Resume Genius offers great tips for automated screeners, including automated screener friendly resume templates.


Once your application makes it to the “qualified” stack, you still need to get noticed. That’s where the hub and spoke system becomes important. The “career objective” or “summary” section of the resume is a fantastic place to showcase your hub. Then go beyond the laundry list to let each experience offer evidence and examples of what you’ve accomplished throughout your career in support of your central passion. Just as with a persuasive essay, make your reader’s job easy by connecting the dots clearly between the thesis and the evidence you offer.


Letters of reference - Often, people ask for a letter of reference and leave it at that. “Hi! I’m applying for ABC job. Would you please write me a reference letter?”


I’d encourage you to make your referee’s job easier by seeding their brain with exactly the things you most want them to talk about. For instance, consider what might be different if you sent a request for a letter like this instead: “Hi. I’m applying for ABC job and wanted to know if you might be willing to write me a letter of reference. I’ve been thinking a lot about why they should hire me over other qualified candidates and these specific strengths, experiences, and core values come to mind… In our time together, you’ve seen how these have played out many times. For instance, remember when I… Moreover, I'm trying to highlight my passion for XYZ throughout my application. You've seen my passion shine through when I... Would you consider sharing your perspective in a recommendation letter? Thank you so much!”


A request like that makes your referee’s job so much easier. You’ve seeded their brain with lots of things you’ll be discussing elsewhere in your application. You've called to mind specific memories they could talk about that highlight your strengths and your passions. In the end, it's still their letter but you've made it ever so much more likely that their letter will complement the persuasive argument you are making and contribute to the larger picture you are trying to paint.


Interview - The interview is the ideal place for story telling. I tell all my clients to prep for their interview, by first crafting a very clear, example-filled elevator pitch answering “Why should we hire you over every other qualified candidate?” and then secondly, collecting five vivid stories that highlight the specific skills and experiences that make them the right person for this role. As the interview proceeds, they then have clear, rehearsed stories to offer as examples to different questions as they arise.


Artifacts - Most members of the hiring committee will be too busy to read anything beyond what’s required (usually the cover letter, resume, and letters of reference). However, some jobs announcements ask for additional artifacts such as a statement of teaching philosophy, copies of recent performance evaluations, or a presentation slide deck. What a fantastic opportunity to paint an even more detailed picture of why you are the perfect candidate.


Even if they don’t ask for additional artifacts, you might consider asking for a team reference letter (e.g. one signed collectively by all a group of teachers for instance). Or perhaps in the resume or cover letter, include a digital link to a major presentation/document that you successfully delivered on that the diligent reader can follow. Or link to a major organizational change you successfully implemented and are especially proud of (e.g. overhaul of the discipline system to align with SEL you may have spearheaded). This document from the University of Iowa offers a huge menu of ideas for additional artifacts for those applying for principal positions.


Public presence & Word on the street - Recent research suggests that 70-80 percent of jobs are offered through networking rather than applying online without knowing someone at the organization or being introduced. The idea of networking makes many of us groan. The system is unjust and rigged, especially for women and people of color, yet public presence and word on the street remain some of the most important parts of the job search process.


I recommend that my clients spend more time chatting with others in their industry than they do prepping their application package and scanning Edjoin. Don’t neglect the power of reaching out to friends in the organization or town you want to move to. Reach out to old mentors and supervisors who supported you along the way. Make a list of connections and keep adding to it as you think of more people. You’ll be surprised by just how many people you know that might be able to help you on your journey. This article from the LA Times offers great tips on how to structure a networking conversation, even virtually.


And don’t neglect your LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and other profiles that prospective employers might Google. While it may be unethical to reject a candidate solely for something that might be on their Facebook feed, it happens all the time. If there’s anything objectionable or outdated there, it’s best to tidy that up a bit before you hit the job market.


Cover Letter - I saved this for last because the cover letter is the ideal space for pulling all the pieces of your portfolio together. You have a page to show how all the spokes connect to your hub. If you haven’t already done so in the Resume’s “career objective” section, answer the central question clearly and explicitly now: “Why should we hire you over every other qualified candidate?” Then, draw together the highlights from all your spokes to show how they relate to one another.


So to all you educators and do gooders out there... Good luck with your job search! Trust that the right job is out there for you. You got this!


Read More

If you want some guidance clarifying your central passion, read my blog post on how to forge your leadership compass.


The hub and spoke model is not my own brainchild, but that of two Harvard grads who run Admission Science, a company that helps high school seniors get into elite Ivy League Schools. What they say about getting into Stanford or Harvard is exactly the same message I’d offer for anyone wishing to stand out on the job market:


“To stand out, the sum needs to be greater than the parts.


Let’s say you walk into a shop and the shelves are stocked with a hodge podge of items: Sports apparel... pastries... bathroom tiles... books... and a dozen other random types of goods.


If you were craving pastries, would you trust in the quality of that cupcake being sold alongside bathroom tiles? Or would you rather take your chances at the bakery down the street?


Admissions officers face similar decisions. Let’s say there are two applicants, Albert and Bethany, who both claim they wish to join the college’s computer science program. And let’s say they both pass the bar academically.


If Albert’s application is a hodge podge of scattered accomplishments, while everything in Bethany’s application points to her passion for CS, the admissions officers will take their chances with Bethany. She would be the one who “stood out.”


Unfortunately, most students’ college applications end up like Albert’s, a collection of seemingly unrelated items. These types of applications are not memorable because they don’t tell a central story. For an admissions officer reading through dozens of applications per day, it’s difficult to remember the ones that are simply lists of credentials.


On the other hand, in a strong application, everything should be congruent. Each piece of the application, from activities to essays, should feel like a chapter in a compelling novel. Everything should align to tell a unique story that shows the college why they should accept you.


Show. Why. You.”


Going Further

If you are in the midst of the job search process and want a guide by your side, please reach out. My 1:1 coaching practice is currently full but I regularly donate my time to support amazing educators, especially women and people of color, in finding the perfect role. Email me at irene@irenesalter.com


On the other hand, The Heroine’s Journey women’s leadership retreat, is not yet full. Join me and fellow executive coach, Tutti Taygerly for glamping, growth, adventure, connection, and gourmet smores with a carefully curated group of visionary change-makers in gorgeous Mendocino, California over Memorial Day weekend. Early bird pricing and $500 savings ends this Monday, February 28th. Reach out ASAP if interested.



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