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  • Writer's picturePatrick Mullane

Interviewing for a job? Do these four things to set yourself apart

With a strong recession undoubtedly upon us, a lot of people will be fishing for a job in a pond that suddenly feels pretty sparsely populated. This has to be a shock to the 35 million millennials who have never known an economic downturn. For nearly a decade, they threw out their line and hooked a fish quickly. Not so anymore. And that mostly empty pond isn’t just a problem for millennials. Anybody looking for a job in a world where unemployment might approach 20% is going to find the competition for openings stiff. 

So, how do you stand out from the crowd while going through the application and interview process? It’s not a complicated path. But like many things in life, the answer is straightforward but the execution is not. Standing out requires attention to detail, making a connection, and following up. Below, I highlight four of the ways in which you can put yourself at the head of the pack.

Always send a cover letter with a resume

Virtually nobody gets a new position by sending off a resume, by itself, in response to a job posting. There are two reasons for this. First, it just looks lazy. Secondly, all a resume does is educate the reader about your past. While that’s valuable, it’s only about half of the information companies need to know in order to consider you seriously for an open position. 

The other half of what they need to know comes from your cover letter; it’s the place where you help them imagine a future with you in their firm. How do you do this? By being human. The cover letter is your opportunity to tell them how you found out about the position, why it piqued your interest, and how what you’ve done in the past will help you perform for them in the future. It puts context around the boring list of titles and achievements on your resume, making you three dimensional. And because hiring managers are three-dimensional, they love the idea of hiring others who are as well. 

Do your research

Have you ever met somebody at a party who only talked about themselves and what they wanted out of life? Pretty exhausting, huh? And, when heading home after the party, did you think about that person, “Wow, I’d like to spend time with them again?” Probably not. And so it is for an employer who reads a cover letter that is only about what you want. 

Remember, this job search process is not all about you. In fact, the company with the open position doesn’t really care about you at all. They will only care about you if, at some point in the future, you become a part of their team and demonstrate you can add value. So, early in the process, it’s important for you to show that you care about them. And you do this as you would when building a meaningful relationship with any human being - you show that you care enough to learn about their history and future plans. 

" In fact, the company with the open position doesn’t really care about you at all. "

Research the company you are applying to. Know what they do. Know what they’ve accomplished. Know what they plan to do in the future. Then, work what you’ve discovered into your cover letter. Doing so shows that you are both diligent and unselfish. And I’ve never met a hiring manager who didn’t say that those two traits were supremely important to them. 

Prepare for the interview 

You can usually guess with about 80% accuracy the questions you will be asked during an interview. So take the time to write them down along with some notes about how you might answer them. Then, have a friend or family member pretend to be the interviewer. An interview for a job is stressful enough when you do have some responses ready to common questions. Why make it harder by walking into an interview never having practiced how you might respond? If you do nothing else, practice answering these five questions:

  • What is it that interests you about this job?

  • Tell me about the achievement you are most proud of.

  • Tell me about a time when you failed and what you learned from it.

  • Where did you find out about this role?

  • Do you have any questions for me?

The last question is one that is particularly important. Whatever you do, have a question ready to ask the interviewer. It doesn’t have to be about the role you are applying for. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be about the job - because while you are going through the interview itself, there will likely be some back-and-forth that will allow you to ask questions in the flow of the conversation about the role. Rather, your closing questions should be about something you don’t expect to come up in the interview. Some examples: What do you like about working for Acme, Inc.? How would you describe the culture at Acme, Inc.? What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on at Acme, Inc.?

Write a thank you note

A thank you note in this context is not a thank you note alone. It’s also an opportunity to cover some tidbit of information you didn’t get to during the interview or to take what you learned during the interview and explain why you are more confident than ever that the position is one where you could add value. Again, note that I didn’t say that you should tell the interviewer how the job checks all of your boxes. They don’t care about that, even if they are an enlightened firm who thinks their employees’ development and satisfaction  is critical. They care about what you can do for them. So, always be sure to make it about them by telling them how the skills you have, when coupled with what you learned in the interview, can help the firm meet its objectives.


These four recommendations are not in the category of rocket science to be sure (and I should know … I worked with rockets for a while). But a surprisingly small number of job candidates do all of them. And even if they do, it’s rare they are executed flawlessly. Don’t be one of the “ordinary” candidates that ignores these recommendations. Because in a recession, ordinary just won’t cut it. 

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