How Candidates Can Stand Out (in a Good Way)

Susan Resneck Pierce recounts how people can lose shots at presidencies and other positions, and how to avoid those pitfalls.

May 13, 2009

Candidates in all searches, administrative and faculty alike, are inevitably confronted with variables that they cannot control, most notably the strength of their competition and the chemistry between each candidate and the hiring committee. Indeed, it is not uncommon for search committee members to believe that their pool contains several people who could effectively fill the position and yet find themselves drawn especially to one of them. The same phenomenon occurs when finalists come for campus visits.

Because every campus has its own culture, its own traditions, even its own idiosyncrasies, the notion of fit is real. Although I recognize that some committees may hide behind the term “fit,” using it to justify decisions based on biases rather than substance, my own experience has been that most committees are genuinely committed to fairness. Nevertheless, even though candidates consistent in their presentation and how they answer questions at two different interviews, they may impress those on one campus but fail to connect with those on another. For example, I have observed finalists whose independent spirits and confidence appealed to one campus whereas those on a second campus interpreted such independence and confidence as arrogance. I’ve seen presidential candidates with the “vision thing” excite one campus with their ideas and seem presumptuous to a different institution.

When a campus reacts negatively to candidates, I tell the candidates that they were fortunate to learn that the match wasn’t right prior to their taking vows and that if something seemed a problem at the courtship stage, it almost certainly would become a major source of tension once the relationship was consummated. A case in point: Recently, two finalists for a presidency at a private liberal arts college presented comparable views about the role of athletics in such a setting. The campus reacted negatively to the first finalist and embraced his competitor. The difference was not in the substance of what each person said but in the style in which they discussed the issue. The second candidate simply came across as reassuring as well as candid, and this campus was seeking reassurance.

Despite such variables, candidates do have a great deal of influence on how they are received. An early favorable impression generally persists. Specifically, candidates can have an impact on the outcome of a search by: carefully shaping their application materials; strategically selecting their references, asking those references for permission to be listed and describing the job to these references; developing good questions; preparing effectively for the interview and projecting genuine interest in the position and the institution.

A surprising number of candidates seem cavalier about their applications, submitting uninspiring letters of interest and less than coherent c.v.’s, providing lists of references who don’t know the candidate well enough to describe their performance, asking only pedestrian questions, coming to an interview unprepared and confessing ambivalence about being a candidate.

So what specifically can candidates do to make themselves stand out? What follows are several suggestions along with some cautionary tales.

1. Cover letters matter a great deal. Committees remember well-written, interesting and even inspiring letters in which candidates describe in compelling terms how their experience and credentials translate to the position being sought. Successful letters also explain why the writers are interested in the institution, why they are applying at this moment in their career and why they would be effective.

Such letters document what it is in the candidate’s background that would appeal to the search committee. For instance, if the college has made it clear that it wants its next president to have the capacity to be a successful fundraiser, even if the candidate has never solicited an individual gift, he or she should highlight any relevant experiences, such as writing grant proposals, participating in the cultivation of gifts and speaking to the alumni, prospective students and community groups on behalf of the institution. Candidates should describe any fundraising that they have done as members of nonprofit boards or at previous institutions.

I also recommend that candidates “name their demons,” i.e. that they address in the first few paragraphs of their letter any issues that they anticipate might be of concern to the committee. If they have only been in their current job for two or three years, committees will want to know why they are considering a move. A clear and crisp explanation in such a circumstance is important. If their experience has been only in public institutions and they are applying for a job at a private college (or vice versa), they should explain why they believe they could successfully make that transition and why they think doing so would be desirable. If they have a few years unaccounted for in their c.v., they should briefly explain the reasons for the hiatus. Committees today understand such breaks from professional pursuits, for example, for such personal activities as child-rearing, caring for an ailing relative, traveling, etc.

Writing an excellent letter takes care and time. It demands that candidates learn all that they can about the college or university by reading and thinking about not only the ad and the institutional profile but also pertinent materials on the college’s Web site.

In contrast to letters that are tailored to the position, nothing alienates a committee more than receiving what I think of as a “generic” or “to whom it may concern” letter, i.e. an all-purpose letter that candidates have prepared to send in response to every ad that strikes their fancy (and some that do not). Those of us who serve as search consultants know of a number of perennial candidates whose stock letters arrive usually within a day or two of the ad’s appearance. These letters tend to follow the same pattern. They begin and end with a paragraph that mentions the hiring institution’s name, but in the body of the letter they focus exclusively on their self-perceived strengths and accomplishments without regard to the college or university. Such letters typically end with a reiteration of how much the candidate wants the position.

My own favorite example of the dangers of such an approach came from a candidate who submitted her template by mistake. Her letter of application therefore began:

Dear [name of chair of search committee],
This is to apply for [name of position] at [name of school]. I am sure that I would be a great [name of position] at [name of school]. Indeed, I have spent my life preparing to be [name of position] at [name of school].

This application provided the committee with some welcome comic relief, but its members had no interest in the candidate.

Then there are the candidates who don’t use the “replace” function on their computers when they send variations of the same letter to multiple institutions. Recently, the presidential search committee for what I’ll call X College received a letter of interest which did name X College in the first paragraph but ended by declaring the candidate’s hope to become the next president of an altogether different but competitor college that was also looking for a president. The committee decided that it wanted a president who was attentive to detail.

2. Candidates should also pay attention to their c.v., again tailoring what they include to the position at hand. For example, candidates for administrative positions do not need—in contrast to candidates for a faculty position--to provide a list of every paper they have presented and every conference they’ve attended although they might list a sampling of important ones under such headings as “Selected Presentations” and “Selected Conferences.” They should also understand, especially for administrative searches, that non-academic committee members are accustomed to crisp resumes and will out of hand reject those candidates whose c.v.’s are excessively long. The candidate who submitted a 58 page resume occasioned a good deal of comment but committee members rejected him for having poor judgment, with most admitting that they had stopped reading after the first five pages.

Committees do want to see dates on c.v.’s, and so when candidates omit the dates of their degrees or the positions they’ve held, committee members become distracted trying to figure out those dates. Their assumption is generally that candidates do not want to reveal their ages but the omission of dates attracts more attention that the dates would. Candidates today should be reassured that committees are willing to look at candidates regardless of their age, believing that 60 really is the new 40. In fact, in 2006, 49.3 percent of presidents were 61 or older.

Effective c.v.’s very quickly tell their readers the most salient facts about the candidates: when and where they received their degree and in what area, the positions they’ve held (beginning with their current job and working backwards) and any important professional accomplishments. If applicable, committees want to know for example about fundraising experience and any major grants/gifts received, about how effectively the candidates can tell the story of their institution, about their facility with budgets and about their service to their community. At the same time, the c.v. should not simply re-state the information in the cover letter.

Committees tend to think poorly of candidates who use the term “ABD” in their c.v. as if having done “all but the dissertation” is akin to earning a conferred degree. In this case, more information is better. For example, the c.v. might include a category for “Graduate Work” which notes whether the coursework and/or exams required for a doctorate have been completed, the status of the Ph.D. dissertation and its expected completion date, if there is one.

3. When an ad calls for a list of references, candidates should again think carefully about the nature of the position being sought. For a faculty position, selecting professors and colleagues makes sense. If the position is the chief academic officer, it would again be important to have a few faculty members but also some administrators. If the position is the presidency, then it would be wise to include not only faculty members and senior administrators but also some board members with whom the candidate has worked.

Some candidates seem to believe that if their c.v. includes the names of extremely prominent people, committees will be impressed. They are right, assuming that those prominent people can actually speak knowledgeably about the candidates. Last fall I worked with a candidate who provided a list of nearly twice as many names as the ad requested, most of them major public figures. He had not alerted these references to the fact that they would be called. More than half of them either didn’t remember him at all or remembered meeting him at a conference, in most cases some years ago. Not only did the committee not learn about the quality of his work, they ended up questioning his integrity.

Whether the references are prominent or not, it makes great sense for candidates to ask people permission to list them. It also makes sense for the candidates to provide the reference with a brief description of the job being sought and some insight into why the position attracts them.

4. Search committee members almost always take great pride in their institutions, and they want to hire people who seem genuinely interested in them. Thus, one promising candidate lost support when she told the search committee that she had asked someone to drive her the several hours from her home to the interview so that she could read the materials in the car. Although it turned out that this candidate had previously done her homework, the committee assumed that she had not.

On a more positive note, committees are impressed by candidates who come to interviews expecting not only to be asked questions but who have formulated their own probing questions. In fact, without exception, the successful candidate in every administrative search I’ve done has asked — from the beginning of the process — the most interesting questions. (Note: Candidates in searches facilitated by a consultant should take advantage of the consultant who should be available to them either to answer questions or to find out the answers.)

Finally, candidates should be sure before they accept an invitation to an interview that, barring the unforeseen, they are genuinely interested in the position. This doesn’t mean that they by agreeing to an interview, they are agreeing to take the job, but it does mean that they have come to terms with such critical questions as these: Would my spouse or partner be willing to move to this new location? Does the location work for me? Am I sure that I want to do the work that the position will require?

Sadly, I have seen candidates disqualify themselves because they said things like the following:

  • "I haven’t talked to my spouse about this move, and I’m not sure whether he will be OK with it."
  • "I think that moving will prove to be too much of a problem for our son but if I’m offered the job, my wife and I will think long and hard about it."
  • "I do have a concern about moving to the Midwest since I can’t imagine living anywhere but on one of the coasts."
  • "I’m not sure that I want to be a dean, but I thought that this interview might help me make up my mind."
  • "I probably wouldn’t have come for this interview but the search consultant was so persuasive that here I am."

Being a candidate is hard work. It is time-consuming and often emotionally taxing. Yet, those candidates who see their candidacy as an opportunity to understand a college or university’s story and to tell their own story in a way that attracts the institution often advance to the level of semi-finalist or beyond. In these instances, almost all of them tell me, even if they ultimately are not offered the job, how much they learned through the process about higher education, about the institution in question and most of all about themselves. In the best of all worlds, they and the college have been enriched by their encounter.


Susan Resneck Pierce is president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, president of SRP CONSULTING and senior consultant for Academic-Search, Inc.


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