Managing Subconscious Messages in Your Job Search

Sometimes you can use them to your benefit, writes Joseph Barber, and other times you want to make sure they don't disadvantage you.

August 12, 2019
 
 
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The career exploration and job search processes are very active, fully conscious experiences. They require you to be intentional and proactive, and to communicate your career goals in direct ways to yourself (yes, sometimes you still need convincing, too) and others.

But throughout those processes, you should also pay attention to communication that happens at a more subconscious level. Sometimes you can use it to your benefit; other times, you want to make sure that it doesn’t disadvantage you. I’ll provide some examples.

Networking. When you reach out to someone to request an informational interview -- an opportunity to learn generally about their job and how they got where they are -- they may say yes for a number of different reasons:

  1. They are an awfully nice person and love chatting with new people.
  2. They benefited from someone helping them in a similar way in the past and are happy to pay it forward with you.
  3. They are actually looking for a possible candidate for a role that might match your experiences and interests.
  4. Someone whom they admire or like has recommended them to you as a great person to speak with.

Points No. 1 to No. 3 are specific to your contact’s needs and interests, so you won’t have any influence there. Point No. 4 involves an external party, however, and that creates a situation where you can have an impact. If you can reach out to a contact and bring a third party into your introduction -- for example, “Julie says that you will be a good person to reach out to with my questions” -- then you are giving your new contact a good reason to respond. They probably don’t want to lose any of the social reputation they now feel that they have, albeit at a subconscious level. After all, if Julie recommends them as a great person to talk with, she can also change her opinion if she hears that they don’t actually take the time to chat to the people whom she recommends.

Leveraging this type of subconscious social pressure by reaching out to people you know so that you can then reach out to people that they know is an effective networking strategy. This won’t guarantee that people will respond to you, but it certainly increases the likelihood that they will.

Résumés. Most of the résumés you send when applying for jobs will first be read by applicant tracking software that matches your keywords to those from the job description to determine whether or not to pass your application on to an actual human. Those robots are just doing their tasks in an objective manner without any subconscious motives to worry about. But when your résumé makes it through to an actual person, thanks to all of the customizing you did before submitting it, you should once again consider how your language and formatting might influence what they think about you.

Small fonts and margins in your résumé, or a lack of any white space in it, will make it feel cramped, slightly intimidating and possibly overwhelming -- not messages you want to get across. At the other extreme, résumés with too much spacing between lines, excessive margins and overly large fonts -- all spread out over multiple pages -- will make it hard for the reader to picture all your experiences at once. It will feel as if you are communicating too slowly and inefficiently. So be careful about the subconscious messages your résumé sends simply by how it looks.

You should also give thought to the experience section of the résumé. If you call it “Work Experience,” you may be limiting what you describe to formal, paid positions. But if you call it “Relevant Experience,” you create a subconscious signal to the reader that what they will read is relevant to them. (Make sure it is.) What’s more, you can include experiences that are not purely employment related. For example, you can talk about your research as a student or postdoc, an independent project you worked on with outside collaborators, or the role you played as part of a student group or club. As long as the skills you are illustrating are relevant to the job, then those different experiences can be concentrated in that one section.

Occasionally, people will create a section in their resume called “Other Experience.” The term “other” doesn’t leave the reader with much in the way of exciting imagery to associate with those experiences or skills. Indeed, if the writer doesn’t know what they represent, then the reader is going to have a much harder time deciphering the value of what feels a little like a “stuff” section.

When it comes to writing bullet points in the résumé, a commonly used phrase to describe experiences is “Responsible for,” as in “Responsible for coordinating a 300-person professional development event in coordination with four local universities.” The challenge with that phrasing is that the reader has a couple of options as to what they will take away from it. If they, and their subconscious, are feeling generally optimistic, then they may feel that you have successfully taken on lots of responsibility -- which is a positive. But if they are feeling more pessimistic, they may note that, while you were responsible for doing this, you didn’t actually state that you did it. Yes, you were meant to have done it, but that is not quite the same thing.

A more direct approach that minimizes the chance for alternative (and possibly less positive) meanings is to focus on the actual skill you used and how successful it was: “Coordinated a 300-person professional development event in collaboration with senior administrators at four local universities, bringing in 14 employers and 22 alumni.”

Also, overusing verbs such as “helped,” “participated in” and “worked on” will create a less tangible image of you in the mind of the reader, as it’s hard to picture exactly what you may have been doing. For example, what specific images do these bulleted items create in your mind?

  • Worked on key projects that resulted in 20 percent increase in revenue.
  • Participated in group projects related to research and development.

Interviews. You’ll want to be the most confident version of yourself during job interviews. One way to communicate confidence at the subconscious level is to ensure that your answers have strong beginnings and endings. This is a common beginning of an answer people give to questions I pose in mock interviews: “Um … I think …”

Both of these utterances drain the impact that your answer will have. Here are some better responses:

  • “Yes, I …”
  • “That’s a great question. I …”
  • “I was actually thinking about this question this morning, and I …”

The questions you will ask during an interview are also important (because you are definitely going to ask some questions, right?), and should be framed from an optimistic standpoint. Some students are tempted to ask a positive/negative question, such as, “What are some of the best and worst part of this job/employer?”

That might be a question better suited for an informational interview than a job interview. In a job interview, none of your interviewers are likely to want to paint the job or their company in a negative light, so you won’t get valid information anyway. Rather, making people think about the negative aspects of their work life will cause them to subconsciously experience a wave of negative emotional states -- and perhaps then associate you with those states, since you were the one who triggered them. As the interviewers gather to discuss the final candidates, any negative feelings associated with you, even at a subconscious level, are not going to help your cause.

I’ve seen advice that asking “What does an ideal candidate look like from your perspective?” at the end of the interview gives you a last chance to convince the interviewer that you can be that candidate. Maybe, but you also run the risk that the interviewer, by answering the question, suddenly creates an ideal image in their head that no longer matches you and your skills and experiences. Asking this question may, in fact, undo some of your hard work from the interview and leave the interviewer wishing for more -- even if they had thought you could do the job based on what you had said just moments before. Thus, you should probably skip this question and instead spend the interview providing illustrations of your skills in use so that they can see the value you will bring.

Finally, asking questions that force your interviewer to do some of your work for you will also leave them feeling a little deflated about the experience. So avoid, for example, “What questions haven’t I asked that you think it would be important for me to ask?”

In sum, the job search process is a great time for you to market the best, most confident version of yourself with dynamic examples, lots of energy and good dose of optimism. Doing that in the right way will ensure you leave the best impression on both the conscious and subconscious minds of your future employers.

Bio

Joseph Barber is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate Career Consortium logoand a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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