How to make your application STAND OUT

What’s in a first impression?


Think of the last person you met or were introduced to.


What was the first thought that popped into your head about this person? Was it a nice thought? 


I sure hope so. But maybe subconsciously you were thinking, “Wow, he’s overdressed for this occasion,” or “She should really kill it with all that perfume.”


When it comes to you as a job seeker, have you ever wondered how you come across in a first impression?  


Lauren Rivera is known as “one of the world's leading experts on hiring.” She works for Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management as a sociologist. In a recent podcast with Adam Grant, called Reinventing the Job Interview, she said that “interviewers make up their minds about who they're going to hire, if they like this candidate in front of them, within the first...usually the data says under 90 seconds.”


How does the way that you carry and talk about yourself affect others' perception of you, especially in moments like this where you need to make a great first impression? Does the way a potential employer perceive you help or hurt their ability to see what you have to offer?


What about with your cover letter and resume – the things that get your foot in the door for a job interview? How do you come across on paper? What do people think as they read your writing – the words you use to describe yourself and your abilities?


I’ve been working in this industry (the helping people find jobs, get hired, and excel at work and in their careers “industry”) for a LOOOOOOOOONG time...and let me tell you, one of the biggest mistakes people make is neglecting to “brand” themselves. That and NETWORK (a.k.a. build relationships so you can get into a company and position where you fit, make a valued contribution, and can continue growing in your career).


(When I say “brand,” I’m not talking about buying a new suit and picking a specific color of tie, though those kinds of things do add to your personal brand..)


Let me put this another way: HOW do you help others see you as unique (because you are!!!), identify your value, and clearly see what it is you have to offer?


It’s through branding yourself!!!


What is branding?


If you took a survey of your friends and family and asked them what they think branding is, you would probably get a lot of different answers. 


When it comes to products and businesses, many people think that logos are brands. While color schemes and font choices are visual attributes of those kinds of brands, they are not the brand itself. The actual “brand” is THE SUBSTANCE behind those things: the brand is the “what” and the “why” behind the “what.”


Why does a product or business exist, and what makes the product or business unique in its offerings to fill a customer’s need? (Knowing these things is a large part of why I advise job seekers to research a company before ever applying to them. Try out their products! And ESPECIALLY before interviewing with them. HOW can you let them know you fit with their mission if you don’t know what their mission is?)


  • Why does their company or product exist?
  • What are they trying to achieve?
  • How are they going about doing it?

For all intents and purposes, I’m going to talk about “you” as a brand today. Your efforts to get a better job and advance your career. And how YOU do that. Since human beings (job seekers!) have brands…you need to identify what your brand is (or better yet, what you want it to be, so that you can create it). 


So then a brand, in your case (as a job seeker) is first to identify what’s your why (your motivation for doing what you do: the specific line of work in the industry you have chosen) and what do you have to offer to meet an employer's needs in a way that is *specific/unique to you? (*Don’t overthink what I mean when I say “unique.” You are unique BECAUSE you are you. Everything you do is unique if you are doing it while using your strengths.)

  • Why do you do the specific line of work you do in the industry you’ve chosen?
  • What do you have to offer to meet an employer’s needs?
  • How do you go about “bringing” that offering?

A brand is literally taking what makes you, you, and why you do the things you do--and “packaging” HOW you share that with the world. 


We package things visually, auditorily, and through writing using images, words, and sounds. 


When I say the name Elon Musk, you think of his brand: his accomplishments come to your mind. You may think he is a creative, imaginative inventor. Or maybe you think he is ruining the gas industry. Whatever you may think/perceive, any experience you’ve had with him (his name and what you associate with it) is part of his brand. 


His brand legitimately is what you and others think of him!


You have power to change the way others perceive you.


When it comes to building your personal brand, it’s important to understand that this encompasses anything that HELPS OR HURTS the way that others perceive you. 


To paraphrase my mentor Dan Martell, your brand includes what people say, think, or feel when they interact with you and your name. 


That means pretty much anything and everything you write, say, and do can either strengthen or hurt your brand.


Run a quick Google and Facebook search of yourself. 

What do you find? Is there anything that needs cleaning up? Get on that, because you can be positive potential employers are using the internet to search up on potential candidates!


If there is something on there that can’t be cleaned up (such as a public record) we can talk more about what to do about those kinds of things in upcoming posts--just shoot me your questions or bring them to the Refer Facebook Group.


Things your brand includes


Because your brand is the overall picture of what people think and feel about you, it includes a lot!


Places to be hyper-aware of your brand during your job search, application, interviewing, and career advancement processes:


  • Cover letters
  • Resumes
  • Application materials
  • Personal website (if you have one)
  • Google search results attached to your name
  • ANY and ALL social media platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
  • References and recommendations
  • Your physical appearance
  • ANYTHING about you available through the internet!

Be aware that your brand exists visually and in writing all over the place.


A word about writing


When it comes to your job search and applying, you want to be pretty specific in the language you use in these materials (cover letters, resumes, and other application materials--portfolios, etc.) Word choice can be everything. Spell check can mean everything. Grammar! Whether you have a professional sounding email address or still the same one from the 10th grade.


Now here’s the thing, we are human beings. Part of me being me is very much the fact that I don’t care about things being perfect all the time (if you catch a typo or find out that I can’t spell so great, let that be a reminder to you!) but when it comes to getting hired, people want to know that you are legit detail-oriented and not gonna be a slob about what you do and produce for them!


Your future employer is going to give you money (and with my help, a good amount of it) so that you can do work for them: convert your energy into something that benefits them. You want them to know that you care, and the “care” that you put into these details helps them know that you care.


What do others say about you, and what do YOU say about you?


The way others talk about you speaks volumes!  (We are talking about your list of references you put on a job application – good side note here: DON’T list your references on your resume! HR will ask for references if they want some..)  Also think about the way people talk about you on social media (are you tagged in public posts that you would want a potential to see or not see?).


Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Venmo, and any other social media attached to your name (things people have tagged you in, things you have in the public domain or published to a public audience, friends/connections you have, and people you choose to follow through these accounts)--you bet the company that is thinking about hiring you is looking this stuff up! 


Be wise, my friends.


A word on physical appearance: your visual brand

So, let’s say we look you up on Facebook right now. What pictures would it pull up for your profile pictures? What would you want your potential future boss to “say, think, or feel” about this?


I’m a big believer in self-expression and personal style, but in reality, a lot of job seekers can really hurt themselves by embracing too much of an extreme in (or the opposite--not putting enough thought into) their physical appearance. What you wear (especially to a job interview or any interaction with a potential employer) is a big deal. 


I have a friend who worked as a recruiter for years. He told me that if a person came in for their interview and was wearing floods, they wouldn’t hire that person. Or if they noticed plaque on their teeth when they talked, or dirt under their finger names when they shook hands – yep, they wouldn’t hire those people either.


To some people, that sounds super harsh, but going back to the point I made above--these people need to know that you care. They need to know that you will take the fact that they will be paying you in exchange for your time, energy, and ideas – seriously. Many employers believe the quickest way to detect if you are the kind of person who cares is through the way you carry yourself (in person, in writing, and on the internet).


How to talk about yourself: so that you can brand yourself


Isn’t it odd that in a world so obsessed with how to succeed in business, that we never actually teach each other HOW to talk about ourselves and our accomplishments? Maybe you were taught this at a young age, but I sure wasn’t. 


I don’t remember any high school or college class on how to present ourselves in a job interview or while networking. For many of us, it almost feels like society believes these things are just meant to happen on the fly, with natural ease.


Talking about yourself in a confident, humble, and unabashed way is actually an art form, and it begins with knowing what to say about yourself.


Here are two exercises I think you should do:


1) Kerry Twigg, a career coach, uses this exercise with clients. It is called “The Career Stories Method.”  


Get some note cards and write out the story of an experience (or more than one experience) that answers this question: “What am I most proud of doing” in school, my previous job, or any other area of experience, for that matter. Leave  what you wrote alone for a time,  then come back and reread it. Flip the note card(s) over and write what strengths you have that were illustrated by that story. [*]


This story, and specifically the strengths it illuminates is something you can and should use to help brand yourself. You can share a reader's digest version of it on a cover letter or in an interview, or talk about the strengths you identified in your LinkedIn About section.


2) Brian Lee, a Forbes contributor wrote an article called How to Brand Yourself Authentically in Six Simple Steps. I really like some of the questions he asked us to ask ourselves. Below are some of those questions.


  • Who is your target audience? (for you, it’s any potential employer or network connection)
  • What value do you bring to them in a way no one else can?
  • What are the key attributes that make people or companies want to work with you?
  • What is consistent about what you bring to the table?
  • What is unique about your personality or style of working?
  • How can you use that to make an impact?

The answers to these questions are personal to you! And the examples you have from your life and work experiences can really bring the answers to life! (As Kerry Twigg taught in the above exercise.)


Take what you have just discovered about yourself and write a personal mission statement. 


Debbie Millman, a professor of Branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City has her students do this. She feels that a mission statement should share what unique benefit you have to offer to your industry.


I have a friend who is a wellness coach. Her personal mission statement is “I empower busy professionals with knowledge and skills to live happy, healthy lives.” She's good at coaching because she is relatable and realistic with her clients (she knows they are busy!). 

When Debbie was entering the workforce as a graphic designer years ago, her mission statement was “I seek to make the supermarket more beautiful.” [*


One version of my mission statement is “I mentor underdog job seekers in building successful careers.”  For me, I define successful careers as meaningful work, good money, and work/life balance. The way I do this: I use my knowledge, skills, and creativity to help them get into jobs and industries they previously only dreamed about.

Now, you are equipped with the language to talk about yourself--your strengths, your experiences, and your unique ability/way of contributing. ALL OF THIS can now be used in the way you write your application materials--including cover letters, resumes, etc, but don’t stop there!!!


Take what you have now put into words and tangible examples about yourself and build your public image side of your brand.


Places and ways to branding yourself and public image:


#1  Look up the profiles of successful professionals that you admire on LinkedIn, Facebook,Twitter and other social platforms. Take notes on what things they are doing in their profiles that you like (the way they say things, etc.). These “example profiles” should include something I call Career Spirit Animals (the people who have the career/job you want with the type of companies you want to work for). See what elements they incorporate into their professional profiles, and think of how you can do the same!


#2  Write your elevator pitch.


#3  Use your elevator pitch, personal mission statement, and the elements you learned about from other’s profiles to start or update your LinkedIn profile [writing a compelling About section that helps visitors (potential employers, recruiters, and other professional connections) to get a feel for who you are, what motivates you, and what value you have to offer in your chosen profession and industry]. Update your other social accounts – being consistent in the “brand” you portray across multiple platforms is important! 


#4  Update your professional outfit. Make sure that your clothing reflects the brand you are trying to portray. (This one alone could be its own blog post. If that would help you, tell us in the Refer Facebook Group!)


#5  Be honest with yourself about your hair (including facial hair), make-up, nails, general appearance, etc.--and if they reflect the right image you are going for. Does your physical brand say what you want it to say?


#6  Once you’ve updated your outfit and physical appearance, get a professional headshot taken (if you can’t afford this, get in some good lighting and have someone take the best shot they can of you with their smartphone).  Choose plain/simple backgrounds. 


[This article can get you started on the basics of using a smartphone to take a headshot. Personally, I would choose only VERY simple backgrounds (i wouldn’t use the bookcase like they did – it’s still too distracting). Keep the attention on your face! Whoever is taking the picture, have them back up and then use the zoom feature so your face proportions don’t get distorted by them being too close to you when they take the picture. Smiling is most likable! Great article on different ways to smile for a professional headshot.)


#7  Select a cover photo. In that linked article the author poses this question: “Is there a certain image that would resonate with new connections or hiring managers in your current industry?” My advice to you would be to use a photo that clearly illustrates what you do! 


When it comes to trying to pick what type of image to use for a cover photo, I tell people “show, don’t tell.” If I could see a picture of you running the booth at the tradeshow, or you greeting volunteers at your company service event you organized, or you working with your team storyboarding in a meeting – these images create a stronger emotional response in the viewer than you picking some random stock photo of skyscrapers because you work in the middle of the city.. or a random picture that doesn’t directly relate to what you actually do. 


This approach may take a bit more thought and creativity, but in the long run, it will help you build a much stronger visual brand and connection to you for your network (potential employers, recruiters, professional connections you make).


Now take these images (your new headshot and cover photo) and use them to update your LinkedIn and other social media account profiles. 


Be consistent and authentic in your brand.


The goal is to create consistency in the way you present yourself. The goal is also to be authentic. No need to try and be something that you are not (that equals a hollow brand, and people feel that when they read your writing and interact with you).


In closing, here is a quote from the Adam Grant WorkLife podcast I referred to at the beginning: “Candidates try to tell interviewers what they want to hear. Actually faking is more common than lying. Faking is stretching the truth to enhance or protect your image, or to ingratiate yourself with the interviewer. As Chris Rock says, ‘Interviewers aren't meeting you, they're meeting your representative.’ There's evidence that when college seniors interview for jobs, over 90 percent of them engage in faking.” 


I’ve read my share of job applications, cover letters, resumes, and LinkedIn profiles and conducted tons of interviews over my years in this industry. I’m here to tell you, and echo Chris Rock: people aren’t interested in meeting your representative. Today’s world of work needs the real you! And I guarantee we are going to find you the right place where you fit and can share your unique benefits with the world that needs YOU!

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Ryan Kay

Helping people get the career of their dreams!

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