Beating the Unknown Applicant

I have served on many search committees and have made a lot of hiring decisions over the years.   I have hired some great people and some that didn’t work out.  I have even been involved in searches where we didn’t hire anyone.  This last outcome may seem odd, but it happens more often than you think.  It is especially common in academia, but I also regularly hear from business people that they just can’t find the right people to fill their job openings.

One of the ironies about being an applicant is that sometimes your greatest competitor for a job isn’t the other people in the pool with you. It is the unknown applicant.  That person hasn’t applied, but the decision-makers believe his or her application is just around the corner.  What makes the unknown applicant so formidable is that he or she has all of the qualities the decision-makers want, even when the decision-makers themselves don’t really agree on those qualities. In short, they are perfect for the job. 

You on the other hand, have issues.  This is because as my father once told me (his greatest insight really) everybody’s got issues: You are too experienced or too ambitious, or too quiet, or too risky, or too dynamic, or too straight-forward, or too much like the last guy (who they grew tired of) and made some decisions some people somewhere didn’t like –yep, it is a potentially long list.

So, how do you beat the unknown applicant?

Realize that competition with the unknown applicant isn’t about you: it is about the people hiring you.  The unknown applicant enters the compettion when the hiring committee can’t agree on the most important tasks (three, not forty) that need to be done and the qualities necessary to perform them.  So if during an interview people are telling you very different things about what the job entails or offer only vague responses to your questions about the most salient challenges and expectations, take this as an opportunity to tell them what you think needs to be done based on your prior experiences and why you are the right person to accomplish those tasks.  This may seem presumptious, but if you can lay out your vision for the job in clear and confident manner you can ground the hiring committee in reality and beat the unknown applicant. That candidate, by the way, doesn’t get to address the selection committee in this manner.—it is a huge advantage to you.

If you take this strategy and don’t get the job don’t fret, chances are they didn’t hire the other candidate either.  And you should be happy because until they can agree on what they need, that unknown applicant isn’t going to win the position either -it can’t be won.

2 thoughts on “Beating the Unknown Applicant

  1. Dr. Jarley,

    Great insight and advice as the selection committee process. I am noticing the trend that you describe as several positions that I have been following are now reposted.

    What use to be the norm when it comes to career progression, is no longer the case. Positions that were classified as mid-level before the recession are now turning into entry-level jobs.

    Several companies are now able to get by with temp workers and will hold out till the find the right candidate. Competition is fierce, and employers are working with an abundance supply of qualified candidates. Today, hiring managers are able to be more selective when hiring and can wait. Have you noticed the trend of new job postings? Employers are starting to steer away from the general job description and are out to create a “wish list” of the perfect candidate. They will hold out for the individual whose attributes precisely match the specifications for a position.

    So, what might have worked before will not work today. I had to learn this the hard way after graduate school. A mentor of mine shared with me some great advice that made me re-evaluate my approach to career progression. He said, “People don’t offer you opportunities because they somehow feel you deserve it. They do so because they have a problem and need someone to help them resolve it.” It really is that simple.

    I now follow this approach when conducting my career research in preparation for a job search of the Central Florida area.

    Please reach out and let me know how I can help you. You can contact me here:

    To your success,

    -Angel L. Ramos

    • Hi Angel: Thanks for reaching out. I do think that the soft job market has led employers to be more picky about who they hire….believing that more and better qualified candidates exist than what is in their current pool.

      I really can’t say I see trends, my evidence is too spotty, but one other thing I do think is going on is that employers are looking for people with broader skills and experience sets–combining tasks into one job that used to be done by two or three different people in the name of efficiency. The problem is that it is frequently hard to find people with such diverse skill and experience sets.

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