Drew C. Appleby, PhD
Professor Emeritus of Psychology
Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis
How can I promote my knowledge, skills, and characteristics (KSCs)
during the hiring process so a potential employer will decide that my KSCs
are a better match for the position for which I am applying
than the KSCs of any other applicant?
In the first three installments of this series, I have done my best to make the point that psychology majors can prepare themselves for a successful career in business by introducing and explaining the following aspects of their employability.
- Actual Employability: Many psychology majors actually are employed in business careers.
- Specific Employability: Psychology majors can enter many different areas of business such as management, sales, finance, advertising, marketing, and public relations.
- Potential Employability: The knowledge, skills, and characteristics (KSCs) necessary to successfully prepare for and enter these specific careers are the same as those that psychology majors can acquire.
- Strategic Employability: There are a series of strategies psychology majors can use to develop these KSCs by taking full advantage of both the curricular and extracurricular opportunities their undergraduate education in psychology provides.
In this installment, I am going to introduce you to what I call Promotional Employability, which refers to the methods you can use to promote yourself during the job search process that will enable you to convince potential employers that you possess the KSCs they value in new college hires.
The word promotional in Promotional Employability refers to the self-promoting strategies you must use during the hiring process to convince potential employers to hire you. A good way to begin to understand the importance of this employability concept is to read a very informative article titled “I Majored in Psychology—Now What?” (I Majored in, n.d.). The following section of this article conveys a very important message that job-seeking psychology majors have probably never heard in any of their psychology classes, unless they have taken a class like my B103 Orientation to a Psychology Major.
Until You Are Employed, You Are in Sales
With a bachelor’s degree, getting one’s proverbial foot in the door of most institutions requires connections or creativity; usually both. Although the notion that your first job is to sell yourself to potential employers is not academically driven, it’s a fact of life. Get used to it and embrace it. Your future depends upon it.
Promotional Employability involves an “advertising” stage, in which you bring your qualifications to the attention of an employer in a positive manner, and a “sales” stage, during which you do your best to convince an employer to hire you because your qualifications are better than any of the other applicants for the job for which you are applying. I would like to increase the relevance of these two processes for you by asking you to imagine that you and 99 other people have applied for a particularly attractive job. All of you have completed the first stage of this process by sending the employer a cover letter and a resumé to advertise your qualifications. The employer has evaluated these 100 documents and used the results of her evaluation to eliminate all of the applicants except the four she believes are the most qualified “on paper” for the job—and you are one of these four.
Congratulations, you have accomplished the first stage of the two-stage promotional process by using your cover letter and resumé to “advertise” yourself so successfully that she has decided you are more qualified for the job than 96% of the other applicants. Now you must begin the second stage of the hiring process by preparing yourself for the interview during which you will attempt to “sell” yourself to her so successfully that you are the only one of the remaining four candidates whose interview ends with the words “You’re hired.” I hope this imaginary scenario—in which I fully expect you will find yourself in the future—helps you grasp the crucial importance of your ability to both advertise and sell yourself during the hiring process so you can maximize your Promotional Employability.
Unfortunately, I have neither the expertise—nor the space in this article—to provide you with all the information and guidance you will need to write an effective cover letter, create a strong resumé, and provide effective answers to challenging interview questions. However, I can give you some good examples of the first two of these three promotional strategies and refer you to those whose professional expertise makes them far more qualified than I am to help you with all three of these strategies. The others to whom I am referring are the professional academic advisors in your department and the career counselors in your career center.
But first, I want to provide you with a piece of advice about how not to approach these experts when you need their assistance. DO NOT wait until the last minute to seek their help with these promotional strategies. To help you fully comprehend the tragic consequences of this kind of procrastination, I want you to imagine the expression of utter horror on the face of the career counselor into whose office you have entered for the first time at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon with the following request.
Hi! I’m Chris Jones, I’m graduating next week, and I just found the PERFECT job. But the application deadline is tomorrow, and I just discovered I need a cover letter and resumé to apply. I know you’re busy, but do you have a few minutes to help me write them? I REALLY want this job!
My best advice to you is to make an appointment with both a professional academic advisor and a career counselor when you are a first-year student so you can (a) become aware of the ways in which they can help you prepare for a career in business and then (b) use the rest of your college career to work with them to avoid putting yourself into the same unfortunate situation that Chris Jones experienced. If you are no longer a first-year student, make these appointments as soon as you can because you are already behind schedule. The farther behind you get, the less time you will have to become aware of, understand, and successfully create the promotional strategies you will need to succeed in the job market. Please use the information in the following three sections to help you with each of these three strategies.
Your Cover Letter
No matter how impressive your resumé is, you cannot send it without some sort of introduction, which comes most often in the form of a cover letter. This letter should be succinct and to the point, but should also provide those who read it with very clear answers to the three following questions.
- Who are you?
- What specific job are you seeking?
- Why does the information contained in your resumé make you a very strong candidate for the particular job for which you are applying?
I have created an online career advising poster that contains a sample cover letter and resumé (https://psichi.com/CareerAdvisingPoster) with the expert assistance of Dr. Lance Erickson (the Director of Idaho State University’s Career Center) and Rasháanda Cook (an experienced Human Resources Consultant and Job Coach) to help you get started on this challenging process. Please feel free to use them as templates to begin the process of creating your own cover letter and resumé by capturing their contents and then replacing Kristen’s name, contact information, education, work experience, and skills with your own. As you do this, be sure to choose a specific type of job for which you would like to apply in your cover letter and then use the information I have provided you thus far in this series to begin the process of creating a resumé that contains the KSCs required for that specific type of job, the ways in which you will acquire these KSCs, and any positive outcomes these KSCs produced. This process will provide you with a way of evaluating how close you are to
- identifying a specific job you would like to enter,
- possessing the KSCs you will need to enter and succeed in this job, and
- being able to persuade a potential employer that you are the best qualified person for this job.
BTW: If you prefer to receive my cover letter and resumé as Word documents, please send me a request at email@example.com.
SIDEBAR: An Important Heads-Up
Be absolutely certain that your letter contains no spelling, grammar, capitalization, or punctuational errors. This is crucially important because, as you remember from Part II of this series on Potential Employability, one of the “Attributes of Primary Importance for Psychology Majors Who Are Preparing to Enter a Career in Business” is knowledge of the English language, which was reported as important for success in 96% of the business careers I listed in the Specific Employability section. Because this attribute requires you to know the “meaning and spelling of words, rules of composition, and grammar,” it is obvious that your inability to demonstrate this knowledge in your cover letter will immediately doom your application to the rejection pile. Your cover letter provides you with a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate your competence. Do not allow it to become a disastrous demonstration of your inability to communicate in a professional manner.
The word resumé comes from the French word for summary, and that is exactly what it is, a summary of your career objectives, your educational and work experiences, and the KSCs you have acquired from these experiences that qualify you for the particular job for which you are applying. If you have never written a resumé before, it may seem unnatural—and perhaps even a little uncomfortable—to write about yourself. Keep in mind that you are not bragging in your resumé. You are simply attempting to give a person who does not know you an honest, accurate, and realistic idea of who you are, the job you want, and the reasons why you believe you are qualified for that job. If you focus on your goals and objectives as you begin the resumé writing process, you will be fine. You may even discover you enjoy writing about yourself as you reflect upon what you have accomplished so far in your life.
You should be aware of the many important details of the resumé-writing process before you send your first resumé to an employer for whom you want to work. Your professional academic advisor and career counselor are your most important partners in the creation of this crucial document. They can provide you with guidance about writing an objective statement, formatting, word choice, length, and all the other important aspects of a successful resumé.
If you would like to get a head start on this process before you meet with your advisor or counselor, I suggest you read the very useful and very comprehensive Guide to Resumés available from the University of Missouri Career Center (n.d.) at https://hiremizzoutigers.missouri.edu/wp-content/uploads/guide-to-resumes.pdf. The first page of this resource distinguishes between the two most common types of resumés in the following manner.
The chronological resumé is the most traditional type of resumé people use. The Work Experience section is set up so that the most recently held position is listed first. The jobs then are listed in reverse chronological order, ending with the least recent job held. The advantages of using this format are that it allows you to directly show what you did in each position.
The functional resumé highlights the skills and abilities that you have gained from not only your work experience, but also any extracurricular activities and volunteer involvement. This format does not focus on dates or positions, but on accomplishments and skills you have acquired.
Unless you have been employed in a number of jobs that are related to the position for which you are applying, the functional (i.e., skills-based) resumé will be more appropriate for you. This format allows you to highlight the skills you have acquired during both the curricular (e.g., classes) and extracurricular (e.g., internships) components of your undergraduate education as well as those you acquired during your work experiences.
The academic advising poster I mentioned in the previous section also contains a sample functional resumé to accompany its cover letter. A good strategy would be to replace all of Kristen’s information with your own, and then e-mail both documents as attachments to your advisor or counselor at least a week before you have your first meeting about cover letters and resumés. I can almost guarantee that you will be greeted with a great big smile, instead of the horrified expression that Chris Jones received.
Authentic and Hubristic Pride
BTW: Some of my B103 students responded negatively when I introduced them to the concept of “self-promotion” because it implied a sense of self-importance or false pride that was considered inappropriate by their families, religions, or cultures. Some even reported that it would be interpreted as “bragging” because it would be used to prove that they were “better” than other people. For some, this belief was a demoralizing impediment to their success in the highly competitive process of obtaining a job, especially for those whose upbringing valued cooperation more than competition.
Although I am sure I was not always successful in my attempts to help these students overcome this dilemma, my approach was to refer them to a fascinating article by Tracy and Robbins (2007) that distinguished between two types of pride. These authors use the term authentic pride to describe people whose confidence is a natural result of their accomplishments, and they use the term hubristic pride in their description of less successful people whose lack of confidence can cause them to engage in self-aggrandizing, arrogant, and sometimes dishonest behaviors in an attempt to prove they are superior to others when they have no actual proof of their superiority. In other words, this second type of pride is nothing more than a trick to deceive others when you are trying to impress them.
In a hiring situation, this would occur if you include false information in your resumé or during your interview in order to be perceived as the best candidate for a job. I used this distinction to help my students understand that there is no fault in displaying authentic pride, which requires you to know what you must do to prepare for your future, be willing and able to do this, and then communicate what you have done in a honest and accurate manner to those who can help you to enter the career you want. Hubristic pride is another story entirely. If it involves providing potential employers with false information about yourself, it can lead to some very serious consequences (Kreps, 2015).
References Available Upon Request is the last line on Kristen’s resumé. Some employers will request references and some will not, but it is wise to give them the opportunity to do so. If they do want to contact your references, be ready to provide them with your references’ full names and titles, their complete contact information (i.e., phone number, e-mail address, and mailing address), and their relationship with you (e.g., your former teacher or internship/work supervisor).
I have served as a reference for hundreds of my job-seeking students, most often in the form of a telephone conversation, next most often by completing an online evaluation form, and least often by writing a letter of recommendation. As you think about how to choose the people who will serve as your references, please keep the following questions in mind.
- How well do they know you?
- Will what they say about you be perceived as credible and objective?
- Can they provide strong evidence that you possess the KSCs that are necessary for the job for which you are applying?
These three questions should bring your attention to the importance of doing everything you can to help your potential references provide you with strong recommendations. Choose them carefully, e-mail them a copy of your resumé so they can have it in front of them when they are called to provide a reference, and when you believe an employer will contact them, give them a heads-up so they can be prepared to provide you with the strongest recommendation they can. Do not be shy about asking them to provide support for your possession of the specific KSCs that are particularly important for the job for which you are applying. They want to help you get that job, so give them all the help they need to do so.
The creation of a well-written cover letter and resumé—and strong support from your references—can help you to be included in the small set of most highly qualified applicants for a job, but these documents cannot guarantee that you will be hired. The final stage of the hiring process is a face-to-face conversation with a potential employer during which you will attempt to promote (i.e., “sell”) your KSCs in such a clear, confident, and convincing manner that this person decides to hire you.
This conversation, of course, is an interview and, for the vast majority of job applicants, it is the most anxiety-producing part of the entire application process. Once again, my advice is to utilize the expertise of both a professional advisor and a career counselor as you prepare yourself to become a successful interviewee. These individuals can provide you with valuable advice about (a) how to dress for and behave—and how not to dress for and behave—during an interview, (b) the types of questions you may be asked and the best ways to answer these questions, and (c) interview follow-up strategies to increase the probability that you will be hired. They can also provide you with the opportunity to engage in “mock” interviews and provide you with critiques of your performance so your real interview is as successful as possible.
It is my firm belief that you can use the information I have shared with you thus far in this series of articles to provide clear, correct, and convincing answers to the questions you may be asked during an interview. I believe this because the people who are going to be interviewing you will be very interested in why you chose to use a psychology major to prepare yourself for a business career rather than taking the more usual route of majoring in business. Do you remember the following information that appeared in Part I of this series??
- If the activities and outcomes contained in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of business (i.e., “the activity of making, buying, or selling goods or providing services in exchange for money.”) sound interesting and rewarding to you, I would like to introduce you to six important “employability concepts”—and their defining questions—so you can begin to understand how each of these concepts will play a crucial role in your ability to attain a successful and rewarding business career. Your next step should be to use the information in this series to create persuasive answers—both for yourself and important others in your life (e.g., parents, spouses, teachers, advisors, and potential employers) to their corresponding questions about your future “employability” in a particular field of business. Once you construct your answers, your next step should be to practice them until you develop the confidence to give them in a clear and convincing manner when you are challenged by those—including yourself—who may sometimes doubt the wisdom of your choice of psychology as your major and business as your intended career (para. 9).
Although it will probably not happen during all your interviews, it is safe to assume that you will also be challenged by at least some of your potential employers because they may doubt the wisdom of your choice of psychology as your major and business as your intended career. They may do this by asking you one or more of the following challenging questions.
- If you want to pursue a business career, why didn’t you major in business?
- How did you use your psychology major to prepare yourself for a business career?
- If you had it to do all over again, would you still decide to major in psychology?
Do you believe that you are now in a better position to provide clear, confident, and convincing answers to these questions than you were before you began reading this series? If your answer to this question is yes, then you have made me feel that the time and energy I have expended in the creation of this series has been well-spent.
Advice From Successfully Employed Psychology Majors
Many years ago, I created and hosted the Central Indiana Jobs in Psychology Conference to which I invited the chairpersons of the psychology departments from all the colleges and universities in the Indianapolis area. I asked each of them to bring one of their alumni who had used a bachelor’s degree to obtain a successful career. I took very careful notes as each of these alumni spoke to a large audience of highly appreciative job-seeking psychology majors. After the conference, I summarized these notes into the following suggestions.
- Try to define your specific career goals as early as you can so you have the rest of your undergraduate education to develop the KSCs you will need to accomplish them.
- Don’t be a loner. Develop a network whose members can help you learn about and obtain the job you want.
- Use all the resources available on your campus to help you prepare for and enter your career.
- Start to think about what you want your resumé to look like when you are a first-year student.
- Engage in volunteer work or internships to gain experience and make contacts.
- If you are shy, do everything in your power to overcome your shyness.
- Develop statistical and computer skills.
- Become involved in extracurricular activities, like joining Psi Chi, that will enable you to assume leadership roles such as an officer position.
- Don’t learn things just to pass tests. Learn things so you will be able to apply what you have learned in the job you want to obtain.
- Develop the ability write and speak in a clear and persuasive manner. The only way you can learn these skills is to practice, so take advantage of every opportunity that will enable you to write or speak, especially those that will provide you with feedback to strengthen these crucial skills.
- Learn how to successfully manage both your stress and your time.
- Do things that will convince others you are enthusiastic and motivated so you can rely on them to communicate these valuable characteristics to potential employers in the future.
- Don’t expect a good job to fall into your lap after graduation. Good jobs result from hard work, persistence, and planning.
- Learn to embrace diversity by realizing that the world is full of people who are very different from you. You must learn to work well with different kinds of people if you want to be successful.
If these suggestions from former psychology majors who have successfully obtained jobs with a bachelor’s degree sound familiar, then you have begun to use what I have written in this series to begin the process of transforming yourself into a savvy job-seeking psychology major.
I majored in psychology—Now what? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://careersinpsychology.org/majored-psychology/
Kreps, L. (2015, June 25). The legal risks of lying on your resumé. LegalShield. http://www.shakelaw.com/blog/lying-on-your-resume/
Tracy, J. L., & Robins, R. W. (2007). Emerging insights into the nature and function of pride. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 147–150. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00493.x
University of Missouri Career Center (n.d.). Guide to resumés. Retrieved from https://hiremizzoutigers.missouri.edu/wp-content/uploads/guide-to-resumes.pdf