Application and Admission

“Which is better to write about?” My grandson Noah was struggling with his college applications last month. “My most significant accomplishment or what I can add to the diversity of the college?”

Fortunately, he wasn’t asking me about it. My daughter Beth was the first to respond; she’d been there four years ago with Noah’s older brother, Andrew. Then several uncles and aunts weighed in over several weeks to tell of their experiences in the process. There’s nothing like taking the water temperature before jumping in.

Finally Noah called me this week. He’d been working up to this. “Papa,” he said, “you were a college admissions officer. What do I need to know?”

Dipping very deep into the memory bank, I provided Noah with my best “here’s what it takes” summary that I used to share with prospective students eons ago. Knowing that his essay will be well-honed as will his positioning strategy, and that his resume – grades, scores, extra-curricular activities, etc. – is very competitive, I did my best to be encouraging but realistic. On paper, and in person, he looks great.

But I’m missing one crucial element: context. I have no idea of the qualifications that any other contemporary candidate brings to the admissions process. And that, I tell my grandchildren now, just as I did their parents at their age, is why no one outside the admissions committee can really anticipate the results, much less understand many of the decisions. And it’s why I’ve told Noah that his best strategy is to put his best self forward by simply being honest. That way, it’s the real Noah who’s being evaluated, and there will be no cause for second-guessing (“what should I have done differently?”) in April.

Noah is one of more than four million students applying for U.S. college entrance in 2013. Presumably most of them are working to present their “best selves,” responding to what they think the colleges are “looking for” in the admissions process. The majority of them succeed in getting admitted – somewhere – which means that they’ve fulfilled a college’s application requirements.

But somehow, during the next four to ten years, they forget how the game is played. Consider…

Two weeks ago, I spent a few hours reading 130 “applications” for the position of Senior Accountant for one of my clients. The posting that I had written for the Internet job boards had produced a strong return, but the numbers were deceptive. The quality simply was not evident among most of the respondents.

At base, what we were seeking was a person who would:

  • Handle all of the basic accounting for a growing $6MM software firm;
  • Oversee A/R, A/P, payroll, cash management, etc.;
  • Produce fully-reconciled monthly financial statements and variance analysis;
  • Maintain capital asset records;
  • Assist in budgeting; and
  • Support the annual review process with the outside auditors.

This person’s qualifications would include:

  • B.S. in Accounting;
  • 5 + years of general accounting work;
  • Experience maintaining a full set of books in a smaller company; and
  • Solid competence in QuickBooks (or equivalent) and Excel.

We also provided a list of desirable personal qualities, summarized in this bold-faced statement near the top of the posting: “If you’re a hard-charging, hard-working, upwardly mobile, independent and creative problem-solver, we want you!”

We then listed the many reasons why they might want us, including the fact that “our technology is beginning to change the lives of people in the U.S.,” plus excellent compensation and benefits, easy public transit access in Cambridge, and free off-street parking.

After requesting a resume and a cover letter, here’s what we received among the 130 replies:

  • 58 candidates simply punched the Send button to forward their standard on-file job board resume without even a simple email message.
  • 47 others provided an email message of a few lines, not at all customized for the particular job.
  • 14 included a cover letter of the “Dear HR Director” variety without reference to any specific aspects of the job or the company.
  • 11 personalized or customized their cover letters, but of these only 6 referenced their qualifications vs. our list, and only 3 seemed to have tailored their resumes toward our requirements.

The net of this process is that I selected five (5!) people out of 130 for follow-up, one of whom was a person whose resume by itself was sufficiently interesting that I subsequently requested and received a good cover letter. I know that there was more talent in that 130-person pool than was readily evident, but if the resumes and occasional cover letter didn’t meet most of my criteria in the first 30-second pass, it was on to the next. I didn’t have the time to speculate on it, any more than overworked college admissions officers do during their long winter’s nights.

So what’s the answer for managers?

It’s simple. When you get a live one, you pounce! This means that you have to be reading those incoming resumes every day with your criteria firmly in mind, and responding immediately to those who pass your bar. In assessing accounting candidates, here’s what I screen for in the first 30 seconds:

  • Personalization – Did they give me more than a canned response? To what extent?
  • Responding in full – Did they include a cover letter with evidence of the personal characteristics commonly associated with a “hard-charger”?
  • Small company background – Was there a statement of the size and industry of each employer? Is there evidence of upward progression in job scope?
  • Full-charge accounting – Did they have primary responsibility for producing full financial statements with analyzed variances?
  • Education – Is the accounting degree in evidence? What else indicates a commitment to self-improvement?

Once they’re over that bar, I get involved. And what really sells me is (1.) a resume that includes accomplishments (PAR: Problem-Action-Response) rather than just a series of job descriptions and (2.) a cover letter that references our web site and states clearly what the candidate will contribute to my client’s company.

It’s no different than what competitive colleges ask for and, for the most part, receive. In fact, if more candidates took the approach to the job search that they did to the college admissions process, I might actually read those 130 resumes.

Keep that in mind in four years, Noah, when you’re entering the job market.