Advice & News

June 7, 2024

How to Self-Promote Effectively During Your Job Search


Self-promotion is an inevitable part of a job search. It's easy for some applicants to boast about their accomplishments or look at a job posting and think, 'Sure, I can do that.' Others might be more modest and find it difficult to proclaim themselves as the best candidate despite wanting the job and genuinely thinking that it is a logical next step and a good fit for them.

Regardless of how comfortable you are touting yourself or how accurately you measure your abilities compared to a job description, you perform an act of self-promotion simply by sharing your intentions and submitting an application.

But how much hype you bring to your application materials or the interview, well, that could make all the difference in landing a job.

Avoid the Hard Sell

There's no easy answer when it comes to the appropriate level of self-promoting you should do. Success could depend on the tastes of a hiring manager. And it's not always, the more, the better. Quite the opposite: studies have shown that candidates who moderate their self-promotion -- meaning they are more concerned with being seen accurately than positively -- are rated higher than those who don't.

This makes sense if you consider how people respond to other types of promotion. You might become suspicious of companies with advertisements that make repeated, grandiose claims. If someone is making a hard sell, maybe they are compensating for a poor product by overstating its value.

With a job search, employers expect candidates to sell themselves to some degree. After all, if they can't advocate for their own candidacy, how convincing will they be at selling anything on behalf of the institution after they are hired? To quote Robert Louis Stevenson, "Everyone lives by selling something."

Support Your Claims

The best advice for self-promotion typically involves backing up your claims. If you are a "highly motivated servant leader who develops innovative and robust programs," you need to provide evidence of that on your resume or CV. Share data and outcomes. Then, during your interview, be prepared to tell stories and answer behavioral questions ("Tell me about a time when ...") that support your statements.

The same applies to skills-based resumes/CVs that have a bank of keywords at the top to placate applicant tracking systems. Don't include things like "strategic planning" or "accreditation and assessment" without a bullet point elsewhere on your resume/CV mentioning when and how you applied those skills.

More 'We' than 'Me'

A tricky part of self-promotion is how you take credit for accomplishments. An employer can only hire one person, not the entire team who worked on a project that you are describing. Search committees should be interested in assessing what you can do as an individual, but they are also aware that it can be difficult to isolate performance when success depends on others.

There are objective ways to take credit; for example, noting that you were the principal investigator or chaired a committee. But even if you are in charge of a project, you should avoid overusing "I did this" or "I did that" and instead simply state your responsibility and the outcomes.

Your humility will be perceived more favorably, especially when applying for a managerial job or a role that requires teamwork and collaboration. Specialists and solo practitioners should be expected to take credit for their ability to work independently because that's how they will be assessed.

Know Your Audience

There's also a receptor phenomenon when it comes to the effectiveness of your self-promotion. In a study by Alison Fragale and Adam Grant that was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the researchers found that mentally busy audiences awarded more status to self-promoters than not-busy audiences.

"(We) found that self-promotion only paid off when the audience was distracted enough to remember the information but forget the source," Grant wrote in his newsletter. "Otherwise, they saw right through it. If you were that great, you wouldn't need to boast about your greatness."

Participants in their experiment, subject to the high cognitive busyness condition, had only 25 seconds to read each of the applicant's letters before moving on to the next one.

Applicants can take advantage of the "busy brains, boasters' gains" on their cover letters and resumes/CVs, but these benefits are only realized during the screening process. When you are confronted by a captive audience during a job interview, you'll need to dial back your self-promotion and rely on stories and evidence.

In the end, being exact beats exaggeration.

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