How to Tell Your Story Without a Self-Evaluation

Candidates who don’t interview well often lament, “I just don’t like talking about myself.” A positive self-evaluation can be challenging for those of us who are self-effacing. Especially in higher education, there are many professionals who would rather talk about their area of ‚Äč‚Äčexpertise or the students they serve.

In a job interview, talking about yourself is unavoidable. Hiring managers are going to ask what you think about yourself.

Maybe they shouldn’t.

Bob Corlett, president of the executive search firm Staffing Advisors, suggests that employers can prevent hiring the wrong candidate by avoiding one question. “Stop asking candidates to evaluate their own abilities,” he writes in The Business Journals.

Corlett cites the Dunning-Kruger Effect. According to this theory, developed by two Cornell University psychology professors in 1999, a gap between self-assessment and actual ability grows towards the lower end of the ability scale. A cognitive bias exists where incompetent people think they’re much better than they actually are, and, to a lesser extent, highly competent individuals tend to underestimate their ability, thinking their peers also perform well.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect gets a lot of traction on the Internet to explain why an arrogant gasbag with a flimsy resume got hired over a more qualified, reticent candidate. Some of the ire is misplaced. Dunning-Kruger doesn’t claim incompetent people have a superiority complex, just that incompetent people think they’re better than they actually are.

Employers shouldn’t rely on all the subjective information they hear from candidates, like rating their skills on a scale from 1 to 10 or describing their “good leadership qualities” and their abilities as a “very effective educator” or a “great team player” .”

Unfortunately, most employers have not found a way around asking interviewees for a self-assessment, meaning that you still need to objectively — and convincingly — communicate your skills and your ability to do the job.

“No matter how wonderful and fulfilling your body of work is, if you want people to believe in it, act on it, be moved by it, or buy it, you must shape it into a cohesive narrative and tell powerful stories,” writes Pamela Slim in her book, “Body of Work.”

While braggadocio requires a silver tongue, credibility and powerful storytelling can be accomplished by anyone, even the excessively modest, if you can identify the parts of the story. In Slim’s book she points to the five questions that career coach Louise Garver uses to build a client’s story. The parenthetical examples have been added for higher education professionals.

  1. What was the situation/problem you walked into that needed to be addressed? (The pain points of the previous institution where you worked, like enrollment deficits or underdeveloped curriculum.)
  2. What did you do about it? (Your action steps, like a marketing plan, committee work or teaching techniques.)
  3. What were the results? (Quantify with monetary value, students’ GPAs, students’ job placement rates, etc.)
  4. What was the strategic impact on the company (institution)? (New programs or majors added, the institution’s standing in the marketplace or increased growth capacity.)
  5. What skills and strengths did you identify in your story? (Project management, critical thinking, problem solving.)

Once you have answered questions 1-4, your answer to the fifth question will seem more credible and objective to the interviewer. That’s because you just built your own success story instead of a subjective self-evaluation.

If you don’t like talking about yourself, that may have seemed easier than you first thought. You just may be highly competent.

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