Stand Out in Your Next Job Interview with ‘Earned Secrets’

Professional woman shaking hands in interview

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If you’ve been invited to campus for a job interview, you likely have a lot in common with the other candidates. Your career path and personality will differ, but it’s safe to say that you’ve met the same requirements and mentioned the same things on your resume or CV that the search committee desires. Here’s the problem: What do you talk about during your interview that will make you stand out from the other candidates?

You might select what’s most impressive about your experiences and weave that into your responses to interview questions. But the committee already read your application materials, and what you might consider “impressive” could be viewed differently by others, even within the specialized disciplines of higher education.

A better approach is not to focus on what you think is impressive, but rather what the employer thinks is ‘relevant.’ You can do this by telling a compelling story about what you can do to solve their problems, improve their outcomes, and serve their students. Where you’ll find relevant information on their needs is on the job description and the institution’s website, but the other candidates are using those as well.

What you need to stand out is an earned secret.

This is a term used by Harvard University instructor Suneel Gupta, author of the book “Backable,” that he learned from venture capitalists and startup founders.

“(An earned secret) is something that you have gone out and you’ve learned that most people probably don’t know,” Gupta said as a guest on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast. “I would underline the word ‘earned,’ (because) you want to show when you walk into a room — whether that be for an interview, whether that be for a product presentation, team presentation, whatever it is — that you had sort of put himself into the story in a way that most people have not because that counts for a lot.”

Putting yourself into the story and earning a secret requires firsthand experience, but that doesn’t mean you’d have to attend the university or even interact closely with people on campus. Firsthand experience for candidates is what they find on their own, as opposed to what is spoon fed to them by a job description or a pitch from the hiring manager saying something like “improving student retention is very important for this role.”

“I want an idea that is based on a surprising insight,” said Hollywood film producer and investor Brian Grazer, who Gupta quoted in “Backable.” “Not something I could find through a Google search.”

The same goes for job candidates researching institutions. Don’t rely on the job description or the obvious places other candidates would search on the university’s website, such as the “About” page or the faculty or dean biographies.

To earn secrets, candidates need to develop the mindset of a secret shopper. A secret shopper is someone who is hired to pose as a customer to experience or report on the quality of service received. It’s also a great approach when preparing for your job interview so that you can answer questions for how a business or organization can improve their product or service.

But how do you do this in higher education? It’s not like a product where you can download an app and test its user experience. And unless you’re interviewing to be a web designer or an admissions counselor at a college or university, becoming a secret shopper of higher education can be difficult beyond what you can obtain on a website or at a college fair.

Before you start cold-calling faculty and administrators, or accosting students walking across the quad to gather intelligence, consider tactful ways to earn your secrets about an institution.

Joseph Barber, senior associate director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Career Services, advises many graduate students and postdocs who are pursuing jobs at colleges and universities. He offers these tips for learning your secrets about an institution before an interview:

Ask Later for Students

Don’t contact students if you are not part of the institution or if you don’t have permission to engage with them outside of an interview, even if your little ad-hoc focus group might seem, to them, like an informal conversation.

“I would consider that to be too much,” Barber said. “It would be confusing to the students, and it would not come across well (if the search committee finds out). Wait until you have the opportunity to engage with students in the formal interview, and if they aren’t (part of the interview), asking for that opportunity sends a positive note that you want to connect with students that you will be engaging with in this role. That, then, is a wonderful opportunity.”

Try Outsiders
Networking is the best way to earn your secrets. Obviously, that means speaking to people you know at the college or university where you’d like to work. But if you don’t know anyone there, try contacting people you know who have similar roles at other institutions.

“Extrapolate from what they can share about that role or that type of role as you’re preparing,” Barber said. “The idea is to learn as much about the institution and the specific roles that you’re applying for.”

Disarm Your Cold Calls
Conversations with people who work at the institution will provide the most relevant information. But should you try to contact someone at the school who you don’t know, even if it comes with a referral? Barber said that is OK, as long as you are upfront with your outreach and being very clear that you are gathering information and not lobbying for your candidacy.

Say something like, “I’m interviewing for this role next week and I would love to learn a little bit more about the organization so that I can make sure that I’m highlighting the best skills that I can bring to this position.”

“That way, there’s no covert aspects about what you’re trying to do,” Barber said. “You can also then say to the person, ‘I understand if it’s not appropriate for you to talk with me because that might influence you or you might be part of the search committee or have some role (in the decision).’ It’s a very disarming statement to say, ‘I’m interviewing, I’m very excited and I’m hoping to get your input because that will help me prepare and bring out my best version of myself. But if you can’t do that, that’s fine, too, and I appreciate your time.'”

Earn What’s Revealed
Finally, earned secrets aren’t just revealed through on-the-job experience or one-on-one conversations. There’s plenty of information online or elsewhere that is available for the public, even if you have to dig deeper than a cursory Google search or what’s easily retrieved on the institution’s webpage.

This could include recordings of conference presentations delivered by members of the search committee. Who wouldn’t be surprised or flattered to have their shared insights from months earlier brought up by a candidate who found them beneficial?

You can also find stories to reference and to gauge perspectives on social media about the institution, or, what Barber recommends, by reading the student newspaper.

“It’s not necessarily a 100% accurate version of what’s going on at an institution, but it gives you the students’ perspectives of what’s going on there,” Barber said. “As long as you know that it’s not the full story, it would be OK to reference that in an interview. That will illustrate that you’ve been proactive in understanding the nature of the organization and some of the possible challenges that might exist. “

Closing Thought
There are many ways to earn secrets that you can use in a job interview, either explicitly citing this knowledge you’ve obtained or by allowing it to shape your story and responses to questions so that they are more relevant to the institution.

“The key is asking yourself when you go into a situation, ‘What’s the sort of typical level of research that people would do to prepare for this moment?'” Gupta said. “It’s figuring out how to go one step further. It could be test driving a competitor’s product, it could be talking to customers, but just doing something that ordinarily most people wouldn’t do.”

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