MONEY Career Strategies

Why Your Potential Could Be More Important Than Your Accomplishments

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The surprising downside to achievement

Conventional wisdom is pretty clear on how to get ahead in one’s professional life. Rack up accomplishments, collect accolades, make your résumé as impressive as possible, we’re told, and rewards will follow. That all sounds nice—but it might not be true. In fact, social science suggests, the key to success might actually be to achieve less while promising more.

That’s the conclusion of a study by professors at Harvard and Stanford, who found that people tend to favor potential over demonstrated results. The researchers discovered that references to potential, such as “this person could win an award for their work,” appear to stimulate greater interest than similar references to actual accomplishments (“this person has won an award for their work”). This tendency, the paper states, “creates a phenomenon whereby the potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing.”

The professors demonstrated as much in a series of experiments in which test subjects were asked to choose between the proven and the possible. In one case, participants were asked to rate two job candidates: one with two years of experience and demonstrated leadership achievement, and the other with no experience but high leadership potential.

Despite the more experienced candidate having objectively superior credentials, subjects preferred the candidate with potential. They also implicitly predicted this candidate would be a better leader in his fifth year on the job than the more experienced candidate would be in his seventh year.

In another experiment, participants read two letters of recommendation for an applicant to a business Ph.D. program. Both versions were nearly identical, but one stressed possible talent (“Mark K. is a student of great potential”), while the other highlighted accomplishment (“Mark K. is a student of great achievement”). Once again, the subjects preferred the applicant with potential.

Why are people so drawn to the possible, even over proven results? The researchers suggest it’s simply a matter of uncertainty being more interesting than a sure thing. “Our finding is that people find potential to be exciting uncertainty,” says Zakary Tormala, one of the study’s authors and a professor at the Stanford School of Business. That makes a candidate with potential more stimulating than a safer choice, and often leads to a more positive impression.

Workers can use this quirk of psychology to their advantage by emphasizing their future value, in addition to past achievements, when applying for a job or asking for a raise. “One of the places we’ve encouraged people to make this happen is in their reference letters,” says Michael Norton, another of the study’s co-authors and professor at Harvard Business School. References “generally talk about what someone has done,” Norton says. “That’s not a bad thing to do, but it’s very important to also talk about their potential.” It can be particularly important for high achieving employees who might be more inclined to stress their accomplishments over their continued capacity for growth.

However, the professor notes, the allure of potential isn’t unlimited. In the recommendation letter experiment, researchers found that participants stopped favoring potential over success when claims of potential lacked sufficient evidence to back them up. Instead, it’s best to highlight a combination of past accomplishments and future possibilities, so no one suspects you’re hype without substance. “A mix is critical,” Norton explains. “There has to be some demonstrated sense that you’ve achieved things.”

Use it right, and our collective preference for potential can do more than get you a better job. Norton says it could also get you a date. “The classic terrible first date is the man drones on about achievements,” the professor jokes. “But if you talk about what you want to do, even if you’re not going to get there, it can be more exciting.”

TIME Business

The Biggest Mistakes I See on Resumes, and How to Correct Them

Google Senior Vice President of People Operations Laszlo Bock attends The New York Times Next New World Conference on June 12, 2014 in San Francisco, California.
Neilson Barnard—Getty Images Google Senior Vice President of People Operations Laszlo Bock attends The New York Times Next New World Conference on June 12, 2014 in San Francisco, California.

Laszlo Bock is the Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google.

"Read your resume from bottom to top: reversing the normal order helps you focus on each line in isolation"

This Influencer post originally appeared on LinkedIn. Follow Laszlo Bock and insights from other top minds in business on LinkedIn.

I’ve sent out hundreds of resumes over my career, applying for just about every kind of job. I’ve personally reviewed more than 20,000 resumes. And at Google we sometimes get more than 50,000 resumes in a single week.

I have seen A LOT of resumes.

Some are brilliant, most are just ok, many are disasters. The toughest part is that for 15 years, I’ve continued to see the same mistakes made again and again by candidates, any one of which can eliminate them from consideration for a job. What’s most depressing is that I can tell from the resumes that many of these are good, even great, people. But in a fiercely competitive labor market, hiring managers don’t need to compromise on quality. All it takes is one small mistake and a manager will reject an otherwise interesting candidate.

I know this is well-worn ground on LinkedIn, but I’m starting here because — I promise you — more than half of you have at least one of these mistakes on your resume. And I’d much rather see folks win jobs than get passed over.

In the interest of helping more candidates make it past that first resume screen, here are the five biggest mistakes I see on resumes.

Mistake 1: Typos. This one seems obvious, but it happens again and again. A 2013 CareerBuilder survey found that 58% of resumes have typos.

In fact, people who tweak their resumes the most carefully can be especially vulnerable to this kind of error, because they often result from going back again and again to fine tune their resumes just one last time. And in doing so, a subject and verb suddenly don’t match up, or a period is left in the wrong place, or a set of dates gets knocked out of alignment. I see this in MBA resumes all the time. Typos are deadly because employers interpret them as a lack of detail-orientation, as a failure to care about quality. The fix?

Read your resume from bottom to top: reversing the normal order helps you focus on each line in isolation. Or have someone else proofread closely for you.

Mistake 2: Length. A good rule of thumb is one page of resume for every ten years of work experience. Hard to fit it all in, right? But a three or four or ten page resume simply won’t get read closely. As Blaise Pascal wrote, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” A crisp, focused resume demonstrates an ability to synthesize, prioritize, and convey the most important information about you. Think about it this way: the *sole* purpose of a resume is to get you an interview. That’s it. It’s not to convince a hiring manager to say “yes” to you (that’s what the interview is for) or to tell your life’s story (that’s what a patient spouse is for). Your resume is a tool that gets you to that first interview. Once you’re in the room, the resume doesn’t matter much. So cut back your resume. It’s too long.

Mistake 3: Formatting. Unless you’re applying for a job such as a designer or artist, your focus should be on making your resume clean and legible. At least ten point font. At least half-inch margins. White paper, black ink. Consistent spacing between lines, columns aligned, your name and contact information on every page. If you can, look at it in both Google Docs and Word, and then attach it to an email and open it as a preview. Formatting can get garbled when moving across platforms. Saving it as a PDF is a good way to go.

Mistake 4: Confidential information. I once received a resume from an applicant working at a top-three consulting firm. This firm had a strict confidentiality policy: client names were never to be shared. On the resume, the candidate wrote: “Consulted to a major software company in Redmond, Washington.” Rejected! There’s an inherent conflict between your employer’s needs (keep business secrets confidential) and your needs (show how awesome I am so I can get a better job). So candidates often find ways to honor the letter of their confidentiality agreements but not the spirit. It’s a mistake. While this candidate didn’t mention Microsoft specifically, any reviewer knew that’s what he meant. In a very rough audit, we found that at least 5-10% of resumes reveal confidential information. Which tells me, as an employer, that I should never hire those candidates … unless I want my own trade secrets emailed to my competitors.

The New York Times test is helpful here: if you wouldn’t want to see it on the home page of the NYT with your name attached (or if your boss wouldn’t!), don’t put it on your resume.

Mistake 5: Lies. This breaks my heart. Putting a lie on your resume is never, ever, ever, worth it. Everyone, up to and including CEOs, gets fired for this. (Google “CEO fired for lying on resume” and see.) People lie about their degrees (three credits shy of a college degree is not a degree), GPAs (I’ve seen hundreds of people “accidentally” round their GPAs up, but never have I seen one accidentally rounded down — never), and where they went to school (sorry, but employers don’t view a degree granted online for “life experience” as the same as UCLA or Seton Hall). People lie about how long they were at companies, how big their teams were, and their sales results, always goofing in their favor.

There are three big problems with lying: (1) You can easily get busted. The Internet, reference checks, and people who worked at your company in the past can all reveal your fraud. (2) Lies follow you forever. Fib on your resume and 15 years later get a big promotion and are discovered? Fired. And try explaining that in your next interview. (3) Our Moms taught us better. Seriously.

So this is how to mess up your resume. Don’t do it! Hiring managers are looking for the best people they can find, but the majority of us all but guarantee that we’ll get rejected.

The good news is that — precisely because most resumes have these kinds of mistakes — avoiding them makes you stand out.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Careers & Workplace

This Is Exactly How to Make Sure Your Resume Gets Seen

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The gatekeepers between you and the job you want are often digital first, human second. Here’s how to approach both

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This post is in partnership with Fortune, which offers the latest business and finance news. Read the article below originally published at Fortune.com.

By Anne Fisher

Dear Annie: What exactly is an applicant tracking system? I’ve applied for several job openings where my qualifications match the job descriptions for each position precisely, yet I’ve gotten called in for an interview only once (so far). A colleague at my current job told me he read somewhere that computerized applicant tracking systems reject most resumes before a human being even gets involved in the process. Is that true? If it is, how do you get past that and reach an actual person? — Left Hanging in Houston

Dear L.H.H.: An applicant tracking system (ATS), as the name implies, is how many big companies keep track of the hundreds or thousands of resumes that are constantly coming in. Designed to follow each candidate through each stage of the hiring process, from application to start date, the systems usually begin with computer software that “reads” each resume and weeds out the ones that don’t match up with specific job openings.

Unfortunately, that’s usually a lot less efficient than it sounds. That 75% rejection rate your friend cited probably came from a study by a job search services firm called Preptel (which was founded by its CEO Jon Ciampi, an alumnus of ATS maker SumTotal Systems).

The huge number of rejections is due to some, shall we say, quirks in the software that screens resumes before they arrive on a hiring manager’s desk. You could be the perfect prospect for a given job, using all the right keywords, and still be kicked aside by the system because it couldn’t quite make out parts of your resume — like work experience, for instance.

For the rest of the story, please visit Fortune.com.

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