Unsolicited Advice: Selling yourself

Ashley asked: Hi Adam! I was wondering what advice you’d give to someone who doesn’t know quite what to say when applying for jobs. I feel confident about my work, but I’m not the best at explaining why I want to work at a studio and I worry about not sounding interesting enough to get someone’s attention. Thanks!

This post was originally published June 12, 2012

Interviews are tricky. You want to be yourself and “be real,” but you want to be professional, collected, and easygoing, too. That’s a lot of pressure when you’re, you know, hoping the people sitting across from you want to have you on their team and also give you money, opportunity, access, or a sense of validation when your grandmother asks what you do come Thanksgiving. (“How’s the band? You do something with music, right?”)

It sounds to me like you have a really good grasp on your situation, Ashley. You feel confident about your work, which is important! It is hard to sell a product you don’t believe in. That being said, at an interview, you yourself are also a product… so feel confident about yourself too! Why do you think you’re “not sounding interesting enough?” If you’ve got solid work and a good head on your shoulders what else do you need? Look at yourself in the mirror and remind yourself that you’re awesome, even if you don’t believe it yet.

You said you’re not the best at explaining why you want to work at a studio, but clearly you must have reasons, right? You might feel like “I’d love to work in a busy environment with a lot of different challenges” isn’t “interesting,” but if your true goal identifies you as someone who is a good fit, that sure sounds interesting to me! Also consider that a lot of us spend most of our time on computers nudging pixels around. Sometimes that’s not the most “interesting,” but we all know the value of that kind of meticulous work ethic.

Here are some more tips & thoughts:

Know yourself — Interview styles vary, but at the end of the day you know you’re going to be asked some basics. Specifically, you’ll be asked for a little information about you, your work, and schooling (for recent grads). Know how to answer these questions! For some, talking about this stuff is easy, but if that’s not you, sit down and think about a few key details so that you don’t end up having a brain fart moment and seeming stupid when you forget your own cat’s name.

Know the company & position requirements — The biggest part of knowing WHY you want to work somewhere is knowing about the company, studio, firm, agency, whatever. You already know you want to be there for the opportunity, but what specific things have you seen that you really like? What about the job is most exciting to you? In addition to proving that you didn’t just roll out of bed and show up, you prove a bit of loyalty from the get-go, which is important because your interviewer knows you may be working late hours and possible weekends to meet deadlines down the road.

Have some useful & relevant anecdotes — You will, without a doubt, be asked about working in a group environment, juggling multiple projects, and working with short deadlines. This is because you will undoubtably be doing those things if hired. For many recent grads, there hasn’t been too much practice with this stuff, so think about times when you did have to collaborate or did have to turn around a complete design and assembled mockup in 24 hours, and be ready to tell that story (in a few sentences) and apply that to general practice.

Be personable — Part of being a team member is working with a team, so in addition to being a good candidate on paper, you’re also probably being viewed as someone who may or may not mesh well with a group. Especially in a small studio setting, you as “a person” are as important as you as “a person who can hang out with others.” So be cool, be you, be fun… but not too fun. You can save some of the more exciting bits for happy hour or your future “work BFF.”

Dress the part — Just like your resume should reflect the type of work you want to be doing, your general appearance should reflect the job you want and who you are. Does that mean a suit and tie? Probably not. Not in our industry, unless it’s appropriate for the company. Find a balance. Guage based on the company’s attitude and atmosphere. If you’re unsure, you can always play it safe with a collared oxford shirt or blouse that reads as both clean cut but not like you just got crammed into a dress shirt for school photo day.

Don’t sweat it — Seriously, take a chill pill, don’t have a cow, etc. The best way to do well in an interview is to be calm, confident, and easygoing. So try to relax. You know your work is good, you know they are looking for someone because they have a position to fill. They want you to be a good candidate as much as you want to be a good candidate, because that means the candidate search is over. So do your best! Also, literally, don’t sweat it. Arrive early enough that whether you’re nervous or it’s just the middle of summer, you can take plenty of deep breaths, wipe your brow, and get ready to kick ass.

Appreciate the opportunity — I think the most important advice is to regard every interview and every meeting as an opportunity. You may not get hired for the job at hand, but you just never know what a connection may bring. You might get contacted about freelance work down the line. You might meet a current employee who wants to collaborate on a personal project. Your interviewer may have a friend hiring at another firm that you’re a better fit for. Don’t kiss ass, because nobody needs that and it’s transparent, but be genuinely appreciative for opportunities at hand because they can often lead to something more.

It seems to me, in my limited experience, that a lot of jobs happen by accident. I have now stumbled into several of the jobs I’ve held since college. I have been hired for one thing and then done another. I have been hired by people who have not seen my portfolio at all. I have been asked for a resume very few times. Truth is, a lot of jobs are a case of being the right fit at the right time. That’s the best way to think about “rejection,” too. It’s not always going to work out, but sometimes it doesn’t work out for reasons completely unrelated to you. Keep your chin up and keep doing what you love. Keep creating, keep learning, keep growing, by taking on small freelance gigs for friends and bands and small businesses… love what you do and never stop.

Adam J. Kurtz is an artist and author whose illustrative work is rooted in honesty, humor and a little darkness.

AdviceAlyssa Nassner