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Oversell and Underdeliver: How Exaggeration Kills a Job Prospect

A job applicant's self-assessment is the first data point an employer may see, so accuracy is critical.

· Agile Zone

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This week I received a multi-paragraph email from a job applicant who was applying for a developer position I had advertised with one of my clients. There was no resume attached or even referenced, which is highly unusual (sometimes there is nothing attached but a reference to an attachment). Maybe he forgot. 

The email was almost exactly what I might have coached an experienced candidate to write in applying for this position. He demonstrated quickly that he had read the requirement and done at least a minimal amount of research on the company. His professional interests seemed to align nicely with the job responsibilities, he mentioned experience with the languages and frameworks we sought, and even linked to a couple project sites and GitHub repos so we could look at his code. The words he used were encouraging - "significant experience with...", "I thrive in a...", "worked extensively with..." - while indicating that he met the requirements of an ideal candidate. As you can imagine, I was quite interested.

I replied to express my interest and asked if he had a resume, which I use as a framework for an initial screening conversation and eventually is sent to the client if we agree to move forward. 

The response noted that he'd forgotten to attach the resume, and he took the opportunity to reinforce his candidacy with a reference to a number of recent "larger projects" and further encouragement for me to view his code. When I finally opened the resume, I learned this candidate had no professional experience at all, and the projects referenced were all part of a recently completed 12-week boot camp.

It's important to note here that the position I had listed was for an experienced programmer, and my hiring client would not consider anyone entry-level regardless of academic credentials. My client would not deem this candidate qualified for this particular role, but let's pretend for the sake of this article that I did have an entry-level position available. 

A Credibility Problem or Honest Misunderstanding?

When I learned that this candidate had never worked in a professional environment and had only been programming for a few months, his description of his experience now became a bit confusing. Larger projects? Significant and extensive experience? Thriving in and accustomed to certain environments

Most professionals that have been in the industry would not consider a few months to be significant or extensive experience, and large projects in the industry aren't typically completed in a few weeks. How would someone know what type of environment they thrive in if they've never been in a professional environment?

This disconnect could be the result of a couple possibilities.

If we're giving the full benefit of the doubt, a boot camp graduate might consider these projects large just based on having no real project history to use as a baseline, and words like significant and extensive can be relative. A few weeks of experience could be classified as extensive when compared to someone that has never programmed.

At worst, the candidate is trying to represent a level of ability that he is rather unlikely to possess. Even the most intensive programs, whether they be boot camps or degreed, aren't promising their graduates the ability to claim significant experience with large projects upon completion... are they? 

Now this candidate would potentially be perceived as having a credibility issue, and, unfortunately, that label would stick even while under consideration for an entry-level job that he is likely qualified to do. What's even worse is that an entry-level candidate has very little leverage in the hiring process without the credibility issue. So now we have what might be considered a somewhat homogenous entry-level candidate that starts off on the wrong foot.

Could he recover? Of course, it's possible, but it shouldn't be necessary. A more transparent approach which details the strengths and weaknesses is always a better option.

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