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On Paper, You Weren’t My First Choice

As the 2015 NFL draft came to a close, Super Bowl 2015 was still fresh on my mind.

When the New England Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks in February, there was something notably absent on the football field. Not a single starter in the Super Bowl was a “5-star” recruit coming out of high school.

These 5-star athletes are regarded as the best of the best. But the most prestigious, high-profile football game was being battled out by two star quarterbacks who weren’t even close to being first-round draft picks.

As a leadership speaker, I see parallels to this all the time. Many of the best and brightest students I encounter aren’t regarded as “5-star recruits” by potential employers.

Of the thousands of students I meet each year on university campuses, only a few truly stand out of the crowd. It’s not their resumes, but rather the little details that so many people overlook: How they present themselves and their life story, what questions they ask when given a golden opportunity, or the way they conduct research before an informational phone call.

Be so good that they can’t ignore you.’

Not long ago at a conference, I met a student who had all of these traits — only I didn’t know it at the time. During our brief talk, he shared with me his goal of getting an internship at a television station. This isn’t what made him memorable.

He followed up. And even though I didn’t initially respond, he followed up again. He wasn’t pushy — he showed a kind persistence. It’s a subtle but important difference that is illustrated perfectly by what happened next.

We met up not long ago when I visited his university town for a speaking engagement. Over coffee and a walk, he shared the good news that he had secured that coveted internship at a television network. As we kept walking, he added, “The recruiter said that on paper, I wasn’t her first choice. But I won her over in the job interview.”

Not her first choice on paper. This got my attention.

“How did you win her over?” I asked.

“I prepared like crazy for that job interview,” he said. “I knew everything about the television station, industry trends and her background. I asked great questions. The interview was supposed to be 30 minutes, but it lasted 2 hours!”

I smiled as I thought about that famous quote attributed to Steve Martin: “Be so good that they can’t ignore you.”

After the student and I parted ways, I couldn’t shake what he said: “On paper” he wasn’t her first choice. This is the case for so many college students across the country who don’t have work experience, attend a top-ranked university, or have the most in-demand skills on their resume. This was the case for me.

There are no metrics for grit and resilience.

I was a first-generation college student. The only work experience I had on my resume entering my sophomore year at Western Michigan University was working second shift at a factory in my small hometown. On paper, I wouldn’t have been anyone’s first choice for a job or internship. But if you knew my story and what I had experienced in my life — as well as the sheer willpower and resilience that it required just to get where I was — you might have wanted to look beyond a piece of paper and learn more.

I see myself in the many talented college students across the country who are trying to get their foot in the door — to get that dream internship or entry-level job — while competing against their peers who do look good on paper. They’re looking for a shot, for someone to take a chance on them and give them the opportunity to shine.

I was fortunate that during my sophomore year of college, I came across a program that supported under served youth and helped them obtain internships. The program was unique because I wasn’t evaluated solely on my list of accomplishments to date, but rather on who I was, what my story was, and whom I could be. My potential mattered.

Given the highly competitive nature of today’s economy, the screening process for internships and entry-level jobs today can be extremely limiting. It eliminates a large block of students and is heavily biased towards candidates who look good “on paper.”

Students are evaluated solely on work experience, involvement in clubs, and the reputation of their university. Hard work and true potential is swept away by algorithms searching for key words. Recruiters ask questions that don’t dig beneath the surface and cultural bias filters out candidates who might offer ingenuity and valuable new perspectives.

We forget that hiring, whether it’s drafting players for the NFL or grooming a recent grad for an entry-level job, isn’t about where a person is right now. It’s about investing in long-term potential — who a candidate might become and the value they might create. But because potential is subjective, it’s difficult to measure.

The challenge, and opportunity, here is for employers to look beyond traditional metrics, and instead look at each candidate as an individual who still has decades of potential ahead.

For employers, this means recruiting on college campuses previously ignored. It means digging deeper than education and work experience during the interview process, learning more about a student’s origins, resilience, and grit. It means taking the initiative to work closely with organizations that help under served college students. It means doubling down on efforts with university career services departments and also building strong relationships with college professors to source great students who are better prepared for the workforce.

The opportunities are endless. But first, we must look beyond what’s “on paper.”

Here’s my challenge to employers: Create opportunities that help applicants shine, not sweat. Commit to developing real talent versus checking off boxes on a list. Press pause and look deeper.

It’s your job to uncover the diamond in the rough — the next star quarterback of your company — that might be right before your eyes. (Tweet This)

Antonio Neves is a nationally recognized millennial workplace speaker, award-winning journalist and the author of 50 Things Every College Student Should Know and 50 Ways To Excel In Your First Job (And In Life).

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