Swimming in the Applicant Pool

February 13, 2012

During job search season, I see this message being thrown around a lot:  “Just keep swimming.” In this post, I am not going to tell you to “keep swimming,” but I will tell you a story about how your job search is similar to competitive swimming.

Ages ago, when I was on the high school swim team, I remember trying to qualify for the district championship meet.  Each event had a base qualifying time, so at the very minimum we had to meet them.  We spent the bulk of our season training to achieve the best times possible.

Lesson: Know the Qualifications.  Read the job descriptions carefully and know your functional area’s competency areas.  You will need to identify each skill the employer is looking for so you can compare it to your arsenal of awesomeness.

I competed in many different events during my swimming career, but my fastest and strongest event was the 100-yard backstroke. Since I was very close to the qualifying time, I decided to focus on this event exclusively.

Lesson: There are Different Strokes for Different Folks. We student affairs practitioners have a very diverse set of skills. But much of job searching is about identifying your strengths and applying them once you are on the job. Forget telling me what you are “okay” at doing; tell me what you were born to do. If you rock at programming, show me what you have done in the past and how you can help my team.

Achieving my qualifying time was just the beginning of my journey. There were many 6am practices and meets in the weeks leading up to the big championship. You can never be too prepared.

Lesson: Train Hard. Just because you meet the minimum requirements doesn’t mean you are the most qualified person for the job. Strive to improve your craft, ask for feedback, and always do better than the time before.

I bet you’ve been wondering what my qualifying time was. My entry time of 1:13 was immediately compared to the times of other swimmers. Each competitor was placed into a “heat,” grouped with swimmers who had similar times.

Lesson: Play the Numbers Game.  Help the employer compare your skills with other applicants and use numbers to help you propel forward. Managing a $10,000 budget is different than managing a $10 budget. Supervising a team of 20 is different than a team of two. Quantifying your experience helps the search committee to measure your qualifications.

After each meet, coach would post our current time and compare them with our personal best. Our races were sometimes videotaped so we could pick apart each stroke, each breath. After digesting the feedback, we knew what to focus on during practice.

Lesson: Get a Coach, Improve Your Form. Talk to a colleague, a supervisor, or a mentor. Discuss your strengths and areas in which you need to improve. Have your resume and social media profiles critiqued by someone you do not know. Visit your Career Center and have a counselor tape and critique a mock interview for you.

After a bad race, all I wanted to do was rip off my goggles and call it quits. Training for a competition is tiring and is very hard work. Sometimes coach would notice our times plateau and he would prescribe a break or an easy practice. A little rest can go a long way.

Lesson: Stay Above Water. Searching can seem like a long and grueling process. It requires risk, self-awareness, and a competitive edge. If you are burned out, ask a friend to throw out a life raft. Take a break from the applications, get out of your house, breathe.

At the district meet I swam my personal best time of 1:09. I trained for my strongest event, I practiced until my skin was pruney, and I asked coach to critique my form. In the end, I achieved what I set out to do.

Final thought: Before you dive, learn how to swim. Your job search is a competition. You need to out strategize and outperform other applicants, so preparation is important. What skills and experiences are you bringing to the table? What makes you a better investment?

Spend some time practicing on land, but don’t forget to dive in!