I’m Amber, the director and a partner at Anchor & Alpine, a design agency based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Before that, I was on the executive leadership team at a machine learning startup in the Bay Area. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of portfolios, cover letters, and interviews. I’ve seen applications ranging in quality from exceptional to exceptionally bad. Some candidates have blown me away because they took a chance, but once or twice it’s gone so badly I’ve walked someone straight out the door. Lately, we’ve had so many lousy cover letters and form emails—I understand that most people apply to dozens of jobs for every one interview they receive, but that doesn’t excuse some of the basic, blatant mistakes I see people making. Let me help you fix those mistakes and put your best job-searching foot forward, featuring some lessons from my hiring.
Take the Chance
I’ve been lucky to hire some truly amazing people over the years. Three of them stand out because they took a chance—they went out on a limb to do something risky and it paid off in a big way.
One applicant read our website and made us a brochure after we had already rejected her. But once we received this project from her, my team convinced me to take another look. So I took her brochure, put it in InVision, and threw comments all over it. She sent me a revision and beat out every other candidate*. Her work was impressive, yes, but we were more impressed by her initiative, her determination, and her ability to receive feedback. To this day, she is someone that I have loved working with, and I will always be on the lookout for good opportunities for her.
In another instance, I interviewed an applicant who had just switched careers to development. Wary of her inexperience in the field, I said to her, “I’ll be honest, I think you are too junior in your skillset to hit the ground running here. We’re all pretty senior, and we’re all stretched thin and don’t have time to help someone come up to speed. I don’t want you to drown here with no help.” She responded nonchalantly, “I figured it out this far, I’ll figure it out here, too.”
That was the moment I decided to hire her. I love a surefire, can-do attitude. Months later, when she was negotiating a raise, we talked about our interview conversation. She thought that was the moment she blew the interview—turns out it was the moment I decided to take a chance on her. And yes, of course, she got the raise.
Finally, we interviewed an applicant earlier this year, right before COVID sent us all into lockdown. After the interview, I felt that she didn’t have enough experience in the niche we needed, so I told her that. She said she understood and thanked me.
That was on a Friday. First thing Monday morning, I walked into our office, and my partners said I had to check my email. The applicant sent an impassioned plea imploring us to take a chance on her. She’d been doing research and homework on our company and the role all weekend, and she was sure she could do it. Ultimately, my partners and I agreed. We called her later that morning and offered her the job on the spot. She came in the next day—unfortunately, that was the last day all of us were in the office before we became a remote company due to the pandemic. But she’s been absolutely delightful and amazing, and we’re so glad she’s here.
So take the chance. Do a little extra work, push yourself farther than you’re used to. I’ve learned over my career that if someone says to you, “Give me a chance, I’ve got this,” they almost always do.
Personalize your Emails Efficiently
How do you get to the point where you can make that plea—take a chance on me, I got this—in an interview? You have to get through the introduction, so let’s focus on the smaller details: how to be efficient with your applications, while also giving each one the attention it needs to be personal. Applying to as many jobs as possible might seem like an effective strategy, but it leaves room for lazy mistakes. That’s the number one reason that we reject candidates, often without a response. When applicants send us introduction emails with typos, incorrect information about the company, or no personalized information at all, that application gets tossed aside. And nothing is worse than getting a well-written email that accidentally includes the name of the company from the last job the candidate applied to. I know that the job hunt process is daunting and stressful, but when a candidate doesn’t spend any time on us, we don’t take them seriously, either.
So feel free to use a form email or template, but make sure there are places in it for you to share the research you’ve done on the company. Talk about a project or social post from that company that you like. Share what excites and interests you about the role.
If you are a recent graduate or still new to the industry, you shouldn’t know how to do everything. But I would expect you to have some talent and be willing to work hard. Tell me that you really like UI work and want to do more of it—that’s the kind of thing I want to hear most. Or that you are a designer with a passion for illustration. Help us see the talent and a spark of interest, and we’ll help you develop it. Everybody started where you are now.
As a candidate, following up with the hiring manager is one of the best ways to stand out from the crowd. Every person I’ve ever hired followed up. They said thank you for the interview. They asked where they stood in the process. They asked if they could send another project they’ve been working on.
More than half the time, a follow up pushed my teams and me to say, uh, did we even look at this one yet? That conversation would prompt us to dig it up and respond. It’s okay to follow up and be pushier than you usually are.
If you get a real job offer, then it’s okay to contact the other people on your list where you are in an advanced state of interviewing (second interview or later) and let them know you have a time-sensitive offer. They will move quickly if you are someone they want. But bear in mind that you don’t get a re-do on this one. Once you say it, the company will likely move to either hire or reject you from there. I don’t recommend this move unless you’re genuinely interested in the other company. And bluff on this at your own risk—if it backfires, you might forever ruin your chances with that company.
Finding the right job is one of the greatest things in life, just like finding the right friends, the right partner, and the right pair of jeans. I know how hard it is for all of you right now—I’ve weathered the Dot-Com bubble, the 2008 recession, and the coronavirus pandemic during my professional career. I’ve found the ways to get through the tough times, and you will, too. It’s made me a more resilient designer, and it’s helped me build a career based on ingenuity when time and money are tight. Treat looking for a job as the job you have right now. Designers are communicators, and while we do best when we communicate through design, we also have to be really good at telling stories—our stories—and getting through the clutter to be heard.
* When I sent the revision, I also earmarked some money for her. If we’d not hired her, I would have paid her for the work and said thank you. We never ask for spec work, and you should be very careful of firms that do. A design exercise is different—if they won’t use your work for profit and need to test your skills, you should consider doing it. If you design something for an interview and the agency uses it without paying you, send them an invoice. Copyright law has your back on this one. I’ll even write the cease and desist email for you, or as Mike Montiero calls it, the “Fuck You, Pay Me” email.