Competing for a Job With La Crème de la Crème

Marty Nemko
August 19, 2013

If you want a well-paid position at Apple, Google, McKinsey, etc, you'll compete against some of the world's smartest and well-prepared applicants. The standard advice won't cut it. Here's what might:

Include a great work sample. With your application, include a work sample demonstrating that you can produce higher-quality work than can other top applicants. For example, if you're in marketing, the brilliant business plan you developed. If you're a programmer, the most elegant code you've written. If you're in project management, the thoughtful, necessarily complex flowchart you developed.

Pepper the interview with smart questions, ideally those that spring from an interviewer's question. For example, "Your last question seems to imply there's a bit of internecine warfare between the two divisions. If that's true, what have you tried to deal with that?"

Look for an opportunity to take charge. If you sense the interviewers would like the hired candidate to tackle a particular problem, treat that as an opportunity to demonstrate your excellence in a context they care about. For example, "Would you mind if I take a minute or two to give you a sense of how I'd tackle the problem?" If they agree, say something like, "While I have ideas, my way would often be to first ask for your input. All wisdom doesn't reside within me. So OK, any thoughts on how to address the problem?" Take a comment or two, listing them on the white board if available. Then add an idea of your own and conclude with, "I hope this gives you a window into the way in which I work."

Give killer responses to killer questions. The interviewer may ask you one of those "impossible to answer" questions, for example, the classic, "How do you move Mt. Fuji?" or this one recently asked of a McKinsey applicant: "How would you calculate the annual carbon emissions from electric versus gas vehicles in the EU?"

Do not resent such questions. They do assess your poise and ability to think on your feet, which are critical in most high-level jobs. Another plus for such questions is that they're not coachable. When an interviewer asks stock questions like "Tell me a problem you solved," the interviewer doesn't know if your answer reflects your ability to think, is an answer you found on the internet or one that was concocted by a smart colleague or career coach.

Of course, there's no right or wrong answer to "impossible to answer" questions. Your job is only to demonstrate a rigorously analytical yet innovative approach in roughly 100 words. For example, "First, I'd calculate how much carbon is emitted annually from the average gas-powered car sold in the EU and multiply that by the number of gas-powered cars in the EU. For the EV figure, I'd find out how much electricity the average EV uses per year, the carbon footprint required to create that amount of electricity, and multiply that by the number of EVs in the EU. Then, so the comparison is meaningful, I'd adjust the figure for EVs to compensate for the fact that gas-driven vehicles are driven more miles per year than are electric ones."

Make more of your thank-you note. Rather than just sending the usual toadying thank-you note after the interview, offer a response to a concern the interviewers raised. For example, if the interviewers probed about a China strategy, you might submit a one-page business plan on that. To avoid seeming presumptuous, accompany that with a disclaimer such as," Of course, I'm not privy to all you've already tried and to insider company information that would influence the plan, but I submit this to you as another sample of the way I think."

Prime your recommenders. Even many lackluster applicants provide references that make them appear godlike. So you need to prime your potential references to give you a reference that presents you as a Master of the Universe. For example, "Joe, I'm applying for a VP marketing job at Citi and I'm sure the competition is fierce. Do you feel comfortable giving me an unusually strong reference?" If he says yes, you might ask, "Would it be helpful for me to email you some supporting details that might add credibility to the reference?"

Of course, most applicants are unable to pull off such strategies. That's why top companies pay top dollar for top employees.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian called Dr. Nemko "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach." His latest books are How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School and What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America. He writes weekly for as well as for More than 1,000 of his published writings are free on

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