How to be a standout candidate for that UX job, part 2

4 min read
Jenny Sun
  •  Oct 26, 2017
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Editor’s note: This is a 3-part series. Read the first one, and we’ll share the final one on November 1.

Let’s dive into the part of the application process that gets your foot in the door: your application.

In this post, we’ll discuss what you can do to stand out using 3 different touchpoints: your resume, your portfolio, and your cover letter. Yes, you’re going to need all 3.

On competition

Let me take a minute to address the elephant in the room and the thing we all want to avoid talking about: competition. At the time of writing this piece, competition at the entry-level is unprecedented. It’s fierce out there. Two years ago that wasn’t the case, but the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been.

One of my theories? Supply and demand. There’s a need for skilled user experience practitioners—but almost entirely at the mid-to-senior level. Those who’ve gotten their head start are those who were pioneers right out of the gate, even before the term “user experience” was on the map. Former designers, developers, strategists, and marketers who began defining the earliest UX practices are those now sitting at the senior level, and now, we’re just getting to the point where more experienced UX-ers are joining them.

Another reason I believe the competition is so fierce is because practical UX education is so varied. With all the e-courses, webinars, conferences, bootcamps, and learning opportunities out there, there isn’t one clear, right path to entry. There isn’t a curriculum or set of “pass/fail” credentials you can earn, other than gritty, hardcore, hands-on experience. It takes time for that kind of trial and error to result in job opportunities by companies aware enough to understand that user experience is necessary within their organizations.

With that said, let’s continue our conversation about why standing out is your critical competitive advantage, and how you can seize the opportunities that open up to you.

Don’t apply and hope for the best. Dig deep and do your research.

Whoa. Wait, what?

Isn’t the hiring company supposed to be the one interested in me?

Yes, and… you’ll need to show equal interest in them. Before you send your resume and portfolio off to Neverland, take some time to learn about the company. Treat them as a person you’d want to get to know before you meet them.

“Before applying, define exactly what you would want to get out of the job.”

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Who works there? What kind of work do they do? What’s their company philosophy? Who leads the UX team? How mature is their UX practice? Is it going to be you, a UX team of one, or will you be cross-pollinating with other divisions and teams? Do you prefer running the show solo, or would you prefer the guidance of a senior-level director?

When people say, “I really like what you’re saying on the website—I believe that too!” you’re resonating and connecting. Your personal beliefs and their organizational ones are aligned, making it possible for both of you to thrive, elevating your strengths and the profile of the company.

“Candidates who’ve always impressed me have found ways to let me know that they’re very interested in this job, and as a result, have done a fair amount of research about us and really want to come and work here. I can tell that they’ve spent a significant amount of time reading the Pivotal website where it talks about our design process.” –Emily Leahy-Thieler, UX Manager at Pivotal Labs

Do some introspection. Spend time with your application (even if you’re in a sprint to get hired, and get hired now). And, of course, define exactly what you would want to get out of the job before applying. The wrong position?  It can cost you more than your time and your salary—it can cost you your energy. And that’s a big part of what makes you valuable.

You don’t have to be flawless, but your spelling should be

As I typed this article, Google Docs kindly reminded me with a red squiggly line where my misspellings were.

Please don’t ignore them!

There is a direct correlation between your misspellings and your attention to detail. When it comes to UX, designing interactions for a user interface requires sensitivity and attention to detail.

You don’t have to be perfect—but with the number of grammar guides and built-in spell check tools that you already use daily (built by UX folk like you!) there’s no reason why typos should show up in your work.

Use a human voice…

This one goes without saying (and it’s often easier said than done), but… be human!

The person you’re sending all your materials to? They’re used to making decisions on paper. Day after day, they likely sift through emails, resumes, portfolios, and cover letters that use the same language by different people.

Sure, it’s a job application, so there’s bound to be some formality. Be true to you, however, and you’ve got one foot in the door already.

…intended for a human audience

It may be an obvious reminder, but realize that a human—not a machine, algorithm, or code—is looking at your application. They have a face, they have a name, and they would love for you to address them by it.

I speak from past experience that being addressed “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Hiring Manager,” well… hurts. It feels like you’re expecting us to care more than you care about us. It’s not intentional, but it is impersonal.

When it comes to being a human-centric designer, that’s the very last vibe you want your hiring manager to get from your application.

“A human—not a machine, algorithm, or code—will look at your application.”

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Prime yourself for the position you’re applying for

When you’re applying, tailor your message and materials to the job posting you’ve found. Even better, mirror the same language, phrases, and keywords found there to reiterate that you’ve listened and learned about what the company needs.

A few things to include in your message:

A little backstory about where you found the job posting

These details not only demonstrate the fact that you’re applying to a preferred company at the top of your prospect pile, they also help the company you’re applying to do more to attract the attention of equally talented prospects and cohorts.

An interest in the type of work the company does, whether it’s through their process/methods or case studies they’ve posted on their website.

Acknowledging the company’s process demonstrates that you understand it and can adapt your existing design thinking to meet theirs. Similarly, demonstrating that you’ve done similar work shows the company that this isn’t your first time at the rodeo, and that you’re capable of doing the same work, but better.

Talk about your alignment with the company’s work and values.

Companies, agencies, and organizations love receiving validation of their own philosophies and good work. They want to hear that the work they’re doing resonates, and that you’re on the same wavelength in your worldview.

Mention if you’ve seen the company at a conference or read about them in an article.

Show the company you’re hoping to woo that you see them, you hear them, and you’re nodding along with them. It means the world to know that a prospective hire is not only listening to, but desiring to be a part of, the conversation.

Tip: Do not pass “go” with this generic phrase in your message

“I am a great fit…”  


Your goal is to stand out, not to blend in.

You can do better. You have done better. So get back into that email.

Enough said.

Tip: Turn “I” into “You”

Have you ever considered why the company you’re applying to might be hiring?

Do they have too much work on their plate, and need an extra set of experienced hands on deck?

Could it be that they’re looking to round out their offerings by acquiring new talent with a specialty role?

When a UX team is in need of support, they want to see the tangible ways that you not only bring your support to the table, but support the table itself.

“Never, ever use the phrase ‘I am a great fit’ in an application.”

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Will you be able to help support them with time-intensive tasks? Reach milestones faster? Worry less about their client presentations? Provide a new point-of-view for the team? Add a skill set that they’re missing?

Having insight (and some intuition) into these issues will put you miles ahead of any other candidate who’s blindly applying.

Sweat the small stuff

A portfolio isn’t a nice-to-have anymore. It’s a necessary requirement that can be the difference between being hired and being passed on.

Attaching a PDF or a link to your portfolio is key. One thing to consider is making both your resume and portfolio PDF files so that both can be viewed with only one software program that doesn’t require someone to open, say, Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft Word. (That’s the kiss of death to me.)

Related: 5 ways to upgrade your UI design portfolio

You might even think one step ahead and consider how recruiters and hiring managers use mobile gadgets to view your application materials. It’s easier to click a Dropbox link than it is to directly download a 850KB portfolio file via email.

Use your UX chops to consider the situations and scenarios that might alleviate the pain of portfolio browsing, and you’ll rise to the top of the pile.

“A portfolio isn’t a nice-to-have anymore.”

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Your resume needs to match the job you’re applying for

You’ve personalized the language of your initial message, and you’ve thought through your portfolio best practices. You’re almost there! Now it’s time to match the language of the job you’re applying for to the content of your resume.

If you’re going to simply copy/paste the identical resume to job postings over and over again, well, please don’t waste your hiring manager’s time like that. You’d be shocked at the number of resumes I receive that don’t even align with the skills I’m looking for.


A little personality goes a long way

Standing out is the name of the game, so let’s talk a little bit about how to inject that personality of yours into your materials.

“Candidates have to be unique in how they present their work, and how they grab my attention. When it’s very personable. Those are the people that stand out to me. I’m seeing the same types of portfolios. If they don’t stand out in a unique way—a way that showcases their day-to-day, it’s just like any other portfolio and they all start to become the same over time.” –Julia Lopez, Director of People & Culture at Dragon Army

When it comes to the weird, wonderful, and intensely competitive process of breaking into the UX industry, demonstrating what you know is really important… but showing who you are is just as important.

If you’re going through a UX intensive bootcamp or graduate level program, you’re likely to be sharing a few projects with other students. These projects invariably end up in your portfolio, and… they have a tendency to become one amorphous blob of sameness.

“I’m seeing a lot of portfolios that look identical,” says Julia. “If they don’t stand out in some unique way, a way that showcases who they are in their day-to-day, it’s just any other portfolio.”

Consider taking the student project even further on your own. For example, do an additional round of research. Or better yet, work on a self-directed project that’s comprehensive and shows the entire UX research and design process.

No matter what, be nice to recruiters

Recruiters are on the front lines of the hiring process. They have direct access to the managers and entire UX team that will be interviewing you. They can be your strongest resource, your biggest cheerleader, and sometimes a bit of a therapist or coach through the stressful process of getting your foot in the door.

The best thing you can be to a recruiter is also the simplest thing you can think of: be nice.

“What you can do to really stand out is be nice to our recruiters. Simple as that. They influence who gets facetime, who gets to the top of our inbox, and who gets the first offer.” –Emily Leahy-Thieler, UX Manager at Pivotal Labs

Treat your copy with care

I’m preaching to the choir here, but it bears repeating.

Legibility is important in designing for comprehension.

Especially comprehension about who you are and the skills you have to offer.

This means using high contrast, a reasonably large font, and clean typeface. This should be considered in each individual case study within your portfolio.

I see a lot of case studies with large paragraphs of text. It’s great if you’re showing that you can write well, but the person who’s making that crucial hiring decision? They review a ton of portfolios and will most likely not be reading every last word you write.

Make it easy for them to scan by simplifying the message you’re communicating by:

  • Embolden important keywords and phrases
  • Use bullets within your paragraphs to break down content
  • Use larger, bolder fonts for your headlines

Ask for feedback—and grow a thick skin while you’re waiting for an answer

Design is fueled by feedbackTwitter Logo, whether it’s feedback you like hearing or not.

Colleagues will call your baby ugly. People will put down your work… and possibly you, whether they intend to or not.

In your follow-up (whether you hear anything back or not!), ask for constructive feedback. If you value iteration and want to keep improving your resume, portfolio, or chances of getting hired, your hunger for feedback will be your advantage.

I’ve only seen 2 prospective hires do this during my career. And those two hires? Well, they now have lucrative, full-time UX positions that they love.

Let’s say you’ve executed everything flawlessly up to this point.

“In your follow-up email, ask for constructive feedback.”

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You’ve showed up to networking events and used your presence to stand out from the crowd. You’ve put together a killer portfolio and resume that speaks to your skill set and the specific needs of the position. You’ve charmed the pants off of your recruiter, and showed that you’re the real deal.

And now…

You’ve earned an interview

A highly coveted interview that you made your own out of a combination of sheer willpower, luck, and grit.

Time to steal the show and take your new title.

Let’s get to it! We’ll talk all about it next week in part 3 of this series. Stay tuned!

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