The Role of Potential in Student & New Graduate Job Applications

Potential is one of those concepts that means different things to different people, and is therefore difficult to get any real actionable meaning out of it. This concept is coincidentally the cornerstone of what recruiters tell us they are trying to assess in most job candidates, especially for the student and new graduate demographic.

Let’s start with the basics, even getting a consistent definition of what potential is from leading dictionaries shows variation.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary says potential is:
Something that can develop or become actual.

Oxford Dictionary says potential is:
Latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness.

Cambridge Dictionary says potential is:
Someone’s or something’s ability to develop, achieve, or succeed.

Although the three definitions are worded differently, I think we can agree that the core meaning of potential is at large, the ability to become better. According to this definition, you could argue that all humans have ‘potential’ yet recruiters only see potential in a small percentage of candidates. So, what are we missing?

Finding the Meaning of Potential

Most professions have their own ways of identifying potential in individuals, some more straightforward than others. Sports like hockey and baseball have well-established ways of identifying potential, it is typically driven by statistics because it gives a direct comparison between player performance amongst their peers. If we stick to our original definition of potential as an individual’s ability to become better, we would utilize a measure that tells us how much each individual has improved over a period of time but that isn’t what is happening. What we classify as potential isn’t who has been improving the fastest, but rather who is the furthest along and stands out the most amongst his or her peers.

To help illustrate this point we’ll use junior ice hockey players, let’s say Player A put up 10 points in 2015 and in 2016 he put up 70 points. This is a 7X year over year improvement. Let’s then say we have Player B who put up 100 points in 2015 and 125 points in 2016 for an improvement of 1.25X year over. Player A has shown a greater year over year increase in potential – however, scouts and teams will still see Player B as the player with greater potential.

The example above may be overly simplistic because the reality is that in most industries talent is not as quantifiable as it is in sports. Therein lies the problem for recruiters. Hockey has stats as a primary measure of how good a player is; you can use those statistics to directly compare similar players to make decisions around who is ‘better’. This works because it is a defined game where it is much easier to put in measures to rate performance. Campus recruiters do not have this luxury, the closest thing that most campus recruiters have to this is GPA and Google has interestingly found no long-term correlation between GPA and employee performance. Google’s former SVP of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, said “I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment.”

X Factors

With a lack of measurable outcomes for recruiters to assess candidates, they must take a much more subjective approach. ‘Potential’ has become somewhat of a blanket word that recruiters use to simplify an incredibly complex system of judgement points that they use to  assess an applicant. Potential according to a focus group report Acadiate conducted in 2016 with HR Professionals from Microsoft and other leading recruitment firms showed that recruiters see potential as is a collection of “X Factors” (or characteristics). By definition, an “X Factor” is a noteworthy special talent or quality.

What makes X Factors problematic is that they are not well defined and they change on a job to job and recruiter to recruiter basis.

Recruiter A may view a high potential candidate as the individual who shows the best combination of communication skills, ivy league education, relevant internship experience, and some service based retail experience.

Recruiter B may view a high potential candidate as the individual who shows the best combination of high GPA, strong mentors and references, a strong portfolio of work examples, and a history of volunteerism.

When you remind yourself that ‘potential’ is one of the most important things recruiters are looking for when assessing students and new graduates, it becomes clear why students and new graduates are struggling to articulate their ‘potential’ to employers. Nobody has ever told students what potential is and this is only amplified by the fact that they have been conditioned in the educational environment where they are always told how they will be measured. When a student leaves the school environment and starts to apply to jobs, they quickly realize the applications don’t come with a rubric, and there is no getting it graded to see if you are strong, average, or weak. Every job a job seekers applies to is left to interpretation, and unfortunately, your average student struggles with making the correct interpretation.

Room for Growth in Student Job Applications

Career centers across the continent are focused on showing students how to write a presentable resume and cover letter. Most students should be able to put together one good, accurate, spelling and grammar checked resume and cover letter job application; the problem is that employers aren’t going to see much potential in it. As we mentioned earlier, employers are looking for individuals who stand out amongst their peers and to do that they are looking for “x-factors”.

There are three points I’d like to make around this. First, to stand out, you must be different. If everyone is utilizing a resume and cover letter in their job application and you do the same, you are unlikely to stand out. Second, since students struggle to interpret what employers are looking for, it means they do not position their resume and cover letter to show the potential employers are looking for. Third, even if a student correctly interprets what an employer is looking for, the resume typically does a poor job at highlighting X-factors – reading about a skill or quality is much less effective than seeing the skill or quality first hand.

For today’s job applicant, understanding what employers see as potential is a vital component in putting together a successful job application. Unfortunately, the exact meaning of potential is elusive and changes from job to job. Which means most students and new graduates focus on building one good resume first then apply to all of their job postings with the same resume. This is backwards. To hit on potential today, students need to first correctly analyse and assess the job posting to figure out the core needs of the employer, then second, utilize that knowledge to craft a job application that clearly highlights the “X factors” that matter the most for that employer. This small shift can make a massive difference in the quality and potential seen in candidate’s applications.