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How to Rival Experience with Potential

July 29, 2011

Angel Sanford (@TampereAngel on Twitter) graduated from University of Oregon with a B.S. in business administration and marketing. She recently returned from an internship in Scotland to live in her hometown of Portland, Ore. Besides visiting craft breweries and trying to get on the show ‘Portlandia’, she is also looking to start her advertising career in Portland.

Angel Sanford
By Angel Sanford

I recently left a job interview feeling deflated. I had spent hours preparing for behavioral questions, but they asked one question I was totally unprepared for: “Why should we hire you instead of an applicant with 10-15 years experience?”

I stumbled upon my answer, thinking maybe the quality of my experience could be more important than the quantity. That didn’t work. Like me, many entry-level, post-internship applicants are looking at jobs which require years of previous experience. We have to prove our 0-12 months of work has prepared us enough for the job, and interviewers can be harsh!

Barack Obama

President Obama and former President George W. Bush campaigned against many opponents with more political experience, but they successfully emphasized other important qualities to get the job.

Therefore, I’ve taken some time to think through what else we have to offer. You know you can’t beat out the other candidates on the basis of experience. What you do have, though, is potential. I know it may sound cliché, but it’s all in how you package it.

I like to think of potential as a function of four parts. All of these are unique to the individual, and naturally portrayed in an interview. They outline what you specifically bring to the table: an adept base which can be molded through years with the company.

Potential = Skills, Character, Perspective, and Expertise


You have the basic skills required for the job. Whatever it might be — Microsoft Office suite, foreign languages, team communication, organization — you’re on par with the other applicants, and ready to learn more.


You fit the mentality of the company.  Quick reacting or thoughtful and strategic, structured or loose, team or individually-oriented; every office is different.  Show you posses many of the same character traits as the company. If you don’t, you’re still maturing professionally and will adapt quickly to the company culture.


You have a viewpoint that none of the other applicants have. You may be young, but your unique background or lifestyle will bring a fresh perspective to the company. It inspires creativity. You’re not ‘jaded’ by past professional faux-pas. Start-up companies especially prefer someone who is not stuck in a bureaucratic mindset.


You have a capability or interest that is unique to you. For example: an interior designer with only 1 year work experience, but a degree in color therapy, has unique expertise in color. It may seem difficult to decipher, but expertise is not the same as experience. Everyone can have a niche that they know well. You can single-handedly broaden the company’s competencies.

For a great example of rivaling experience with potential, I think back to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.  Yes, Obama campaigned on policies and positions, but he also campaigned on change, and hope. With only two years in the United States Senate, his advantage over the more established candidates was a fresh new way of doing politics. Gregory Craig, a lawyer in Washington, D.C. saw Obama speak as a senator and said of him,

In my judgment, he showed more insight and maturity than Bill Clinton at the age of 60 in terms of understanding himself.”

I believe we all want to hear that about ourselves. Obama’s potential shined through because he knew his strengths in skills, character, perspective and expertise. I wish I had known mine before the interview.

Now don’t be afraid to go up against experienced candidates! Chances are, the “ideal candidate description” is less about years experience and more about potential.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Philip Renich July 29, 2011 at 5:36 pm

I would highlight Perspective even more in this situation. When I saw Potential I thought perhaps Angel wasn't going to mention the freshness of not having 10-15 years of experience. Depending on the industry, I think it could be very important. 99% of the time if you don't have that experience you are going to be younger than other candidates. That means your education has been different and you're more aware (most likely) of what's relevant in the culture today. It's like knowing what the cool songs that high schoolers listen to today. You might know if you're one of the few people who work with high schoolers, but you almost surely will know if you're a freshman in college. Proximity to the culture.

Because you haven't failed as much yet, you're willing to look outside the box more readily.

This was only briefly touched on in Character, but I would also say the advantage is you don't come with baggage and won't have to be “retaught” to meet company guidelines and expectations. You'll simply pick them up and go with that as the default.

Lastly, just to push back a little bit, while I think potential is the right answer, I don't think the four terms define potential at all. Potential is a hitherto unrealized ability: whether it needs to be learned or simply unlocked.

Neither do I think that Skill and Expertise have a place on this list. Assuming you're going up against a candidate with 10-15 years of experience they then will have those skills and expertise (the argument made here is that yours could be in a different area, but given an interview for a specific skill-set, I think that's irrelevant also).

Overall though, my sentiment would be the same. Push potential, it's a huge asset.


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