Sins of the Search (And Other Advice for Job Applicants)

Ah, the mighty job search. There’s nothing quite like it. One part thrilling possibility, one part daunting dance, all parts wondering if a cover letter is still necessary this day in age. (We regret to inform you that yes it is.)

We’ve been doing a little hiring around Brains on Fire over the past couple months, so the plight of the job seeker has been fresh in our minds. Most of us have at least one standout moment from our own turn in the interview hot seat when we were trying to land a gig at BOF. For me, it was a frank conversation with Robbin that came near the end of my interview rounds. Coming from a background with no agency experience, RP was really honest about the fact it’s not for everyone. (An insight you can’t fully understand until you have been immersed in it.) I still remember her words as she sent me home to think about whether I really wanted to make the leap: “Brains on Fire is a tight, scrappy team and we don’t have a training program. This is a swimming pool with two deep ends. We throw you in. Think about whether that’s a swim you really want to take.”

It was. And I did. And I’m so glad.

In the years that followed, I grew to appreciate that level of frankness even more. I’ve seen people come and go from BOF. In several instances, the swim just wasn’t for them. As Robbin noted, it’s just not for everyone. This is one of many reasons we take hiring . We involve a lot of different people, roles, and personalities in the interview process when we decide to bring someone on – because it does inevitably change things. We are a small team and the world is full of smart, talented applicants. It’s up to us to decide which of those smart, talented “swimmers” is going bring something unique to the table that helps our team grow and evolve in the right direction.

One of the hardest part of the process is knowing we can’t hire them all. (Seriously. We sit across the table from some true stunners.) But one of the fun parts of the process is getting to see what different people on our team look for and value in a candidate/colleague, as well as the things that land a resume in the pass pile.

I polled the team this week and here’s what they had to say:



Remember that the person on the other side of the table has a bunch of interviews to do on top of their growing pile of work, incoming emails, and what is likely already a very hectic workday. When it’s your turn in the interview chair, be confident, be authentic, and show them something that is unique to your style. Make sure to have a cool leave-behind. Look put together, but not overdone. People want to get a sense of the real you. Arrive early, but walk in on time.

Be personable, be honest, and share how you think.



Your resume and cover letter are opportunities to share your skills and set yourself apart – but sometimes people stumble trying to set themselves a little too far apart. Yes, we are a quirky, creative agency, but we’re still a business and value professionalism – as do our clients. When I review a resume, I look for evidence that the candidate can mesh an appropriate degree of individuality and professionalism without crossing over the line into overzealous, trying-too-hard territory. Not unlike the laws of dating, it pays to be mindful about just how far you open the kimono on those first dates. Don’t try to mimic what you think we are or who you think we want to hire. We tend to be most drawn candidates who bring their own secure sense of self and uniqueness to the table, because those are the people who will enrich our team and culture, not just parrot it.

First impressions are everything. Agencies receive MANY resumes for a single job opening. Find a way to stand out without over designing. Make sure your presence online is a good representation of how you want to be seen. Many a candidate has lost me during these first crucial steps towards employment.

Resumes aren’t old school. They are first blush/introduction to an organization. Don’t be boring or tell us your objective is to get a job. We already got that.



If you have ever read a single BOF blog or social post, you can see how casual and personal we are. To start with “To Whom It Might Concern” on a cover letter both tells us you didn’t bother doing the legwork to find someone to send it to directly – and you don’t get how we roll.

Do your research before you show up for an interview. Prepare questions for the people sitting on the other side of the table. A good interview will be a mix of you, the candidate, speaking, inquiring, and listening.



Working for an agency is a team affair. Show us your passion and demonstrate that you are a team player. A little humility never hurts.

Be aware of how you are presenting yourself during an interview. While that tip seems like it should be obvious, it clearly is not. Get to know the company and how they think, so you can imagine how they’ll react to you.

Don’t make the mistake of hard selling yourself at all costs. Don’t be afraid to ask difficult or uncomfortable questions of your interviewers. They’re in trenches at the company every day, and their insights can help you determine if the company is someplace you really want to work. The match needs to be a good fit for EVERYONE, not just the agency. An interview is your time to feel us out just as much as we are doing the same with you. I’m always impressed when a candidate has the courage to do it, because that shows me they’re thinking deeper about the long haul, not just about landing the job.



This is so old school, but in my view, also so telling. Send a thank you to those you meet with. It can be an email, but a personal note delivered by snail mail is even more impactful.



Lack of curiosity. When we ask if you have questions for us, that’s an opportunity and invitation to wow us with your insightful quandaries. Anyone who says, “Nope! Not right now!” is an instant no in my book.

Job-hopping is always a huge red flag for me. We want to see evidence that you know how to stick things out when a job gets tough or boring or redundant, because there are parts of every job that always will. When we hire someone, we go all in. We want to know you’re also going all in with us for the long haul, and won’t be flitting out whenever the mood next moves you.

There’s a fine line between enthusiastic engagement and stalking on social media. Calm thyself.

If you don’t know something, just say that. Nobody has time for BS answers.

Pay attention to the job description. If we ask you about the role you are applying for and you can’t recall a single thing about it, that’s pretty telling. It sends a message that you are throwing your resume at any job, rather than really investing in finding the right fit and opportunity.

Don’t come in presenting as a know-it-all, acting dismissive or positioning yourself like you want to be the boss.

Dear Lord, please edit your professional profile pics. No wedding, party or college graduation pics. Be smart about your personal brand online! (Because we will be looking.)

Typo on the resumes are rampant – and an utter deal breaker here. Your resume is literally your first (and perhaps only) chance to show us your attention to detail. Don’t blow it.

If you address your cover letter to “Mr. Robbin Phillips,” that tells us something.  (And that something = a fast pass to the NOPE pile.) The little things really do make a huge difference.



 Because we haven’t always been living la vida BOF…

Section Leader at a Catholic Church Choir. I also worked slinging chicken fingers at a country club poolside cabana. – Moe

Honey Baked Ham…at Christmas. People are crazy and it was years before I could even stomach the smell of it again. – Val

A BBQ restaurant. I was underage (15), but got hired because a friend worked there. I learned to pull the Boston butt meat off the bone to make shredded BBQ. Yuck! – Geno

A waitress at Ryan’s…for a day. –Brandy

Ice cream cake decorator. Had to master “Congratulations on your graduation + name” on a very small cake. –Cathy

I worked as a forklift operator and giant bin scrubber at a fruit production plant to save enough money to live on the beach in California for a summer. Totally worth it. –Jesse

Veterinary assistant. Fainted on my first day. –Amy

Delivered telephone books one summer. –Alison

I worked very briefly at JCPenney – my job consisted of getting the hangers from behind the registers, trash, and damaging out returns. –Josh

I’ve just had normal jobs! Babysitter, Bath & Body Works, nonprofit research, PR agency, BOF. –Emily

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