Start with the premise that there are way more qualified candidates than slots available. How do they decide who to accept or hire? Assume that most applicants have great grades or impressive work experience. How do they stand out? Elite schools and hot companies try to attract the best candidates that will be successful in their environment. It isn't a perfect science. Stanford and Harvard accept between 7% and 9% of all applicants, and readily admit there are many more qualified candidates. Google and Facebook hire a significantly smaller percentage from all resumes submitted.
Yesterday I wrote "How to get a job at Google". That post generated lots of discussion on HackerNews and other discussion forums. There are lots of very talented people who would love to work at Google, Facebook, Apple or some other hot company. There is some frustration about the lack of transparency, feedback, and general understanding of the process. It occurred to me that getting a job offer at hot company is analogous to getting accepted at Stanford, Harvard, MIT, or any other leading school.
What is unique about the candidate? The elite schools in technology, business, law, theater, culinary arts, or any domain, get more applicants than they have available slots. I have heard of many situations where applicants have perfect SAT scores, top of their high school class, lots of extracurricular activities, and even community service...and still don't get accepted at the elite school of their choice. Why? There are over 36,000 high schools in the USA. Every one of them has a valedictorian, star athletes, top 10 students, and students with near perfect SAT scores. With over 360,000 top 10 students, and only 2,600 four year colleges, there are going to be a lot of highly qualified, but disappointed students. In many cases schools look at things that make the applicant unique, things they have done that show creativity, drive, and passion.
Do something special - The things you can do to increase your chances of acceptance at an elite school are very similar to the things you can do to get hired at Google, Facebook, or Apple. Do something special.
Be a significant contributor to an open source project. Write a blog or be a thought leader on a specific topic. Create a mashup or hack or something cool and useful that uses current technologies. Be a leader, create something, convert your passion into something tangible. Technical people could build something. Designers could mock up something. Business people could start something. Creative people could write something, create a video, or show their passion in some way.
The Internet gives us a great platform to expose our thoughts and creative ideas. YouTube provides a visual channel for creative expression. Blogs provide an avenue for writing on any topic and building an audience. Facebook and other social networks allow you to build a very powerful network that can extend your influence and open doors.
There are many paths to success - I didn't apply to Stanford, Harvard, MIT, or other elite schools. There was no way I was going to be accepted. I went to a small state university. But, years later I had four Harvard MBAs working for me, and several Stanford graduates too. Coming out of college I wouldn't have been hired by Microsoft or Google either. I got my experience at tech startups, and eventually did work for both Microsoft and Google. AltaVista, Napster, and Groove Networks gave me great opportunities and experience that no university could replicate. Startups are more likely to take a chance on a young inexperienced candidate that shows some drive and passion.
Never stop learning - The key to success is to never stop learning. Never stop pushing the boundaries. Never get too comfortable in your current position. If you aren't learning something new or creating something new...it is time to move on. I will never forget my college professor saying "Make sure you have 5 years of progressive experience, not 1 year of experience 5 times. The first year counts, the last 4 are just repetition."
When a door closes a window opens - Try not to get locked in to a specific path. Be open to lots of different opportunities that will challenge you. There are very few direct paths to success. Most are circuitous and unpredictable. This is certainly true of startups too. Be prepared for lots of course corrections or pivots. Never give up and enjoy the ride!
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