How to Look Like a Purple Squirrel

Posted by in Career Advice

You may never have heard of a “purple squirrel,” but if you’re a job seeker, it’s an important term to know. Here’s why: Recruiters are looking for purple squirrels.


Recruiters use the term “purple squirrel” to describe the perfect candidate—a job seeker who fits an open job in every way, including skills, experience, and the many requirements listed for a job description. For recruiters, such a candidate is essentially a Holy Grail or unicorn. A rare occurrence. Nearly impossible to find, and perhaps only mythical. But that doesn’t stop recruiters from searching.


Now, while the notion of a purple squirrel exists for any number of reasons, there’s one in particular I’d like to focus on—the communications gap between recruiters and job seekers. This gap is important to recognize, as it complicates the process of job placement and makes it difficult for all parties. Simply put, if recruiters and job seekers aren’t speaking the same language, the odds are slim that the perfect job seeker gets the perfect job. 



Two Perspectives


It’s important to recognize the double-sided nature of job placement. It’s a completely different process for the job seeker and the recruiter. For the job seeker, job placement is a matter of inclusion. As a job seeker, you want to be included. You want recognition for the special talent you are, and you want that recognition to lead to a formal job offer.


Here’s a quick numbers test, to illustrate what I mean:


  1. How many times have you ever applied for a job online?
  2. How many times have you received a callback?
  3. How many in-person interviews have you had?
  4. How many job offers have you gotten?


If your numbers stay relatively consistent from top to bottom, congratulations! You’re a purple squirrel! (Why are you even reading this? Shouldn’t you be leaping from purple treetop to purple treetop, or speaking at TED?) If you’re like the rest of us, the majority of job seekers, your answers will sequentially decrease in value. For example, you may have applied to 50 jobs, received five callbacks, had two interviews, and been offered one job. Or maybe you'd celebrate if you even got a single callback. Either way, the decrease is normal, and a product of the linear nature of the process. As a job seeker, you have to make it through every step in order to get the job. For example, you can’t receive a callback without applying, nor can you have an interview without a callback.


Now, let’s tailor the questions slightly, to highlight the perspective of a recruiter:


  1. How many applications do you receive for an online job posting?
  2. How many candidates do you call for a follow up?
  3. How many candidates do you invite into the office for an interview?
  4. How many candidates will you hire?


A recruiter might receive 150 applications for a job posting, call 15 applicants, interview five, and hire one. Notice the similar sequential slide. Recruiting starts with a job description, which is often complex, specific, and detailed. Based on the job description, recruiters amass a group of applicants, narrow the field, and proceed with the best candidates. For recruiters, the process of job placement isn’t a matter of inclusion, but one of elimination. It’s a matter of funneling applicants through the recruiting process in hopes that the best candidates separate from the pack. 


Here’s a not-so secret: As a job seeker, improving your application is the best way to increase your odds for getting a job. Your success resides mainly in the way you portray yourself in the application. All of your skills, your experience, your ability to get the job done—none of it matters if your application doesn’t generate a callback. 


Your goal is to get noticed by the recruiter. You should strive to look like a purple squirrel.



Understanding the Game


To be most effective as a job seeker, it’s best to approach the job hunt like a game. Like most games, job placement has its own rules and procedures. To succeed, you need to master the basics and understand the harsh realities. For example, the numbers are so stacked against you that you’re unlikely to get any given job. Imagine a recruiter’s inbox, filled with hundreds of applications. How does a recruiter handle the workload? Simple. On average, a recruiter spends 30 seconds reviewing each resume. (Did you sigh? That’s a step in the right direction.)
  • Step One: Be an underdog. It’s important to get into an optimistic, yet realistic, frame of mind from the onset of your job hunt. Like any underdog, you shouldn’t expect to win. But you can use your position to your advantage. You’re hungrier, there’s less outside pressure to succeed, and people love rooting for underdogs. With the right frame of mind, you can prepare yourself in a way that makes you unexpected and surprising. You can show that you’re hungry for the job and that you’ll work for it.


  • Step Two: Get noticed. This is the hardest part of the game, and the most vital, as it’s difficult to stand out from the crowd. So we’ll break this into pieces.


  • Play the part. The best way to improve your odds is to focus on your application from the recruiter’s perspective. A recruiter is working from the same job description that’s posted online. Here’s where the communications gap lives and breathes. Because the recruiter is speaking the language of the job description, you should treat the job description like your Rosetta Stone. Read it carefully, understand what the company is looking for, and then use the same language in your application. That means you should tailor your cover letter, resume, and any other materials that you submit. A recruiter will be looking for a specialist that can command the open position. Specialists know their craft and their language conveys their knowledge. You should do the same.


  • Get feedback. Use your friends and find resources to help you. Every time you apply for a job, you should strive for the perfect application. Work to clean up grammatical errors, polish the roughness out of your materials, and focus on the details. One way to get feedback is to send your cover letter, resume, and portfolio to friends, family, and colleagues. Ask them to be honest, and take their advice. You can also take advantage of other resources, like a free resume critique from Nexxt.


  • Follow protocol. Submit only what the job posting requests—nothing more, nothing less. This will show that you can follow directions. And don’t lie by pretending you have experience in areas that you don’t. Instead relate the experiences you do have, and show how they apply. Many skills are translatable, so translate them to the recruiter. Remember: Underdogs have little appeal if they ignore the rules of the game; they’re exciting because they adhere to the rules and master them. The candidates who follow the rules, command the media used in their applications, and look the best throughout the process have the best chance of moving forward.


  • Step Three: Nail the interview. At this point, the hardest part is over, and you’ve separated yourself from the pack. It may be helpful to remind yourself that you’re still the underdog, and you haven’t won the game yet. There’s still no guarantee that you’ll get the position. Focus on being as present as possible in the interview. You can start by researching the company and make sure you’re up to date on your profession. (You can thumb through news outlets, like News and Advice on Nexxt, to refresh yourself and stay current.) Overall, good interviews are a matter of chemistry and confidence. Show your interest, and explain and contextualize your skills. Ask questions. Take notes if you have to. Do your best. Breathe. 



The Curious Nature of the Purple Squirrel


Recruiters are looking for purple squirrels. That much is clear. However, one of the enigmatic characteristics of a purple squirrel is that it’s almost impossible to spot. 


It’s become standard practice to create highly specific and specialized job descriptions. But as recruiters know, the best candidates are much more dynamic than a resume or job description can convey. The greatest entrepreneurial and game-changing minds defy convention. They don’t fit into molds. They don’t always take straightforward paths to their ultimate successes.


As a job seeker, you should do your best to be seen, learn from the process, and try to improve with each effort. Ultimately, a recruiter is the only one who can properly spot a purple squirrel. Anyone who’s spent ages searching for something will know when they finally find it. It suddenly appears, as bright as day, as if it were waiting to be found.


What do you think you can do to look like a purple squirrel? Post your comments below!


(Photo by Percy Emmert)

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  • Joyce A. B
    Joyce A. B
    This would certainly behoove my makin' changes! And I'd rather be like a squirrel, dartin' from task to task, than sittin' down to watch "em all in da backyard! Thanks for the tips!
  • Donna L
    Donna L
    Hello - This is a comment on Mindy's post regarding the fact that she used to be called by recruiters all the time when she was working. I recently read an article stating that there are active job seekers and passive job seekers. Passive job seekers are the ones who have a job and are looking for a better opportunity. For some reason, according to the article, recruiters concentrate on the passive job seeker and ignore the active job seeker. They think the currently employed person is a better fit - idk - because they are currently activly working?. Logically, it does not make sense to the active job seeker, but it makes sense to the recruiter. The article was suggesting the recruiter select from the active pool of job seekers. Not encouraging for the unemployed. How do we get over that hurdle? Pretend we are employed? It shows there is a stigma to being unemployed - even a short time.
  • Eric R. D
    Eric R. D
    Okay.. I will start by saying that I am a recruiter.  I have worked for agencies, corporations, and I am a staffing consultant presently.I think that your premise in interesting, however you have a very different perspective of a purple squirrel than what I learned.First, this term is mostly used by staffing agencies.  It is used to describe a job order that is impossible to fill... i..e that the company (client) is looking for something that is impossible to find.The most important point: STAFFING AGENCIES DO NOT WANT PURPLE SQUIRREL JOB ORDERS!  As a recruiter working in an agency I could have worked for days and days on an order like that, and never filled it.  Then I would not fill the job,  would not make money, and my bosses would be displeased about how much time I wasted without making any money for the company.Staffing agencies go for mainstream easy-to-fill jobs.  They are there to make money, not help your career.  (That is not to say that the individual recruiters do not want that... but they need to make money to stay employed with the agency...).What you really want is to be the STAR candidate.  If a recruiter finds someone they think is a star, then the will work very hard for that person.  They will present the person on all open jobs that fit, and to previous clients that had similar jobs.  You could also be known as an MPC - Most Place-able Candidate.  You want to be money in their pocket.All that said... I thought your advice was good.  Not everyone can think of job seeking as a game, but the point is still to reframe the  search in some way that makes it easier and more comfortable.  And then you have to do it in ways that put you ahead of the crowd.I have never actually heard the Purple Squirrel term used by a recruiter at a corporation.  They do not want to think of their jobs as impossible to fill - they have a need and want it filled with a star.I would not want a Purple Squirrel candidate (by the definitions I know) because while that candidate may fill a very hard-to-fill position, the odds that I will have that exact position on my desk are very low.  A recruiter will take a star or NPC every day and run...
  • Verlene B
    Verlene B
    Now interviewing after 15 years with same company. This article explains a lot. Very helpful and puts a little humor back into the process. Wonder what we would call someone who was a perfect purple squirrel for their last job but needing a brushup for the next? A lavender squirrel -- almost purple?
    Used to be a purple squirrel.  Nothing breaks the age barrier.  Good talent and experience is going to waste if you are over fifty.  I would take 1/2 the salary and mentor.  Recruiters think you need six figures and look at your healthcare premium.  Thirty years experience as a professional engineer and I am working a $9/hour job watching my retirement dwindle away.  What I have learned, there is no work ethic at the lower end of the workforce.  The nation is divided and education used to make a difference.
  • Christian A
    Christian A
    Great article, and thanks for re-inspiring me.  Job hunting can be tiring and demoralizing, and I’m new to it.  I have tweaked my resume and cover letter over and over trying to make it stand out without success.  The one thing I always seem to forget is to translate all my experience into what the job posting wants.  I need to master that skill.  Again, thanks for the reminder.
  • Scott R
    Scott R
    Well done.  Both in content and structure.  This is an excellent way to present "job search" in a positive way.  I look forward to follow on topics, like - "how to keep your skills sharp while you are seeking".
  • Jani S
    Jani S
    Great article. Be younger. I've been a purple squirrel several times lately; however I didn't get the job. I am a science/technical writer-my résumé is pretty good as is my experience. I've been job looking for 3 years with a short employment stint (and layoff) in between. I used to get offers on the spot, but these last few years I'm not even getting thank you letters after an interview. I'm over 45- barely. I'm a purple squirrel (recruiters even say over the phone "what a match!") until I walk in. I'm attractive, up on my technology, contemporary, skilled and personable. People say you're in your prime, you'll get a great job. But they don't see the face of the 30-something chick hiring manager or the 50-something male hiring manager who (both) want me with my experience but apparently they thought I was something else in person. Repeated failure. So, I started lowering my rate and expectations, but then I get "you're over-qualified." I know of women in their mid 50's with less skill getting jobs so there must be a window that opens back up after you get around a certain corner. I just hope the corner comes soon. Now my shaken confidence is killing me in my interviews! The only offers I'm getting are grunt work offers with very little respect in how the offer is presented. I remember being 30-I was smart and on fire. But my decisions were not nearly as analyzed. I want to tell them they're getting a true bargain with me now-I can do everything the 30-year-old can do plus I won't be leaving to have kids or trying to compete with my boss. Gone are the days I'm flown in, picked up by a driver with a placard at the airport, and put up at a nice hotel for a whirlwind interview. I truly don't know what to do to attain purple. I'm thinking of changing my résumé to alert them of my age [so I don't have to see their expressions change and watch them struggle to find a deficiency to blame]. It will be interesting to see if the recruiters say I'm the purple squirrel then. Kudos to the recruiters though, they know a purple squirrel when they see one digitally.
  • Delbert L
    Delbert L
    I found the article very educational and very current with the jobs market today. I plan to use the technigues given for my next job app.
  • Mindy S
    Mindy S
    George,This is an excellent article and I appreciate it so very much!  I've never replied to or commented on any article in the past, and I've read 1000's it seems lately, since I've been looking for work.  I had never heard of the "purple squirrel" terminolgy...hilarious, but so insightful and helpful!  I'd like to share what I've been experiencing over the past 6 months or so, unlike anything I've ever seen in IT in over 25 years.  It's been such a humbling, frustrating and humilating experience, because you know that you have so much to offer the go to painstaking degrees to perfect every cover letter and resume' that you send out (only for the positions that you feel qualified for).  I keep a spreadsheet of jobs that I've applied for (because programmers are anal about detail like that) I want to know specifics about every one in case I do get a call back!    I've got about 200 on there so far....I do get some calls back, only to be disappointed that the recruiter did not even seem to read my cover letter, after I tried to be so meticulas, and the conversation usually leads nowhere.   Even when I think the conversation goes great with a recruiter...I usually don't hear back, and they seem to drop off of the face of the earth, and will not respond to my inquiries.   This has been incredibly frustrating, as I said, I feel that I have so much to offer!    I haven't been able to reach that "Holy Grail" point yet...but you've inspired me, I know that the right thing will open up one of these days, it's just been so amazing to me because I used to have recruiters calling me everyday at work, wanting me to apply for their jobs!  Crazy, terribly times I guess, even for IT folks, who always seem to have the "tiger by the tail" in the job market.Keep up the good work, and thanks again!Mindy, NC
  • Viji N
    Viji N
  • Henry W
    Henry W
    Recruiters are part of the problem. They are so busy looking for this "purple squirrel" that they miss perfectly good candidates, even great candidates who don't exactly meet the listed requirements which are generally so detailed and high that no one could meet them. How many jr dba's do you know that already have 3 or more years experience as a DBA? By the time I had that much experience I was a Senior DBA. Recruiters get in the way of the process. If I could get past them to the hiring manager I could convince him that I could do the job, but the recruiter is too ignorant of the position or technology to recognize it.By the way, the most common response I get is "impressive resume", but we have decided to go with someone else.
  • Chad B
    Chad B
    In my own job hunt for a technology position I applied to about 20+ positions in the first month using all the top job hunting web sites.  I received multiple calls for contract positions I didn't apply to and just one call from a company I did apply to.  So I changed my strategy and began targeting companies directly and found job openings using their web sites.  For the next month I applied directly to these places, without using the famous job sites and low and behold I received multiple call backs and 8 interviews in the course of just two weeks, ultimately landing my new job.  In my opinion there are too many people using the big job sites exclusively and your resume is going into a pile with hundreds of others.  Look for other approaches and places to apply where there isn't such fierce competition.
  • George Jacob
    George Jacob
    Dianne D., I didn't mean to impart judgment of the concept of the purple squirrel. I simply meant to bring it to light. I don't think it's particularly fair, but more a product of the Internet. It's the same notion that makes Internet dating difficult for some: because there are so many people, how do you find the perfect one? How do you know when you should stop searching? The fact is, at the end, it comes down to a gut call. I'm arguing that the best that a job applicant can do is to survive the cut, and increase his or her odds of being that gut call.

    And Peter C., the squirrel in the photo was caught in New Jersey a few years ago. A couple took pictures of it up close before letting it loose. I was just happy to find a picture of one.  :-)
  • George Jacob
    George Jacob
    Thanks everyone for your comments! I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

    Jacquelyn P., John F., et al., I'm sorry the job search has been difficult for you, but I do believe that you're on the right track. A major part of the process is making yourself look good on paper. The best you can do is work hard to get in the door by making sure your credentials and qualifications align to the job description. Beyond that, I'm sorry to say it's often a matter of luck and chance. I wish you the best in getting a callback from non-ageist recruiters and employers.

    To those of you who mentioned a total lack of responses from recruiters, I'm sorry to say that this is a product of the faceless job-placement process. Recruiters get a vast quantity of applications, and they often can't respond to every one. And from their perspective, I'm sure they feel more pressure to respond to their employers (waiting for a viable candidate) than from applicants. I hope their lack of response is simply a matter of physical precedence.

    Brad M, I think a lot of it is luck. I know I felt lucky in getting this job, and I still feel that way. I like to think that I'm a decent writer, but it took a long time until I was offered a mutually agreeable position. However, I did catch a recruiter's eye, and that was the first big break that led me to here.

    Karl R, You're welcome, and I'm glad you thought enough to comment. I think although there are no standard requirements for recruiting professionals, there are qualities that make for good recruiters (e.g., patience, professional insight, and empathy). They're different from HR professionals in that they don't have to manage employees, they have to find them. And the Internet does provide visibility, as it's easier for people to create live, editable profiles and portfolios online. But because everyone can be visible, it becomes more difficult to distinguish oneself from the crowd.
  • FLOR J
    FLOR J
    Great article,  excellent tool !    I am putting all my efforts together to get my true color out there.  Your advice and input surely works
  • ted b
    ted b
    be myself
  • Carole S
    Carole S
    A truly excellent article--so articulate and concise, it should be very difficult not to "get it" or benefit from your advice.
  • Naomi R
    Naomi R
    Wow! Awesome article! I love show potential employers that I am a total "out of the box" thinker.
  • Frank s
    Frank s
    This is a pie in the sky article. MOST of us know this info. BUT, most of us are in the low end for a response from ANYONE. Perhaps there are just too many people for any position? As more people lose jobs, get older, positions are reduced by technology, and more job seekers are added via graduation, etc.-the numbers are against us, esp. any of us over 50.
  • Debra J
    Debra J
    I agree with Jacquelyn P.  I have been job searching for 5 years for a full time position after my job (and 35 others) was shipped to India.I am a very skilled person with years of Accounting, HR and Office Management experience which should count for something, but recently I have been told I was rusty in my skills because it was over 3 years since I had done accounting.  That, to me, was outrageous, considering how many years experience I had.It is a rough road out there for women over 45.  I am still looking.  I will try the purple squirrel, but my resume has been critiqued as one of the best people have seen
  • DougT
    Great perspective. The notion that we should take a lookfrom the other side of the table offers us the opportunity to really hone in on the specifics of experience and talents of what is required to get hired.Good article !!!
  • Roselind W
    Roselind W
    I really enjoyed this article. It was very beneficial to me. Thank you for this information. I am going to be a Purple Squirrel.
  • stephen d
    stephen d
    Your message is loud & clear to me. Continue to get the education, experience and practice a sound work ethic and the message eventually gets through. I pretend that I'm on camera all the time, not just when I think I am working as a contractor. In retail stores, associates are camera in most chains far more than the store's customers, and, so are vendors and other contractors, as they spend more time in the store than the guests.
  • Jacquelyn P
    Jacquelyn P
    I think that if you are a woman over 45, no matter what you do to fine-tune and hone your resume or cover letter, short of changing your gender and your age, it counts for naught. I advocate blind resumes which have been completely sanitized to remove all indications of gender,  only reflect the last ten years of employment, and have no indication of graduation dates, in order to level the playing field, ever so slightly. We are not so naive to think that the potential employer will not seek other means in order to ascertain gender and age, but we can at least warrant a second glance before they find out, and then discard the packet.

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