From 161 to 6: Landing the Interview for a Competitive Role

Posted by Ashley Jones

Despite the job market favoring job seekers in many industries, cyber security jobs remain highly competitive. In fact, a recent LinkedIn post by Mic Merritt, Founder and CEO of Merritt Based, shared some interesting stats from an entry-level cyber security opening that received over 160 applicants (124 of which came through LinkedIn in just 21 minutes). While this particular opening was not a cleared position, it illustrates valuable insights that are relevant to job seekers across the board.

Out of 161 applicants, only six were selected for the interview stage. How can you stand out from the crowd, make it to the top of the resume pile, and land that coveted interview? Let’s take a look at the data Mic shared to find out what made certain candidates successful, so you can stand out in your own job search.

Who’s Behind the Numbers

It’s time to dive into the data and find out how qualified those 161 applicants appeared from their resumes—and more importantly, what the six selected for the next stage had going for them. Here are the key datapoints Mic shared (with characteristics that ultimately stood out bolded for your reference):

The Basic Qualifications
  • Work ethic/desire, communication skills, and self-motivation were assumed for all 161 applicants.
  • 152 had Windows/Linux skills.
  • 136 had note taking/documentation skills.
  • 118 candidates had problem-solving skills.
  • 68 had TCP/IP networking skills.
  • Only 32 applicants were CompTIA Security+ certified, but all were willing to become certified.
  • Additionally, 148 were US-based without need for sponsorship.
Resume Bonus Points
  • 14 applicants had Bash skills and 22 had Python skills.
  • 9 had experience in vulnerability assessment or penetration testing.
  • 8 had any penetration testing certification.
  • 7 were willing to work on-call rotations and support weekends/nights.
  • 34 had formal education/degrees in Computer Science or a related field.
  • 8 applicants took the initiative to introduce themselves via DM on LinkedIn.
  • 2 emailed cover letters and introductions.
  • 1 applicant was referred by a contact.
  • 32 showed projects/hands-on learning.
  • 18 software engineering/development resumes were received, but they did not relate to the role or demonstrate cyber security knowledge.
  • 1 resume was in Spanish and required translation.

The Six Selected for Interviews

Who were the lucky 3% that were selected for the interview process? Let’s take a look at the attributes Mic pointed out about those individuals—luck likely didn’t have anything to do with it.

  • All 6 were US-based and willing to work varied schedules.
  • 4 possessed a CompTIA Security+ and 3 had penetration testing certs (eJPT or Pentest+).
  • 3 had previous IT experience (1 help desk and 2 network admin).
  • 3 had degrees (2 associates and 1 bachelors in progress).
  • 2 had Bash or Python knowledge (1 PCAP cert).
  • The one person who was referred got an interview.

Lessons Learned

So what does all this tell us? Aside from the competitive nature of entry-level cyber security roles, Mic’s peek behind the curtain teaches us the following:

1. Read the Job Ad Carefully

For one, the job posting clearly stated that candidates must have legal authorization to work in the US and not require sponsorship. However, 13 applicants were not located in the US and required sponsorship/VISA, automatically disqualifying them from consideration.

While you don’t typically need to have 100% of the things noted in a job posting, there’s a difference between hard requirements and nice-to-haves. This is illustrated by the fact that Mic included a “resume bonus points” section.

Of course, in a competitive market those extras can make the difference between candidates who move forward and those who don’t—just look at how many of the bullet points in the “resume bonus points” section are bolded (i.e. they were attributes of the candidates selected for interviews)!

2. Highlight Your Relevant Qualifications and Skills

Don’t waste valuable space on your resume listing subjective soft skills. As Mic alluded to, things like work ethic and self-motivation were assumed for all 161 applicants. Hard skills like Windows/Linux skills, TCP/IP networking skills, and certifications are what Mic was truly searching for in each resume.

So be sure to tailor your resume to each position you apply for. Look at the requirements noted in a job ad, and make sure they’re easy to find on your resume. Then add the nice-to-haves and preferred qualifications that you meet as well. You can see how the pool of applicants with the “resume bonus points” listed above got much smaller. That’s the pile you want your resume to land in, so make it clear you fit the bill.

3. Few People Personalize Their Outreach

While sending a DM or cover letter doesn’t guarantee you’ll be selected for an interview, you can see from the numbers how few candidates take these extra steps. Only eight applicants took the initiative to introduce themselves via DM, and two emailed cover letters and introductions. Naturally, they’re going to stand out from the pack.

Some recruiters and hiring managers skip reading through a cover letter, but some do read them. That personal touch can increase your chances of getting noticed and demonstrates your interest in the position. But keep in mind, it needs to be well written. A poorly written cover letter or message that has typos will only harm you.

4. Referrals Are Priceless in Job Search

You may also have also noticed that the one person who had a referral was selected for the interview. Referrals signal to the hiring manager that the referred candidate is not only qualified, but also comes with an endorsement from someone they already trust. Referrals can carry a lot of weight in the hiring decision, as the employer may see it as a lower-risk option than an unknown candidate.

If you don’t know anyone at the company who can refer you, consider getting in front of the company’s recruiters by reaching out to them on LinkedIn or attending networking events and job fairs.

5. Showing Hands-on Learning Is Valuable for Entry-Level Positions

Of the 161 candidates that applied, 32 showed projects or hands-on learning. That’s less than 20%. Only half of the candidates selected for an interview had a degree (or one in progress), so we can conclude hand-on learning is valuable for an entry-level cyber security position.

Consider including projects and things that signal hands-on learning such as home labs or involvement in Capture the Flag competitions on your resume. This can demonstrate your passion for cyber security and a willingness to learn outside of formal education.

Overall, the stats Mic shared emphasize the importance of a well-crafted resume. The job ad was closed after just 21 minutes, showing how competitive jobs like these can be. If you want to make it through to the next stage of the hiring process and have hopes of landing the job, be sure to spell out your qualifications in no uncertain terms.


  • Ashley Jones

    Ashley Jones is ClearedJobs.Net's blog Editor and a cleared job search expert, dedicated to helping security-cleared job seekers and employers navigate job search and recruitment challenges. With in-depth experience assisting cleared job seekers and transitioning military personnel at in-person and virtual Cleared Job Fairs and military base hiring events, Ashley has a deep understanding of the unique needs of the cleared community. She is also the Editor of ClearedJobs.Net's job search podcast, Security Cleared Jobs: Who's Hiring & How.

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This entry was posted on Monday, March 06, 2023 1:39 pm

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