Avoid the top 7 career mistakes

Ramit Sethi

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this post.

I talked to staff members for advice, I talked to friends who run similar businesses, and I just couldn’t figure out how to get the words out right.

A few weeks ago, I announced a small group that I’d be personally helping to find their Dream Jobs, including identifying what their Dream Job was, learning how to use their own personal network, interviewing, negotiating their salary — all in all, using a new strategy (and super-detailed tactics) that I created for finding jobs.

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Then I opened up one scholarship to an IWT reader. I offered to pay thousands of dollars in their tuition, give them the same access as my paying students, and even have them come to NYC to learn inside techniques I’ve never revealed anywhere else.

After receiving hundreds of applications — and reviewing them all — I’m disappointed to announce that I can’t select even one applicant for the scholarship.

This surprised me. I would have expected 15% of applicants to become finalists, then one to win. I know these basics stats since I’ve won hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships myself, so I know how the game is played.

Yet not one scholarship application was as qualified as my paid application, whose acceptance rate was much higher. Some scholarship applications were simply unrealistic: people who wanted to earn $100K, but only earned $50K right now. (That’s not going to happen in 1-2 years.) Others didn’t know what they wanted — which is fine — but had taken no steps to discover any areas of interest. They were simply waiting to “figure it out” or wanted a magical system that would tell them the exact job they should pursue. And others had extenuating life circumstances of crushing barriers that I couldn’t help with.

And so I had to pass on every single application. This isn’t what I wanted — I’m still troubled by this, and I would have loved to help one of you with this program — but I’ve always said that I can’t help everyone.

But I do believe in being brutally honest, and showing you how to improve. With a few hours of work, I believe many of the applicants could dramatically improve — not only for this application, but for applying to many other areas of life.

The Top 7 Mistakes for Finding a Dream Job
I went through the applications with my staff and studied the patterns of what made us reject the applicants. We identified 7 critical mistakes.

For example, when it comes to finding a Dream Job, have you ever caught yourself saying:

  • “I just need to figure it out” (Except you’ve been saying that for 6 months and nothing has changed)
  • “Yeah, I should update my resume” (Missing the entire point)
  • “I have all these interests…I don’t want to close doors” (Staying broad vs. getting specific)
  • “I don’t even know what I want” (Trying to do Magical Matching instead of testing your way there)
  • “I’m lucky to even have this job” (Not true for top performers)

I decided to hold a live talk this Wednesday, 11/16, at 9pm EST (6pm PST). I’ll be covering The Top 7 Mistakes for Finding Your Dream Job.

Some of these are very subtle and I only discovered them after reviewing tens of thousands of data points. I’ll be sharing them — free — in the hopes that you can improve your applications and, next time around, I can get better applicants to help more of you.

My goal is for you to walk away with at least five actionable steps to find your Dream Job after the one-hour call. And since it’s live, I’ll leave plenty of time for Q&A.

I have limited seats available, so if you’re interested, sign up below to get details on the secret URL. If you can’t make it, sign up any way and I’ll try to send a recording to the people who signed up (no promises, though).

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  1. Stephen Ryan

    The form for the talk directs into the private list area. Not sure if it auto signs you up but it didn’t appear to.

    One comment on
    “I have all these interests…I don’t want to close doors” (Staying broad vs. getting specific)

    I recently swapped jobs going from a jack of all trades IT admin to a specific area IT admin. Initially I was worried about, as you put it, closing doors. However it so far has proved to have been a great idea. More cash, less responsibility, less stress, and better hours, which of course means more time for the side hustle.

    • Ramit Sethi

      I’ll send out details via my email list tomorrow.

  2. Dee

    Some scholarship applications were simply unrealistic: people who wanted to earn $100K, but only earned $50K right now. (That’s not going to happen in 1-2 years.)

    Sure it is, if you’re underemployed enough to start with. I did it — 46k to 56k to 47/hr to 50/hr, all in a year and a half.

    I wasn’t reading Ramit at the time, but I did a lot of what he’s been saying, so I feel validated. Specialize, specific valuable training, improving negotiation skills and understanding of psychology…. It works.

    • Grant

      I did it too. went from $65K to $140K with one job change. All because I was undervalued and the demand for my knowledge and experience was great. Why not reach for this type of growth? It comes down to experience, personsal branding, and demand. Line those up and there is rapid growth potential just for changing jobs.

  3. Christian

    With respect to the “staying broad” versus going specific, you’ll find that even if you want to do that and believe it to be of value, in the end you have chosen a
    specialty: “generalist” is a specialty. Over time you will only be a fit for jobs that explicitly want a generalist.

    The problem with that is almost no one hires for that role. Even if a hiring manager wants a generalist, HR will almost always demand a string of specialized qualifications for any decent paying job, and they will filter out candidates that don’t exactly match that list.

    • Barbara Saunders

      Another way of being a generalist, though, is being a multi-specialist who specializes in diagnosing and solving multi-disciplinary problems. This type of generalist can often position herself as a specialist.

      Example: I once did a gig as a “personality type test facilitator.” I led a standard workshop, but immediately recognized that the client’s real problem was that they were relying on architects to do their marketing. What I really gave them was a seminar on a spectrum of marketing and sales techniques that did not require architects to adopt the personalities of salespeople. The CEO told me it was “the best such workshop he’d ever attended.”

      They had the kind of problem that ONLY a generalist would diagnose, and that many specialists would approach like the proverbial hammer-jockey with a nail in the sight. A smart generalist looks for clients who have those kinds of problems, markets herself based on what they think they want, and then hits it out of the ballpark precisely because she can pull in different skills.

      Rinse. Repeat. Get the referral!

  4. Susan

    That’s a huge bummer and also surprising. But it sounds like the common denominator in all of this is you. I’m curious how clear your expectations were? Either way, it’s still surprising not one person could make it through to the other side.

    • Ramit Sethi

      Agreed. Yet the paying students managed to knock it out of the park, so there’s something else going on here besides my (admittedly) high standards.

  5. Greg Miliates

    Personal responsibility is at the core. If you feel you’re a victim of corporate America, your employer, the economy, or anything else, you simply won’t take action to change your situation. Most likely, you won’t even realize that it’s YOU who needs to do something different to change your situation. Relying on others for a handout is still a victim mentality, and maybe that’s why none of the scholarship applicants met the requirements. I’m not saying that handouts are bad, but that maybe the people who self-selected themselves for the scholarship have a different mindset than those who are willing to pony up some cash.

    There’s a fair amount of research that shows that asking for a nominal commitment–even as small as a dollar–engenders more participation & commitment.

    So, folks who didn’t make the cut for the scholarship might be better suited to something else–like Earn1k–so they can get started on a new mindset without having to commit to the more rigorous Dream Job course. Just a thought.

    In any case, taking personal responsibility is the key, and defining clear expectations for applicants for what that means might tap into the group of people with the mindset that you’re looking for.

    Greg Miliates

    • Ramit Sethi

      Agreed about the mindset difference between the sets of applicants. It was quite evident. Also agree about more clearly defining expectations. I have to take personal responsibility for this, as well.

    • Arti

      Agree completely.

      Ramit, I am not sure how many applications you got for the scholarship, but I can personally attest to one reason why I didn’t apply. Here’s a sentence from your email announcing the scholarship:
      “That’s why I’m looking for a “hidden gem” — someone who has the same hustle and drive and demonstrated success as my other world-class applicants…someone who is every bit as qualified as my paying students, but who may have fallen on some bad luck.”

      Honestly, who could possibly match up to that sentence? By definition, if this person has the level of hustle and “demonstrated success” as your other world-class applicants, this also means they don’t have the “whiner’s mentality” that you hate so much. Then, how could they possible call any part of their life as “bad luck”?

      Instead of pointing out why all your applicants suck, I would love to see a follow-up post on the characteristics that are common to the folks that did make it to your Dream Job Elite program (current job, future expected job, education / credentials, college etc).

  6. Rachel

    I’m glad you didn’t pick any of the scholarship applicants. I watched all the videos (many people didn’t even follow the simple directions about posting links correctly in the comments) and was totally underwhelmed. I wanted to apply for the program but knew that I wasn’t in a position to commit to the time requirements so I went through the application process for the sake of exercise and I probably put more time into it than most of the applicants.

    Is it possible that the ones truly deserving of the scholarship applied during the regular process despite how much of a financial sacrifice it is because they wanted the opportunity that badly? As I recall you couldn’t apply for the scholarship if you already applied during the regular process.

  7. Ben

    Amazed that nobody made the cut for the scholarship. Despite the fact I’m happy with my current startup job, I debated applying anyway. Why? Because E1k had some ‘why the heck didn’t I think of that’ moments that I’ve applied to other areas, and I’m sure this would too.

    I do wonder how even a small $5 application fee would have affected the quality.

    • Ramit Sethi

      Sad that you didn’t apply.

      Also, the quality would have gone WAY up, but people would have howled about how I was trying to make money ($5) on a scholarship application, so it would have backfired. Plus, I always tell people to avoid scholarships with an application fee, so it wouldn’t be right.

  8. Doka

    Man, if I found out about this website in October, I would have gotten that scholarship. I know exactly the 2 types of positions I am applying for, I am researching the field, and actively learning how to get my resume to make them call me for an interview. My goal is to pick the company that best matches my values and get paid what I need to move out of my parents’ home. When I saw the Dream Elite last week, I wished so bad I knew about it in time to apply (I would have been willing to pay. If the program actually works, then I would have the money to pay it!). But the fact your program exists is what pushed me to get real about my job hunt process. I’ve used (and AM USING) all your free materials. No job offers yet, but a lot of clarity and confidence and advanced learning.

  9. John

    I’m surprised as well. More specific instructions would have been good but at the same time as someone who watched all your videos, you were pretty clear about the prerequisites to succeeding with your method. The most notable of these being not only figuring out what you want to do, but getting ultra specific about what you want to do. That was a huge theme.

    I regret not applying now that I hear about all the problematic applications. I thought with all the applications a better use of my time would be to just try and implement everything you’ve shared so far (i.e. to take action rather than hoping everything would be solved with one lucky application to your scholarship). That is the irony of it: applying to your scholarship goes against your general advice to stop just spamming applications everyday.

    • Ramit Sethi

      Yup. The one commonality among all the people who didn’t apply is: They didn’t get into the program.

      Also, chances are that same mentality bleeds into other parts of their lives.

  10. Joseph

    What do you think is a realistic time-frame for a person currently earning 50k who wants to earn 100k?

    • Ramit Sethi

      For most people, years. For some people, never.

    • david

      I’m decently smart with a good corporate job. I did that pretty much in 5 years. For me, it required a decent starting salary in a city, consistent high performance, knowing and impressing the right people, a hot skill set, and a job change at the right time.

      It also helps if you don’t have a sense of entitlement and you make your supervisor’s life easier before they know it could be easier.

    • david

      I’m decently smart with a good corporate job. I did that pretty much in 5 years (age 22-27). For me, it required a decent starting salary in a city, consistent high performance, knowing and impressing the right people, a hot skill set, and a job change at the right time.

      It also helps if you don’t have a sense of entitlement and you make your supervisor’s life easier before they know it could be easier.

    • david

      Not smart enough to avoid double posting though 🙂

  11. Paul

    It looks like your application process for the scholarship wasn’t specific enough to what you wanted to see (hah!). (Ideally) it should have included more strict guidelines so all applicants could have avoided the 7 mistakes you found (or not applied at all once they saw they wouldn’t meet the criteria).

    When a class of 400 people all fail a test in college with an average of 30% or less, it’s not that the students are all dumb. Clearly the teacher just sucks.

    • Bella


      Very interesting stats. I am shocked as well that the standards were unrealistic no no one was selected. I wonder if there was a real scholoarship or this is a test or just a PR statement?

  12. Brian


    Would you be willing to share some of the applications with us? (anonymously of course) It would be interesting to compare the paid applicants that you accepted with the best of the unpaid applicants. I predict 2 possible outcomes.

    1) We all learn a lot about hustling and disproportionate results.

    2) We discover that Ramit is High Expectations Asian Father

    • Ramit Sethi

      Nope, sorry. You can rest assured that I am definitely High Expectations Asian Father. My future kids, for example, will love me. Because I tell them that they must.

  13. Jane

    “I wanted to apply for the program but knew that I wasn’t in a position to commit to the time requirements so I went through the application process for the sake of exercise and I probably put more time into it than most of the applicants.”

    This comment cracks me up. I love how the commenter knocks all the applicants while making excuses for why she didn’t apply. Funny.

    I applied, and although I now must shamefully endure membership in the Dream Job Elite Failed Scholarship Pool, I’m better off for giving it a shot. When Ramit called to interview me, I got 20 minutes of his time (I believe the current going rate for that is $500?), some direct feedback, and several suggestions specific to my dream job. AND now I have the opportunity to get more feedback in the upcoming live chat on the problems Ramit saw in the applications.

    One of the most helpful things about this process is that I often ask myself, “Am I creating barriers for myself that are getting the way? Am I making excuses for not taking more action?” Now I know the answer more clearly: YES.

    And, ahem, I think this puts me in a better position than those who didn’t even get past the application barrier, but still think if they’d only had the time to apply (or insert other excuse here), they would have been different than all the other applicants.

    Just sayin’.

    • aelle

      …”those who didn’t even get past the application barrier, but still think if they’d only had the time to apply (or insert other excuse here), they would have been different than all the other applicants.”

      That’s a common psychological barrier, isn’t it? Avoiding taking action to maintain the illusion that you don’t fail. Of course eventually you end up living a whole different kind of fail.

  14. Eric S. Mueller

    Ramit, I don’t want to sound arrogant. I’m sure I could have produced an application that would have caught your eye. I’m not saying I would have won. Just that hopefully, mine wouldn’t have ended up in the pile.

    Even with the price waived, there’s still the time and travel commitment, and I can’t commit to that. So I elected not to apply. I’m also fairly content in my current job. I wouldn’t call it perfect, but it’s going pretty well for now.

  15. Steve O

    This seems incredibly pompous. I can’t believe there wasn’t a single qualified application out of hundreds. I know you might not have gotten a great applicant, but there certainly were people who were good, and who met the criteria you set forth.

  16. Krista

    I was one of those that was failed to meet the expectations of the scholarship application. Honestly, I am really frustrated that my application failed to meet the requirements. I invested considerable time on the application.

    The only area of my application that I can find that is weak is that I didn’t know exactly what my dream job is–I am surprised that this would have disqualified me. I was under the impression that a significant portion of this program was to help identify your dream job.

    I am definitely interested in seeing the quality of those that were accepted into the paid group. I hate failing and I want to make sure I don’t make this mistake again.

  17. Aaron

    Psychological Barriers!!!! I thought about applying but I told myself I wouldn’t get it. I also thought that since I already have a job I really like that it wouldn’t be fair to all the miserable sots who hate what they do. I won’t make that mistake again.

  18. Pam

    Interesting. I actually was NOT surprised when I read this post…that a scholarship winner wasn’t selected. It seems kind of antithetical to this whole site’s premise. If someone really wanted to apply for the DJE program, they would have done so before knowing about the scholarship—the payment plan option would have neutralized any concern about the cost.
    It seems possible that when the scholarship was announced, the focus became more (in people’s heads) about proving why they “deserved” the scholarship versus why they really WANTED to go through the program. But, not having seen any of the applications or watched more than 2-3 of the videos, that’s purely a guess on my part.

  19. Tom

    That’s BS and you know it. I got job offers of 56k then 64k then 106k in a two week period. If I held out for another three weeks it would’ve gone to 120k. If you know what you are doing 50 to 100 in 2 years isn’t difficult.

    And now you want me to give you my resume and cover letter so you can sell it to your dream job elite cohort?

    • Ramit Sethi

      Congratulations, but you are the exception

    • matt

      the same job doubled their offer? I find that hard to believe. If you could have gotten 120k by holding out 3 more weeks why didn’t you?

    • Doka

      And what is your industry??

  20. Adrien

    There is also a huge difference in negotiating up offers and someone having earned 50k for 2-3 years in a row wanting to up to 100k in its next job. Not impossible but needs a lot of work from someone that has not achieved it in the past.

  21. Brandon

    ” Some scholarship applications were simply unrealistic: people who wanted to earn $100K, but only earned $50K right now. (That’s not going to happen in 1-2 years.) ”

    I’m surprised someone like you would say that’s unrealistic. It’s definitely possible depending on the field. I had the opportunity to jump from 40k to 60 after a year and definitely could have gotten close to 100k with another year or two of experience. If you take on the right positions and get experience that is in demand, you could command a higher salary. Be more optimistic.

    • Anonymous

      Also depends upon the specifics of the circumstances. I went from a high-tech job at $65K to a couple of years at a nonprofit at $50K and jumped from that to over $100K contract at another high tech company – through a connection from job #1 who had moved to the larger, better-paying company in the interim.

  22. aelle

    As one of your international readers who is usually either asleep or at work at the time of your live presentations, I appreciate your trying to record them! Thank you.

  23. Tom

    Different companies. Same industry and job titles. I only know about the 120k because that’s what my friend ended up with.
    As a knowledge worker you can add orders of magnitude more value than you get payed. The difficult thing is demonstrating that value. I can think of a couple examples where I have covered my annual wage in a single day.

  24. Dinheiro Frugal

    Here in Europe (specially here in Portugal), the crisis is in such a high gear, that we are happy to have a job!…
    Of course we hope this situation will end as soon as possible, but until that day comes, we really have to nurture the job we have and take the best out of it.

  25. Cherleen @ My Personal Finance Journey

    One of the biggest mistakes in finding your dream job is not knowing what you want to do and how to do it.

  26. Gruro Weich

    Today I went to look for jobs at a specific place I wanted to work, it was refreshing, I realize that most important thing about working on the dream job is to really take action and talk to people.

    I had a curious reaction from people too. Not what I expected at all. I outright asked for this x pay is it possible, many people gave me that sad face, and it’s kind of weird. They seem to care about the issue. I was thankful for their honest response though. I smiled and said thanks you’ve been helpful at the end of every conversation and I got a smile back. That was much better than sitting at home and thinking about it.

  27. Easy Like Black Friday Morning Weekly Roundup – # 4 – November 25th, 2011 — My Personal Finance Journey

    […] to his IRA every year religiously. 5.    I Will Teach You To Be Rich posted about how to Avoid the Top 7 Career Mistakes and identified seven critical mistakes people commit in finding their dream job. 6.    The […]

  28. Inder

    Nope. I think he’s just being honest and syniag he doesn’t remember. I would reply to his response with your submission.p.s. This is a good lesson to learn: when you follow up with someone who didn’t respond always include a link/attachment/etc to the previous item. If you happen to get their attention the 2nd time (like you did), then you want to make it easy on them to take the action you want. Don’t make them search for the earlier submission. The easier you make it, then easier it will be for them to say yes.Hope that helps!