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Selection Criteria
Oct 5, 2019
5 minutes read

When I was applying for college, my high school (a self-proclaimed “college prep” school, of course) had us fill out a three page long survey intended to help us pick where we would spend the next four years. It was full of questions like:

  • “what is your ideal class or school size?”
  • “what major do you want to pursue?”
  • “what kind of social life do you want to have?”
  • “what particular weather do you prefer?”
  • “are there any activities you’d like to continue (or start) doing?”

Overwhelmed by such questions and not fully understanding their purpose, I instead boiled my entire process down to a single quesiton, “what is the best undergraduate engineering education I can get?” I ended up at Rose-Hulman in Terre Haute, Indiana, having never scraped ice off a windshield or eaten cream cheese (yes, really). I quickly learned about seasons and “the midwestern/middle American phenomenon of recombinant cuisine”; while it took some time to adjust, overall it was a great experience.

However, I was acutely aware that while I succeeded in my primary goal, I had unintentionally neglected other important aspects of my life, such as my outdoor hobbies and a healthy diet. So when I started looking for a new job, my friend Tim suggested I come up with a prioritized list of things that mattered to me I could use to measure each role: my selection criteria.

Why have selection criteria?

When searching for a new role, selection criteria provide necessary clarity that help you decide if opportunities are a good fit and then communicate that “goodness of fit” metric back to a potential employer.

Specifically, I use them for two main purposes:

  1. they allow you to short circuit a discussion (e.g. “I don’t think this is a good fit because X”)
  2. they can help you to focus a discussion (e.g. “Let’s talk more about your plans for Y”)

Selecting criteria

Everyone has selection criteria in mind, but they’re most effective when writtem down. At a minimum, it’s the fastest way to reference them when you need to perform one of the above functions. Writing them down also forces you to recognize and correct inconsistencies: you can’t simultaneously value A and not A, yet I’ve talked to many people who will make such contradictory claims (usually it’s not as obvious: more like “I’d like a salary that isn’t commensurate with the role/responsibility” or “I’d like access to an activity that can’t exist in a particular location”).

Selection criteria for a job often come from the following categories:

  • Team/company size and trajectory
  • Role/responsibility
  • Industry/vertical
  • Location
  • Compensation/benefits
  • Travel
  • Personal growth goals

Since most of these appear in a job listing, you can quickly bootstrap criteria from a role you think is a good fit by identifying the core pieces that excite you, tweaking it a little, then filtering roles by the new criteria. You don’t need an item from each category, in fact, it’s probabl better to have fewer than more (provided the few are truly important and defensible).

Selection criteria in action

A clearly defined and written down set of selection criteria is critical to picking a role, as well as being satisfied with the new job. As offers that generally meet the criteria come in, your selection criteria can provide you the ability to “compare apples to oranges”.

There are two general approaches you can use to compare offers:

  • For quantitative folks, you can assign weights to each criteria and rate each role 1-10 in how well it fits that, then sum the list for each role and pick the one with the highest score. For certain criteria you can derive these scores numerically (e.g. compensation: do a four year projection of total comp - living expenses, location: binary of “in a preferred location or not”).
  • For qualitative folks, you can develop litmus tests to tease out how your gut feels about a particular aspect of the role (e.g. “would my weekends in X city contain hobbies I’ve interested in, and if yes/no how would that make me feel?“).

It’s highly unlikely one role will be perfect in all criteria and therefore be a clear winner. This is expected! Life is about tradeoffs, which is why it’s important that the criteria are prioritized. While you might have five or so criteria; realistically, one or two are going to be overwhelmingly important.

Example: my current criteria

Since I’ve decided to start looking for a new role, I needed to come up with a new set of criteria. After a weekend of reflection, I came up with these:

  • Small but growing team, where I’m not the smartest person in the room.
  • Ownership over a significant part of the product (if not all of it). Likely first product hire, or hired to lead a new area.
  • Personal growth in areas I lack experience in (hiring/people management, fundraising, generally “running the business”).
  • Long term financial upside/preference for equity over salary.
  • Prefer west coast (SF, Seattle, Portland), but not blocking. Travel is desired, up to 25-30%.
  • Dev tools verticals or fintech (right mix of personal knowledge and ability to build products with a lever on the world). No blockchain.

The top three are most important for me (and generally all fall into the category of “personal growth”), since they’re the things I’ve been most starved of.

These is a living list, and it’s guaranteed to change as I grow. For now, it’s the most accurate representation of what I want and how I’m going to prioritize. If you’ve got a role that you think fits these criteria, I’m always happy to talk.

Other applications

Selection criteria are also important in other high impact decisions: deciding where to live, picking a life partner, etc. While this post isn’t geared towards those areas, many of the same principles apply.


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