Landing a principal position—especially in a new school—is more competitive than many candidates expect. Here’s how you can maximize your chances in the job search.

Understand the Competitive Landscape: The 20% Rule

First, it’s essential to understand that the principal job search is intensely competitive and requires considerable effort and persistence. While applicant pools are often small for teaching positions, and AP positions are often filled by promising internal applicants, competing for principal positions requires a champion’s mindset and commitment.

A good rule of thumb is the 20% rule: If you’re succeeding at a given stage in the hiring process at least 20% of the time, you’re doing well; if not, you’ll need to take action to improve your odds. For example, some candidates may feel discouraged if they don’t get any offers after applying for a dozen jobs, getting three interviews, and advancing to the final round once. But the 20% rule suggests that these are actually excellent results; simply persisting will soon lead to success.

It may be necessary to apply for 25–50 jobs to land your first principalship. If you’re in a geographic area or sector with few openings, this may take multiple years, but you can shorten the process by focusing on three key points of leverage:

  • Application materials—examining your résumé and cover letter
  • Interview prep—planning what you’ll say and practicing a wide range of questions on video
  • References—strategizing which past supervisors and colleagues you’ll list as references and ask for recommendation letters

Expect to spend 40+ hours drafting and revising your application materials—especially your cover letter, which is your best chance to make the case that you deserve an interview.

To prepare for interviews, compile a list of practice questions, write out bullet-point answers, and practice them on video. Since talking about yourself for an extended period of time is normally considered bad manners in other contexts, many candidates become self-conscious and stop talking after just a minute or two, so they can’t adequately convey their qualifications. I recommend practicing five-minute answers for each question to ensure that you have enough to say, and to gain experience talking without interruption.

Recruit your references early in the process, so they aren’t surprised at the last minute when they get called for reference checks.

Activate Your Network: Ask for Recommendation Letters

Don’t wait until the last minute to ask your past supervisors and colleagues to serve as references. Asking for draft recommendation letters as early as possible will bring three key benefits:

  • First, it’ll give your references as much time as possible to write high-quality letters—an essential professional courtesy.
  • Second, it’ll activate your professional network, encouraging your references to put in a good word for you, connect you with leadership development experiences, and tell you about postings you might otherwise miss.
  • Third, it’ll give you a preview of what your references might say in a confidential reference check, and a chance to get feedback on what to work on, so you can earn the strongest possible endorsement.

Some candidates are hesitant to ask for recommendation letters, fearful of what their references will say. However, it’s far better to hear directly from your references while there’s still time to address any concerns, rather than wait for a subpar reference check that costs you a job offer. If you ask early enough, you can address areas of concern by seeking new experiences to round out your résumé, working with a coach or mentor, and reading or attending training in key areas.

Recommendation letters are often not required, but they’ll make a big difference if you include them along with your cover letter and résumé. If you have a difficult relationship with your current supervisor, it’s especially important to have strong recommendation letters from other colleagues. A good rule of thumb: Attempt to get 10 recommendation letters, so you won’t have to use any that are less than stellar.

Stand Out: Focus on Accomplishments, Not Duties

At each stage of the hiring process, focus on what distinguishes you from the competition—keeping in mind that other applicants have probably served in similar roles and performed similar duties. For example, nearly all APs have experience with duties such as handling discipline.

Instead of duties, focus on your unique accomplishments in your cover letter, résumé, and interview responses. Use the acronym S.N.A.P. to identify accomplishments: Think of stories, numbers, actions, and processes that will convey who you are and what you’ve done that distinguishes you from the competition. For example, if you’ve handled discipline in your current role, you might identify the following accomplishments:

  • Story: “I worked with a student who had been suspended repeatedly to develop a behavior plan that kept him in school and out of trouble … .” Stories tend to have more impact when they’re more specific, so pick a single example to share in detail.
  • Numbers: “As a result of these behavior plans, our out-of-school suspension rate dropped by 52% compared to the same time period the previous year.” Statistics show the big-picture impact of your efforts, beyond individual cases.
  • Actions: “I collaborated with each student, their family, and their teachers to develop a customized behavior plan that addressed the root causes of their behavioral challenges.” Describe what you did in enough detail that it’s clear how your efforts made an impact.
  • Processes: “After seeing how effective these behavior plans were, we made it our standard practice to develop a behavior plan any time a student is suspended twice in one year.” Describing processes that you’ve put in place shows your readiness to think on the system level, which is a key indicator that you’re ready for a head principalship.

Take Ownership of Your Results

Leading a school requires extraordinary effort and focus over the long term, so it’s fitting that the principal job search often does, too. If you are finding it more difficult than you anticipated, know that you’re not alone, and more importantly, know that you have the power to improve your chances. You don’t have control over your competition, but you do have control over your competitiveness as a candidate.

Don’t attribute rejection to a lack of experience. While experience does matter, and you’ll naturally gain more experience over time, experience is not a high-leverage factor in your competitiveness as a candidate. Simply waiting around for five or 10 more years will not help nearly as much as improving your résumé, cover letter, recommendations, and interview skills.

Use the 20% rule to focus your efforts by looking upstream from setbacks:

  • If you’re not getting enough interviews, focus on your application materials.
  • If you’re not making it past the first round of interviews, focus on interview preparation.
  • If you’re not making it past the final reference check, speak with your references about what you can do to earn their endorsement.

Above all, stick with it, and don’t interpret the difficulty of the process as a sign that you’re on the wrong path. The principal job search is a difficult climb, but it’s worth the effort to achieve your goals. 

Justin Baeder, PhD, is the director of The Principal Center ( and the author of Now We’re Talking! 21 Days to High-Performance Instructional Leadership and Mapping Professional Practice: How to Develop Instructional Frameworks to Support Teacher Growth.