How to Ace Your Yearly Performance Review

Performance review, the words still send shivers down my spine. Early in my career, I received a poor performance review and it stuck with me ever since.

Side Note: if you aren’t familiar with employee evaluation scales the verbiage below might be a bit confusing. Below they are broken down into roughly what grade they are. It is important to remember gettings A’s in your full-time job isn’t easy and not a lot of people can get there without really putting in the extra effort. 
-Exceeds expectations – A, you have gone above and beyond what was expected of you.
-Meets expectations – B+, you are doing good! Simply meeting expectations is a great goal to have.
-Partially meets expectations – this is basically a C+, you aren’t failing but you need to start improving.
-Below expectations – D, here you are probably in trouble,

It was my first full year review, so I had no idea what to expect. I was green, right out of college and doing the best I could. Over that first year and a few months, the only real feedback I had gotten from my boss was to be less shy and more confident. Easy for him to say, I was the only woman on the team, the youngest, newest and I knew nothing, compared to these seasoned engineers.  He was rarely in his office, always in meetings and felt difficult to approach.

I had a lot of work to do, the first few months most of it was busy work to get me acclimated to the environment. After that, I was put on a project team with a tight timeline. I did my work and I did it well, I was just bad at talking about it in front of a lot of people.  And as a side note, my boss wasn’t the greatest talker either. In fact, most of our conversations had many of those painfully awkward silences in them.

Partially Meets

When it was time for my review I was so confident I had done well I was going to ask for a raise. That idea quickly died once he started going over my review. I could see there were two different thought processes in place. He quickly went over the things I had done well and told me I got gotten a partially meets overall.  He said that I was young and this review would not mean anything in a few years and that I had a lot of potential.  Then sent me back to my desk to read all the individual items I had gotten a partially meets on.

I was infuriated, then crushed. I had done poorly on a few tests in college, but this was different.  Now that I was out in the world supporting myself I felt like a complete failure.  I also had no idea I had done so poorly, everyone was happy with my work, including my boss.  I emailed my boss that I did not agree with his assessment and he called me back into his office.  He had small explanations for a few things but overall couldn’t tell me specifically anything I had done wrong.

Receiving this review in my first full year of employment made me feel like I couldn’t truly judge my work ability and that in some way, I must be failing.  By sending me back to my desk to read the bad parts of my review I felt some serious shame. It was like I didn’t even matter enough to be told what I did wrong and what I could do better. For someone with anxiety, I thought this was the of the world and in some ways it was.  Four months later I was let go along with 16 other people at the company. If I had read through my performance review I wouldn’t have wanted me either.

Since moving to a place where I actually know, almost immediately, when there is something I need to improve, my performance reviews have been great. I have continuously received meets expectations on my reviews, and a few exceeds expectations in individual categories.

Lessons Learned

I learned a lot of lessons from my first job and the hardest one was not all bosses are going to give you an honest assessment of how you’ve performed your specific job description.  Looking back I honestly think overall as a department we didn’t meet some of our goals and while I didn’t specifically have any control over that, I still got a bad review.

I know that I am not a perfect person, and there was some truth to the comments he made.  There are always things to improve upon, no one is perfect and should ever expect a perfect review.  You should always be striving to get to new places.  Whether my boss was right or not in how he evaluated me doesn’t matter in the long run and I am more successful today because of it.  Which means I have put together a plan so you can avoid a similar situation.

Prepare in Advance

In order to be prepared, there are a few steps we have to go through. First, we have to know what we are being evaluated against and where we currently stand.  Luckily these items are fairly easy to come by.

Job Description and Projects

Check out your job description, does it read like you thought it did? Do you have any questions about it? If you do, talk it over with your boss.  If there are items that are hard or a stretch for you devise a plan to improve your knowledge or skill.

Chances are there some items you are working on fall under categories of your job description but are not explicitly listed. Break them out individually – for example, list the projects and objectives you were given to complete.

Evaluation Rubric

Do you know exactly what items you are going to be evaluated on? If you have a form from the year before look it over.  If you don’t ask your boss for the template used for the yearly reviews.  If they give you a funny look all you have to say is that you want to be prepared.

Office Feedback

Paying attention to what is going on or being said around the office can be helpful. Take cues from co-workers you trust, most of the time your peers want you to do well.

  • Are there things your boss mentioned that you need to work on improving?
  • Do co-workers ever tell you not to do or say something?
  • Have you been written up or reprimanded?
  • Do you follow the dress code?
  • Are you putting in your required hours?

If any of these things have come up, take note! Make a plan to change them. Getting dinged for work culture because you decided polos “aren’t for you” is childish.  It is not seen as cute because you are young. If you have been getting in late, even if no one is saying anything someone is noticing.

Talk to Your Boss

Even if you aren’t worried about you review, checking in with your boss shows that you actively want to be a good employee and keep growing.  My boss now is arguably busier than the first boss I had, but he is far more accessible and approachable. All I have to do is shoot him an email or text to make sure we are on the same page. Sometimes I don’t talk to my boss for 3 days other times I talk to him 14 times in one day. Knowing when to check in saves you time in the long run.


You know what your work priorities are, or do you?  If you are working in an environment that is constantly shifting around priorities make sure you are working with your boss to determine what needs to be done when.  Any time there is more to be done than you can accommodate in a reasonable time frame, speak up.  If you are communicating with your boss about what you can and cannot achieve by the end of the week chances are they will let you know which are the higher priority.

Your boss probably has a boss… so the more informed you keep yours the more informed they can keep theirs.  This is better for everyone because the most important things are the ones that are being completed. In the long run, this should reflect well on you, for the simple reason that you understand your boss has more puzzle pieces to the big picture than you do.

If this is an area that you need help with or are not quite sure how to ask, tell your boss you would benefit from doing a bi-weekly check in to make sure you are both on the same page. It can be in email, in person or even on the phone, this is also a great way to build a better working relationship and show you want to be successful.

Ask for Feedback

Getting feedback on how you are doing is imperative for moving forward. Asking for feedback can be hard, no one enjoys hearing what they could be doing better.  However, when you are asking for feedback you are making the statement that you know there are things you could be doing better, and you would like help improving them. You might think you know what your weak areas are, but you should still ask, sometimes we don’t see ourselves as clearly as we think we do. You might be working on a characteristic that you are already proficient at and miss one you aren’t.

If and when you get feedback don’t get defensive, or play the victim card. You are in control of you, so be responsible for your actions.  Even if you made a mistake or did poorly on something that involved another co-worker, take your share of the blame and get over it.  You could be seen as closed minded or unwilling to change if you try to protest. Listen carefully and ask how you can do better next time.

Need Help?

If you are working on a project and get seriously stuck do not wait until two weeks before it is supposed to go live to mention the problem to your boss. Usually, after you’ve been stuck on something for more than two days, with some solid rest and relaxation in between, it is time to ask for help.  Even if you have a plan or are waiting for more information, you should at the very least, let the project lead know.

If you are new or newer, asking before that might save you some time. People who have a good grasp of the industry, their customers and the product at hand usually have a few tricks up their sleeve when it comes to getting problems solved.

If you need help on a project or task but you are the only one at the company with any experience reach out to your professional community. My college friends and I have a group chat going constantly. We joke that when one of us get hired somewhere they are really getting 3 extra engineers because we are all only a text away.  If you can find a training event somewhere that works too!

Documenting Your Work

As you go through your work days, weeks and months be sure you are documenting the work you are accomplishing. This is good practice regardless of the reason and will save you time in the long run. Think of it as communicating with yourself, but in the future.  When you are juggling many priorities, it can be difficult to remember the status of where you are on all your tasks. Use a spreadsheet to check off tasks and priorities or send out a weekly update email.  A word about emails, make sure you save ones that can CYA at a later date if needed.

For example, I had a vendor quote and send us the wrong product. The lead time to get the new one it was 8 weeks, which put us behind schedule. In the email the vendor admitted fault, so you better believe I saved, forwarded and printed that out. Since it was clearly a vendor mistake, I got no heat for it what so ever. 

Review Time

When the time does roll around for you to have your yearly review, if you have done the steps above you should already know what to expect. If you have been talking to your boss regularly about your performance and taking steps to improve, this should be an exciting review for you.

Before you go in there is a bit more prep work to do.  Even if you are expecting a good review, you should still be asking questions. There are always improvements to be made, even if you are meeting your expectations and especially if you aren’t.  Reviews normally have a similar flow to them, first, an overview of the year, details about your strengths and weaknesses, talk about career goals, maybe salary and then questions.

Questions for when your boss is detailing out your strengths and weaknesses:

  • In areas where you met the expectation, what would you have to do to get the next level?
  • In areas where you did not meet the expectation, why didn’t you and how can you improve next time?
  • Ask for specific examples if you are not clear on why you received a certain mark.
  • Ask if your communication style is professional and well received.
  • What do other (important) members of the company have to say about your work?
  • Is there anything specific that wasn’t already mentioned you can do to improve?

Reviews are generally a good time to bring up your career development and where you see yourself in the next 2 to 5 years.

Questions about career goals:

  • What is the timeline for promotions, raises or other advancement opportunities?
  • What areas do you need to improve to meet your next career milestone?
  • Are there training events or certifications you need to continue moving up?

If you have any other questions make sure you ask them.  Many times reviews are when your boss is most open to discuss things.  If you are having difficulty with something, ask for help.  Your review should be an open and honest conversation about how you are performing. Remember to stay calm during your review, getting mad or yelling will not change anything and will most likely end up hurting you in the long run.

Final Thoughts

A bad review may be an indication of a bad fit with the company you are working for. I know it was for me. So don’t get too discouraged, if you are thinking maybe it is time to look for new employment check out this post on Should you quit your job?

Thanks for stopping by!


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