At any given time, there are millions of Americans out there seeking employment with some level of seriousness. Many of them are in your field, and some of them are likely applying for the same job.
Most of those people follow the same exact pattern over and over again for their job search. They make a half-decent resume and cover letter, send the exact same document to many different organizations, and then wonder why they rarely get calls back. Then they repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
On the other end of that picture is a hiring manager at an organization, someone whose job it is to figure out who to interview and who to hire for a specific position. That person gets dozens if not hundreds of these kinds of applications and resumes every week. They’re all pretty similar – some are more polished than others, but nothing exceptionally stands out from the pile.
Somehow, a few of those resumes get selected for interviews. People show up. They answer questions. They go home. The hiring manager has to pick from among those few or else hire a few more.
So, how does that hiring manager make that choice? Who goes to the top of that pile of resumes? Who gets the interview? Who gets the job from that interview?
It’s the applicants that stand out in a positive way at each step in the chain.
I’ve been through this process on both ends of the equation. I’ve applied for very competitive jobs and actually secured a couple of them. At the same time, I’ve served on hiring committees for very competitive jobs and watched the sausage get made. There are quite a few tricks that really stood out to me on both sides of the coin that really made the difference. Here are the ten best among those strategies.
Strategy #1: Strongly prioritize applying to organizations where you have a connection.
One of the easiest ways to get your application to the top of the stack is to have someone within that organization with a good reputation that can vouch for you. Trust me – if a person with a good track record sticks their head into a hiring manager’s office and puts in a good word for you, your application is going to zoom right to the top of that stack. It’s not a guarantee of an interview, but it’s a huge positive attribute.
Thus, one great strategy for getting a great job is to simply start by focusing strongly on organizations where you already know someone.
Of course, this starts by having a pile of strong professional relationships, which is something you should start building and maintaining immediately. You do this by being active professionally with your peers on social media, attending professional meetings, and engaging people in your profession inside and outside of your workplace as often as you meaningfully can. Having said that, a dozen good strong positive relationships are worth a thousand very flimsy ones, so prioritize building good relationships over collecting tenuous ones.
If you do know someone at an organization with an opening, talk to that person and ask them to take some time to put in a good word for you. If your relationship with that person is positive and you’ve helped that person in the past, it’s very likely that they’ll help you out, and a quick email or quick conversation with the hiring manager will help push that application of yours right to the top.
Strategy #2: Craft your materials to specifically target the job and company.
The vast majority of resumes and cover letters that a company receives are pretty generic. They’re obviously created and designed to be able to be sent out almost thoughtlessly by the applicant, as though making one good ready-made resume and cover letter is all that’s needed.
The thing is, each position is different. Each company is different. When your cover letter and resume reflect what’s unique about that position and company, it looks a lot better than an ordinary resume.
Before you send a resume and cover letter to an organization, stop and take some time to do your homework on the position itself and the company you’re applying to. Ask yourself what exactly that organization is really looking for in terms of the skills and characteristics you have to offer and then customize your cover letter and resume to focus on those things.
This strategy takes a lot of work, but it really pays off. You have to spend some time really researching the company and the position itself to really get a bead on what that company is all about and what they’re really looking for, but a cover letter and resume crafted to maximize that is going to hit a home run.
Strategy #3: Focus your cover letter on a challenge the company is facing and how you can solve it.
To expand upon the previous strategy, one powerful step you can take is to turn your cover letter into a pitch to solve a specific problem the company is facing. Again, this takes a great deal of work and some careful thinking, but it can really pay off.
Rather than just looking at the skills you have and merely listing them out, instead look at what the company actually needs here. What are they hiring you to do? What need does the company really have to even offer this position?
Write your cover letter from that perspective. The company has a problem of some kind or else they wouldn’t have this position open. What is that challenge they’re facing? What do you have to offer that will answer that challenge?
Remember, the organization doesn’t really care that much about you personally. What the organization cares about is solving this problem that they have, and they want to put the best person possible into that position so that the problem can be solved. They want to move forward on their mission, whether it’s providing some kind of service or solving some kind of large problem or simply making as much money as possible.
Ask not what the organization can do for you, but what you can do for the organization.
Strategy #4: Build an online portfolio of your best work
Your resume is going to usually include mentions of the work that you’ve done, but by the nature of a resume, it can’t really include that material. You can’t include art or lesson plans or code or interfaces or certifications in a resume.
What you can do, however, is create a website for yourself that houses all of those things. It can show off code you’ve written or designs you’ve created. It can list your certifications and the self-education you’ve completed (with links to your Coursera profile, for example).
Your online portfolio can basically be an expansion of your resume, including examples of your work that just do not really fit into the dimensions of a typical resume.
Make such a portfolio. I recommend using a service like Squarespace, which makes it pretty easy to set up this kind of online portfolio for yourself. Fill it with examples of your work and your efforts to become a better professional.
Include a link to this material in your cover letter and resume so that hiring managers can take a look at that material when deciding whether to interview you or not. Often, the presence of a solid online portfolio can be a difference maker.
Strategy #5: Call the hiring manager before the interview.
Shortly after the application deadline, take the time to call the organization and see if you can talk to the hiring manager. Many job applications provide some method for contacting the organization, so don’t hesitate to take advantage of it.
When you get the hiring manager on the phone, simply ask about the status of choosing interviewees for that position. Make it clear that you’re very interested in the position and that you think you’re a great fit. This is a great time to look at your notes about the company and the position and hit a few of the high points in the conversation that explains why you, specifically, are a great fit for solving that organization’s specific problem.
Don’t overdo it. The hiring manager is busy, so keep the conversation short. Just make it clear in a very brief way – less than a minute – that you’re very interested in the position, that you think you’re a great fit for it, and that you’re wanting to know what the next step is.
Often, if you do this in the day or two following the close of an application period, you’re going to hit that hiring manager very close to the time in which he or she is sifting through those applications. A quick phone call like this sticks your name in their mind and can often cause them to pull your application to the top of the stack. Again, don’t overdo it – keep the call really brief and really positive. You just want to do enough to get your name in the hiring manager’s mind in a positive way, not an annoyed way.
Now, let’s move onto great strategies for when you do get that interview!
Strategy #6: Prepare for the interview by asking questions.
The hiring manager calls you and sets up an interview. Great! Your foot is in the door! Now what? Yes, there are the obvious steps of showing up punctually (even early) and dressing well and being well groomed and so on, but those are expected basics. The question is, how do you stand out?
The first thing you can do is practice the interview. Go through lots and lots of questions that you might be potentially asked and practice how you’ll answer them. The goal of this is not to memorize a bunch of stock answers to recite, but to be so comfortable with the things you might be asked that you can craft a genuine good answer on the fly.
If the organization is a large one, there may be some advice online for the kinds of questions that you might be asked, so tap that first. If it’s not large, look online for questions that are typically asked during interviews for positions like yours. The internet is loaded with these kinds of questions, and those resources are being used by the people who succeed at interviews.
Practice those questions. Get your partner or a close friend to come over and “interview” you by asking those questions (and variations on them). Have them take notes on how you did, intentionally looking for ways to make your answers better. Remember, this kind of activity is meant as an improvement activity and you need criticism to know what to work on and improve.
Don’t allow this practice to make you nervous. Recognize that when you do improve, you’re just making it more likely that you get the job. Treat it as a confidence builder. You’re just increasing the likelihood that you’re going to get this job.
Strategy #7: Optimize your mind and body before the interview.
All of the grooming and proper dressing techniques apply here, but you should really go beyond that. Do everything you can to ensure that you’re in the best possible mind and body when you walk in that door.
Some suggestions from my own life that I follow when I have to be primed for a key moment:
I get some exercise the day before. The day before a big presentation or something like that, I get a ton of vigorous exercise. I don’t do anything that’s going to leave me really sore, but I definitely get a workout of some kind. If you’re not much of an exerciser, just take a nice brisk fairly long walk. The reason for this is that it primes your body and mind for a great night of sleep.
Eat a healthy dinner the night before. Don’t eat something unhealthy and heavy in your gut. Eat something that’s enjoyable, but pretty healthy, and don’t eat until you’re stuffed. Don’t down a bunch of junk food in the evening, either. Again, the goal is to feel as good as possible the following day.
Get a great night of sleep. Go to bed early so that you can likely sleep until you naturally awaken without an alarm. A good night of sleep the night before a big event is one of the best things you can possibly do for yourself.
Eat a healthy breakfast with both protein and carbs. My usual go-to “power breakfast” is two hard boiled eggs, a little oatmeal, and a piece of fruit (like a banana or an orange). Nothing beats it for making me feel good all morning long.
Get a little bit of intense exercise. Don’t do a full workout, but do something to really get your blood pumping just before you take a shower. I usually go on a really brisk walk and then do a bunch of squats and planks and other body weight exercises.
Do the normal pre-interview stuff: shower, dress well, groom yourself, show up early. This is all obvious stuff, but it’s still important.
Listen to something mentally engaging but on a different topic on your way to the interview. Listen to a podcast or an audiobook that will get your brain moving, but choose a topic that’s actually different than your interview. You want your brain to be bopping along, but you don’t want to get yourself all keyed up before the interview. Think about other things, but think.
That’s my routine before any big event and it works really well for me. I feel like my mind and body is ready to go.
Strategy #8: Ask thoughtful questions about the company during the interview.
One of the best things you can do for your case during an interview is ask questions. That might seem crazy at first, but it serves a bunch of purposes all at once.
First, it reinforces the idea that you’re intellectually curious and are an active gatherer of information. That’s becoming more and more and more important for almost every workplace. Employers want intellectually curious information gatherers because those people tend to prepare well and solve problems on their own.
Second, it helps you learn more about the organization and whether you actually want to work there. Is this a place you really want to work? Is this a place where you’ll fit in well? What are the quirks of the organization’s culture? By asking questions about the organization and the people that work there, you’re satisfying those internal questions.
Finally, the answers to those questions might give you strong clues about what to mention going forward. One of the best things that a person can do during an interview in my experience is to take something they just learned about an organization and integrate it well into their own answers about why they’re a good fit for the organization. That, to me, is almost always a sign of a top candidate. It exhibits almost everything an organization looks for in a candidate.
Remember, you’re learning about them as much as they’re learning about you.
Strategy #9: Take notes during the interview, especially names of people you have significant interaction with.
Don’t do this in an ostentatious or detailed way. One great thing to do is to just take a small pocket notebook with you and then use it to just jot down names and other really key pieces of information as you go. Gather business cards and slip them inside the pocket notebook along the way.
My favorite strategy is to collect business cards throughout the meeting, then when I have a moment or two of downtime, I jot down a specific thing or two to follow up on on the back of that person’s card. If no card is available, I’ll just jot down their name and a follow-up avenue or two.
Similarly, jot down anything that you’re asked about that you’re not perfectly familiar with. Not being familiar with everything is perfectly okay. The real question is how you handle unfamiliarity. If you handle it with curiosity and grace, and you do this by not getting upset and writing down the thing you’re unfamiliar with, then that’s a good sign.
You should also record anything important that you want to remember about this interview going forward, including immediate thoughts about the company and position. Obviously, don’t record anything that shouldn’t be disclosed. They may ask you to share what you’ve written and don’t hesitate to do so.
Strategy #10: Follow up with an email and a handwritten note.
Here’s a secret: When you walk out of an interview, you’re not done with the interview. Over the next few days, you have your real chance to close out the interview.
The first thing you should do, within a day or so of returning home, is to send a handwritten thank you note to anyone you interacted with in a significant way during the interview. You should have written down their names during your note-taking process, as alluded to above.
Send individual notes. Thank that person for the opportunity to interview. Then, if you’ve noted something to follow up on, do it in a general fashion. For example, if they’re facing an upcoming challenge, wish them well on that challenge. If you don’t have anything like that, state something that you really took away from interacting with them that reflects on that person positively, like how you appreciated their explanation of the intellectual challenge of the job.
Wait a day or two after sending those notes, then follow up by email. Again, thank the person for taking the time to interview you. This is the time to really follow up on everything that was mentioned in the interview that you noted. Show that you actually followed up and self-educated on a topic that someone raised during your interview that you didn’t know. Touch base with that person on the things you noted for follow-up. Set it up so that they’re motivated to email you back, so that you can exchange a few emails with that person. Be very positive and thankful here.
Don’t go any further than that. Don’t be pushy. Don’t stalk them. Don’t friend them on Facebook. You might follow them on Twitter, but do so only if there is mutual professional interest and you might want to genuinely add that person to your professional network.
These steps reinforce your name in a very, very positive way in the days leading up to that person helping decide whether you’re the right person for the job. Some non-pushy positive interactions in the days between the interview and the hiring decision is going to help.
One final point that’s extremely important here – even if these steps don’t net you the job, they’re still incredibly worthwhile. Why? By doing these things, you’ve put your name in a positive place in the minds of the people who are doing the hiring. You’ve basically turned a lot of those people into positive professional contacts, and when another opportunity comes around, the value of those contacts is going to immediately elevate you.
I speak from experience here. I was once involved with a hiring process where there were two very good candidates. One of them was just absolutely perfect for the position and she got that job, but another candidate who wasn’t nearly as perfect for that position wowed us by going through most of these steps. He made every possible effort to show that he really wanted to work for us, and we remembered it. Guess what? That guy was hired for a very similar position (that I believe was newly created) within just a few months. The person in charge of hiring actually reached out to this candidate to apply for the second position, just because of the impression he made with the first one.
Remember, you’re selling yourself. Selling yourself isn’t easy for a lot of people – myself included – but when you take the time and effort to actually do it, it really makes you stand out from the crowd, and standing out from the crowd in a positive way is how people get the jobs they want.