New Grads: Seven Ways to Stand Out During an Entry-Level Job Hunt

As a manager at a growing technology company, I’m deeply involved in the hiring process for my team. I’ve learned a lot over the last couple of years about what makes a candidate stand out during the application and interview process.

While I think this advice can be especially helpful for new college graduates, I hope these tips — which go step by step from the initial search to the follow-up email — can prove useful to job seekers of all ages who are trying to cut through the noise and get noticed.

Applying for Roles: Speed Is Key

After I post a position to the job boards, I’ll check back after a few hours to see if any applications have rolled in. If I find someone great within the first 10 submissions, they have a huge leg up in terms of advancing in the process.

In a perfect world, I’d meticulously review the 50th applicant just like I did the first, but that’s just not how it works. Every employer is hoping to find someone quickly, as hiring is a time- and resource-intensive project. As annoying as it can be to apply for jobs, the hiring process can be just as tedious. Everyone is hoping to get it over with as quickly as possible.

If I was on the hunt, I’d be checking relevant job boards whenever I had a spare moment. This includes the huge ones like Indeed, Glassdoor, and Monster, but also industry-specific boards and smaller sites such as WayUp, which is tailored toward helping recent grads.

You can also be more targeted. For instance, if you know you want to work at a startup, you can check AngelList. Or if you have a strong desire to work for a company backed by a premium venture capital firm, you can check out websites of the big VC firms and see if they list open roles for companies they invest in (a lot of them do).

If you’re hunting for a new job while working a full-time job, I’d suggest checking job boards in the morning and on your lunch break, if possible. Set reminders for yourself so you don’t forget to give them a quick look. And make sure your resume is up to date and that you’re ready to shoot off the PDF at a moment’s notice.

The Resume: Use the KISS Method

Feel free to distinguish your resume with a few interesting design flourishes, such as using a colorful header with a unique font. You don’t have to use the exact same format as everyone else, and being unique can make you stand out from the pack. I’ve looked at a cleverly designed resume and thought, “What a fun idea, and so well executed!”

But, be careful of going overboard. When in doubt, think of the KISS acronym (keep it simple, stupid). I’ve seen resumes that look like a Picasso painting. There are colors, jagged lines, boldface words, and bright shapes. It can be overwhelming. You should do what you can to highlight your skills, but you never want to be jarring or muddle the message. Show your resume to a few friends and ask for honest feedback on your layout. When in doubt, keep it simple. Readability is much more important than creativity.

Finally, always keep your resume to one page, especially early on. I’m sorry, but no one cares about your high school internship working the front desk at the YMCA, and in no universe should you bleed onto the second page to talk about it. I am instantly skeptical of someone who can’t be concise enough to list what they need to say on one page.

As for content, again, keep it simple. If you’re applying for an entry-level role, the reality is that it’s unlikely anything you’ve done up to this point in your career is that impressive. There’s no need to make your internship at the local bank sound like you were clerking for a Supreme Court justice. Just be concise.

Also, it helps to use concrete numbers wherever possible. Instead of saying, “I supported the marketing team and helped launch their new campaign,” it’s better to say, “I generated 27 different marketing templates in a two-month period, which improved our email open rate by 42%.”

The Phone Screening: Bring the Energy, Be Concise

A recent study out of Yale concluded that we feel a stronger emotional connection with people when only listening to their voice than when we can actually see the person. This is counterintuitive, but highly useful information for interviewees during the phone screen phase. It means that the initial phone screening is an ideal opportunity to show that you’re enthusiastic and friendly. You should strive to talk clearly, confidently, and in an upbeat manner.

The other main way to stand out in this phase is to be concise. There’s something about a phone call that encourages rambling monologues covering every aspect of the candidate’s life. You should focus on hitting the key points you want to cover.

For instance, if you once worked on a project that was perfectly applicable to the role you’re applying for, find a way to quickly hone in on that one story. Doing so will show that you respect the interviewer’s time and also that you’re confident enough in your resume that you don’t have to talk ad nauseum about every aspect of it.

On a similar note, always leave pauses for the interviewer to jump in with questions.  If you’re worried the conversation is headed in the wrong direction, don’t just keep talking. Usually, if you take a breath, the interviewer will get a chance to ask a new question and get things back on course.

The In-Person Interview: Have Fun, Do Your Research

Finally, we get to the most important step. In my experience, the in-person interview for entry level roles is mostly about answering one question: “Would I be okay sharing a relatively small space with this person for eight hours per day?”

That might come as a surprise. Isn’t the in-person interview when you have to prove how smart and qualified you are by answering tough questions on the spot?

Well, that’s often part of it, and you certainly want to be prepared for those questions. But the truth is that, especially at the lower levels, you’re not likely to have a huge impact on the business’s bottom line. You’re being hired to play a small role. If you do that well, then you’ll be evaluated for promotions.

I’d rather hire an upbeat, optimistic, energized person with slightly less qualifications than a person who looks great on paper but comes across as surly and negative.

Any hire has the potential to have a tremendous impact on the overall atmosphere of the office and on team culture. As the saying goes, it only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch. You want to come across as calm, friendly, easygoing, and supportive. I understand that acting that way is easier said than done, especially when you’re nervous. Maybe it will help to really think about the fact that, for a lot of jobs, cracking a funny joke and just generally being relatable is of more importance than having a compelling answer to the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

It’s also key to do your research about the company. The people you’re interviewing with usually have a passion for what they do. You want to be able to match that. At the bare minimum, you should have a strong understanding of what the company does and what their mission is. There’s nothing worse than interviewing a candidate who didn’t bother to do even the most rudimentary research about the company. You never want to find yourself saying “Oh, so that’s how the product works, I had no idea!”

The Follow-Up Email: Don’t Overthink It

It’s considered standard protocol to send a quick note to the people you met with. This can be done a few hours after the interview or the next business day.

In my opinion, it’s best to keep this short and sweet. There is no need to wax poetic about how much you loved the people, the office, the receptionist, or the picture in the bathroom. There’s also no need to reaffirm what a perfect fit you are. The reason you made it so far was that the company already likes you!

I see the follow-up email as the job hunting equivalent of saying “bless you” when someone sneezes. Some think it’s polite, some think it’s totally unnecessary, some don’t care one way or the other. Whatever your stance, the choice to say “bless you” or not is never going to be that big of a deal.

That being the case, the follow-up email is not the make or break moment of the job hunting process. I’ve never read a post interview email that swayed me in one direction or the other. So, just pump out a quick thanks and move on.

Summing Up

I hope the above steps can help reduce some of the anxiety that inevitably comes along with searching for a job. The keys, in my mind, are to cast a wide net and apply quickly, then demonstrate an easy-going enthusiasm if you make it to the phone and in-person interviews.

It can feel like a balancing act and it’s not always easy, but with some practice you should be able to put your best foot forward. Good luck!

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