Applying for Jobs? There’s a Better Way to Get Interviews

A prospective client once came to me for help. “In the past year I’ve applied for about 100 positions, yet have had no interviews!” she told me in frustration. I was pretty confident that I knew the crux of her problem straight away. How? It was the emphasis she placed on the number of jobs she had applied for. Usually, it’s not nearly enough to just apply for jobs.

In fact, job seekers should spend roughly 20% of their precious job search time applying for jobs (through postings and search firms) and the remaining 80% networking and building relationships to secure valuable meetings and introductions. There are three main reasons as to why I recommend this 20-80 approach:

  • Most job postings will attract hundreds (or even thousands) of applications. Competition is tough through this channel because of sheer volume; it’s hard to stand out.
  • Online applications and resumes are typically screened, whether by HR staff, computers, or search firms; none of these parties understand the job requirements the way the hiring manager does, which adds some arbitrariness to the selection process.
  • Networking and cold emailing/calling work really well!

Let’s explore each of these areas in more depth.

“Everyone” applies, so skip this front door and use a different entrance

Responding to job postings takes much less work up front than building relationships. For this reason, it is very tempting to simply wait for the right ad to show up or headhunter to call. Most jobseekers start with this “passive” method of securing job interviews because it seems easier.

Since most people take this path, the competition is intense. Your application or resume has to be perfect for the screeners (whether HR, computer, or search-firm based) to pick it out of the huge pile of submissions. And even if your resume perfectly matches the posting, the selection process is still a bit random. Here’s an example:

Someone who works in HR for a large corporation once told me how they had received 6,000 responses to an ad for a customer service manager position. Regardless of whether or not you’re the perfect candidate, what are the odds of your resume being one of the handful of those selected from a pool of 6,000? I would say pretty small! But wait… it gets worse.

The initial screeners don’t really understand the job requirements

Most of the time, the initial screening process is performed by a computer or HR representative. Neither knows the job the way the actual hiring manager does (unless, of course, you are applying for a HR position). So, while you may have the skills, knowledge and experience the position requires, the initial screeners may miss may it because they don’t have enough understanding of the job.

For example, one of my clients once applied for a CFO position at a large media company by responding to an online job positing. He didn’t stop there, however, and took a really smart next step: he searched LinkedIn to find out who the hiring manager was, and then reached out to her directly. It was through this latter approach, not the online application, that he was offered a job interview.

After a number of interviews, the hiring manager made him an offer. While he was negotiating the offer terms, he received a standard automated response from the HR department: “We have reviewed your application and unfortunately your background does not fit our needs at this time. We will keep your resume on file…” You get the picture. The company sent him this message at the very same time they were finalizing his job offer. Is this crazy, or what?!

Please note, if you do see an ad that closely matches your experience and interests, by all means apply for it. In fact, many clients have landed positions directly through the applications they have submitted (there are ways to help your application stand out from the crowd, but that’s for another post). Just know this: relying too heavily on job applications is a recipe for a long, frustrating search.

You face similar issues when working with search firms. I suggest identifying a couple of search firms that you trust, and then working with them exclusively. To find the right firms, ask friends, try and identify who a former employer’s HR department uses, or get recommendations from a professional association. Googling “best search firms” may also be of help.

Prioritize the active approach to getting interviews

Prioritize the “active” approach instead, that is, networking and cold-outreach. This approach requires work up front. It’s hard to reach out to people to build new relationships, so much easier to just wait for the ad or recruiting firm, right? Wrong! Go out there and create these opportunities, make them happen.

You may have heard of the “hidden job market.” It does exist. When you try these active approaches to getting interviews, you access this market; the relationships you have worked hard to establish give you a chance to learn about job opportunities that are not yet public, or give you an advantage for those opportunities that are.

So how do you network and contact people directly to get interviews? First, read this post to understand the strategy, and then this one to secure meetings with total strangers by sending a perfectly worded email. Here are some additional thoughts on how to make networking work for you:

  1. Think broadly about your network. Your network is not just the five people you talk with every week. It includes family and friends, your dentist, old professors, people you haven’t worked with or talked to in 15 years… you get the picture.
  2. Tell people you’re actively looking for a new role. Inform the people you network with about your search. Share details of your specific job target and the organizations in which you are interested. Spread the news through emails, Facebook posts, LinkedIn messages, and so forth (with appropriate discretion if you’re currently employed).
  3. Network smartly. Attending networking events may not necessarily represent the best use of your time. If you find that the majority of contacts you are making at these events are fellow job seekers, your time is going to be much better spent networking from home; for example, using LinkedIn to identify appropriate contacts and then reaching out to them by email or phone.
  4. Keep control of the introduction request. Your friends or colleagues may generously offer to circulate your resume at their office. This approach almost never works because the chance that there will be a suitable opening at that moment is small, and your contact may even forget to send your resume on as promised. Instead, ask for permission to reach out to their contacts directly; say, “There may be nothing available now, so I would like to build a relationship with your colleagues for opportunities down the road. Is it ok if I contact them directly and let them know you referred me?”

One last word on the concept of “applying.” For that 20 percent of your time where you do look at job postings, I recommend starting with LinkedIn. The reason: LinkedIn will tell you if you are connected to someone at the company, or sometimes even if you are connected to the person who posted the job! Then, once you apply, you can try to reach the hiring manager through your LinkedIn network, as my client did in the earlier example. This combination of applying and direct contact can be powerful if your communication skills are in good shape (the subject of another post).

If you would like to learn more about how LinkedIn can help you with your job search or any aspect of your career, check out my book Advanced LinkedIn.