When it comes to getting the right job, you may already know the basics—find the right roles, write a great resume, prep for your interview, and follow up. Those are certainly essential elements to find success. However, as a career coach, I’ve found that while many job seekers do a lot of the right things in their search, they still don’t get the results they want: offers for their ideal role.
While there are some steps you can take to stand out from other candidates, there’s no one "secret weapon" that can guarantee results. At the end of the day, the best way to get an offer is by putting in the work—preparing, researching, practicing and maintaining resilience. As the old Seneca saying goes, "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity."
In this article, I’ll outline my approach to advanced career coaching sessions with job seekers by doing a deep-dive into each stage of the hiring process so you can apply these best practices to stand out in your search. We’ll discuss job search tactics beyond the basic rules to help increase your chances of getting past an ATS, moving to the interview stage, and eventually getting the offer.
Troubleshooting your job search
When I meet a job seeker, one of the first questions I like to ask is, "Where are you finding success in your job search and where are you experiencing roadblocks?" Consider how long you’ve been searching, how many jobs you apply for on a weekly basis, and any patterns that have cropped up.
Here are some common scenarios with ways you might consider moving forward:
- You’ve applied to countless jobs every week for months and you haven’t gotten to the interview stage yet. There’s no hard and fast rule for the right application response rate. However, if you’re consistently applying to jobs but you haven’t received a request for an interview, your resume might be getting lost in the black hole due to generic content, mismatched qualifications, or formatting. For job applications, quality gets better results than quantity by creating a more customized resume for your applications.
You’re getting some interviews, but no offers, and things are moving slower than you’d like. This could be a good time to renew your job search goals and strategies by following the guide from top to bottom. You can start by re-evaluating the following aspects of your job search:
Are you looking for the right jobs? Applying for jobs that match your skills, background, and experience level is key to getting a response from employers. For example, you should avoid applying to jobs for which you’re over or under qualified or do not meet the basic requirements.
Are you tying your background to the position? It may be helpful to reassess the ways you’re communicating your qualifications in your resume, cover letter, and interviews. Make sure you’re using keywords from the job description and addressing the requirements for the job.
Are you applying enough? While the right amount of applications per week will vary from person to person, if your search is moving more slowly than you’d like, you might consider increasing your application rate. Try setting weekly application goals, such as five per week, and adjusting as needed. Reward yourself in small but meaningful ways when you reach your goals.
You typically get an interview after you apply for a job, but you get few or no offers. In this case, you might skip to the end of this guide and focus on your interview prep and follow-up strategies. This seems like a simple answer, but you may be surprised by how much of a difference a slightly altered approach can make.
Preparing for your job search
First, it’s helpful to commit to one or two career paths to pursue, which means searching for one or two job titles. Narrowing your search can feel limiting, especially if you have a breadth of experience and interests. However, when people try to pursue multiple different career paths at once, it doesn’t always work to their benefit.
Usually, it becomes cumbersome and overwhelming to tailor resumes and online profiles to several different roles. As a result, your applications can seem less focused, and the kinds of opportunities you want or are qualified for may seem unclear to recruiters. It can also reduce the chance they’ll contact you for an interview.
If you can refine your search by identifying one or two roles that best fit your interests and your background, your applications will be stronger.
Decide what you want to do
If you don’t know exactly which roles you want to pursue, here are four practices that might help you decide:
1. Reflect on your skills and interests.
Make a list of your hard and soft skills and interests to help focus your search. You can use the following articles to guide your skills list:
You should also take some time to think about what interests you most. Write down things you enjoy doing, activities that make time go by quickly or projects that you look forward to. They can be work-related, but they don’t have to be.
After you make the lists, you might notice that your key skills and interests lean more towards technical, creative, or communication-oriented work. Take some time to analyze your skills and interests to help you move forward on a singular path. Grouping them together by similarities might help you identify themes. For example, if you find that time goes quickly when you’re solving crossword puzzles or finding patterns in data, you might group them under "analytical skills" or "problem-solving" categories.
Here’s an example of what the process might look like: let’s say you have experience in software development, technical sales, and project management, and you aren’t sure which to pursue. After you complete your lists, you might find that your top skills are highly technical but your interests are more people-oriented. In that case, technical sales may be the best path to follow as it’s the option that caters to both your key skills and interests.
2. Read job descriptions.
I often recommend designating a significant amount of time to study job descriptions. This can help give you a better idea of which roles exist, in which industry, and what employers are looking for in their ideal candidates.
Read job descriptions on sites like ca.indeed.com and take note of the ones that interest you and match your qualifications and background, then follow that path by clicking on links to related roles or searching for similar job titles. If you can gain a better idea of what you want to do in the short or long term, then you can start mapping out the steps to get there.
For example, you may find the role of a Human Resources Business Partner particularly interesting. Typically those positions require eight to 10 years of experience in human resources. If you don’t have that now, then you might look for junior-level positions in human resources to help you build qualifications for a future career as an HR Business Partner.
3. Conduct informational interviews.
Once you have a better idea of the job titles you’re targeting, you should conduct informational interviews with people who have experience in those roles. This is a good way to make sure it’s something you want to do and it can give you a competitive advantage down the road.
It’s ideal to use your existing social or professional network to set up informational interviews, but you don’t need an existing network to have these kinds of conversations. You can create new contacts by introducing yourself on professional networking sites and at live or virtual networking events.
Once you establish a positive rapport with someone, you can request an informational interview to learn more about their career path, their role at their company, and what you need to succeed in their position. Not only can this give you a better idea of whether you want to pursue this path, but your new contact might introduce you to other relevant industry professionals to help build your network, and they could even refer you to a role within their company in the future.
4. Request to job shadow.
Job shadowing is typically appropriate if you’re a student or exploring different opportunities within your current company. Similar to informational interviews, once you have an idea of job titles that interest you, reach out to those professionals to see if you can join or "shadow" them for a day of work to get a better idea of what their role looks like on a regular basis.
Many college career centers and employer HR departments have formal job shadowing programs, so you should start by seeking those out. If no formal process exists, then you can ask for assistance from a career center or HR department, or set up the opportunity on your own with a professional introduction and request.
Research job descriptions
Researching job descriptions is an important step. Your findings should influence what you cover in your resume and interview answers to make them more effective. Here are three key things to look for:
1. Find the right job titles.
Job titles can vary from company to company for the same set of responsibilities, but typically you’ll be able to identify the two or three most commonly used titles. For example, if you’re searching for roles in content marketing, you might notice that the majority of job descriptions that match what you’re looking for are titled "Content Specialist," "Content Strategist," and "Content Writer."
The most common job titles indicate one way that recruiters search for and identify quality candidates. Use these titles to generate better results when searching for open roles and use them in your resume and professional profiles to help recruiters find you.
2. Find your ideal job description.
Using the job titles you identified, try to find two or three well-written job posts that best describe what you want to do in your next role and match your level of experience. In other words, when you read the job post, it makes you think, "This is the kind of job I want and can do right now." A well-written job post is usually descriptive of the role and work environment while also being concise.
You’ll use these specific job descriptions to help craft your resume, so save them somewhere you can reference them at a later time.
3. Identify the right skills and qualifications.
Carefully read through the job descriptions you’ve selected and pay close attention to the language that’s used. Across the job posts, you’ll likely notice common or repeated responsibilities, requirements, and preferred qualifications. Consider these keywords and phrases that recruiters are looking for to identify qualified candidates and make sure to include them in your resume and cover letter.
You should also take note of any upskilling you’ll need to do to be qualified and understand that you may be asked about this in the interview stage. If you’re missing any qualifications, start developing those skills now through independent projects or online courses. You should also include this work on your resume and discuss it during interviews to show employers you’re genuinely invested in the role.
Write a resume that works for you
Your resume is the foundation of your job search. I can’t emphasize this enough in coaching sessions. With a strong foundation, you can build better-customized applications, search strategies, and interview answers. Again, you’ll first want to follow the basic guidelines to write a great resume, then you can apply the following strategies to help you stand out and make your job search more efficient:
Build a core resume that’s tailored to your job search
Many sources will instruct you to customize your resume for every application you submit. While that’s certainly ideal, it’s not always realistic. Sometimes a more practical solution is to balance the quality and quantity of your applications.
A good way to increase the number of quality applications you submit without overwhelming yourself is by creating a "core resume" that’s tailored to your overall job search. In other words, your core resume will highlight the skills and experience that most employers require for the kind of role you want.
While you won’t use the core resume for all job applications, you can use it for most of them—we’ll discuss this more in the next section. To customize your resume to your overall job search:
- Refer back to the ideal job descriptions you saved. Review the common job titles, responsibilities, keywords, and key phrases used in the descriptions.
- Mirror the language and most common keywords from the combined job descriptions in your resume. Incorporate them in your summary, skills, and experience sections.
Organize your content by relevance to your overall job search.
For example, if you have experience in software development, technical sales, and project management but your search is focused on technical sales roles, then your core resume should be centered around your sales experience. In your summary, you might refer to yourself as a "Technical sales expert" and highlight a few of your key sales responsibilities that match the ideal job descriptions you’ve identified.
You might also include a well-rounded and dedicated skills section, but your technical sales skills should be prioritized at the top of the list. In your experience section, you should describe your sales accomplishments first and dedicate more bullet point descriptions to those responsibilities before briefly covering relevant software development and project management experience.
Determine when you should fully customize your resume
During a given week, organize the jobs you apply for into one of two categories:
- Roles that only somewhat interest you or for which you meet less than 60% of the qualifications.
Roles that closely align with your goals or for which you meet more than 60% of the qualifications.
Usually, the majority of opportunities will fall in the first category, especially if you’re trying to scale your search. Use your core resume to apply to roles in the first category. If the job falls in the second category and it closely aligns with your skills and interests, then you should take the time to customize it even further to the specific job and company.
Think like an ATS and a recruiter
Putting yourself in the position of a recruiter and generally understanding how applicant tracking systems (ATS) work can help you craft a resume that has a better chance of getting noticed. Here are three simple tips for resume writing that can make a big difference to how your resume performs:
1. Use simple formatting.
It’s a common myth that a creatively styled resume will help you stand out. In most cases, the opposite is true with a few exceptions for creative roles like graphic design. Matching your resume content to the job description and complementing it with a standard, simple format is the best way to stand out. Doing so ensures both the ATS and the recruiter or hiring manager can quickly and easily find the information they need.
It’s especially important to avoid using formatting elements like tables, headers and footers, icons other than a standard bullet point, images and photos, sub-bullet points or even lines across the page. These elements often cause errors when your resume is initially processed and reviewed by an applicant tracking system (ATS). At worst, your resume could be automatically rejected due to errors caused by formatting and never make it into a recruiter’s hands.
2. Use keywords and key phrases from the job description.
It’s true that you shouldn’t copy and paste blocks of text from a job description into your resume, however, you should use the same keywords and key phrases from the description in your resume.
For example, if the job you’re applying to explicitly requires knowledge of Salesforce and "experience selling technical solutions to enterprise clients," and you’ve done that, then you should use the same language to describe your experience. One of your bullet points might read "Managed relationships using Salesforce and sold technical solutions to enterprise clients, exceeding quarterly metrics by 20%."
Applicant tracking systems and recruiters often rely heavily on keyword and key phrase recognition to determine if you are a qualified candidate. Mirroring the language used in the job description clearly conveys your direct qualifications to a recruiter and it can improve your chances of getting through an ATS review.
Tip: avoid over-stuffing your resume with keywords, which ATS can recognize and flag. Instead, use natural language and include keywords where it makes sense.
3. Communicate more effectively with less information.
It’s natural to feel like you should include exhaustive descriptions of your professional experiences and accomplishments on your resume. You’re proud of them—and you should be! However, it is most important to include only the most relevant and impressive information in your resume that pertains specifically to the job. Including irrelevant or excessive information can make it difficult for employers to understand whether you’re a good fit for the position.
Make your job search thorough and sustainable
In an Indeed survey¹ of 1,000 job seekers in Canada, respondents were asked to rank the most frustrating stages of the job search process. The top two most frustrating stages were "waiting to hear back from a prospective employer," and "finding jobs I want to apply to." While job searching can undoubtedly be frustrating, there are things you can do to ease the tension and ensure a more productive search that’s easier to maintain in the long run.
Set weekly application goals
Setting goals can help you stay on track and celebrate weekly accomplishments. Goals might change from week to week depending on your other commitments and what’s available, so set attainable goals based on what else you have going on and adjust them when necessary. Some weeks you might plan to apply to three jobs and other weeks you might apply to 20. Read more about setting goals in the guide, SMART Goals: Definition and Examples.
Conduct exploratory interviews
It’s possible that you’ve targeted a company you want to work for but they don’t currently have open roles that match your experience. Consider proactively reaching out to an employee at that company who works in your field to request an exploratory interview. You can start by researching the company website to see if they have employees listed or you could use a professional networking site for your research.
An exploratory interview allows you to learn more about the organization or specific role from professionals with first-hand knowledge and it can provide valuable insight into the company's culture, employee expectations, and what it takes to work in a specific role. It can also be an advantageous way to explore future job options at the company.
Use various search techniques
Finding the right jobs can feel overwhelming. Here are a few tricks to help you find the right roles for you on Indeed:
- Search by title and specific skills: Go to ca.indeed.com and in the main search bar, enter "[Job title] and [skill] and [skill]" to find roles that require specific skills you want to use. For example, Social Media Manager and content and lead generation.
- Use Advanced Job Search options: Go to the Advanced Job Search function on ca.indeed.com and type your desired job title in the open text field under "With these words in the title" and the skills you want to use in the text field under "With all of these words." You should also consider filling out as many fields as possible under the advanced search options to generate the most targeted results.
- Set up job alerts for Advanced Job Search results: After you receive the results with your advanced job search filters, locate the box to the right of your results that reads "Get new jobs for this search by email." Enter your email address into the appropriate field and select to "Activate" alerts for this specific job search. You can then click on the text that reads "Job alerts active" to turn off or adjust the frequency of your job search alerts.
Follow up on your applications to stand out
Remember that each week after you identify an opportunity that closely aligns with your skills and interests, you’ll spend extra time to finely tailor your resume to that job description. For these roles, you should also take additional steps during the application stage to make it as easy as possible for recruiters to see your qualifications and accomplishments. I often recommend a three-tiered strategy for applying to jobs that are highly desirable to you:
An ongoing Indeed survey2 shows that approximately two-thirds of employers use referrals to find applicants. However, in another survey3 of 1,000 job seekers in Canada, Indeed found that only 6% of respondents always look for a personal or professional connection to refer them to a role they’re applying for and only 13% look for a referral most of the time.
If you know someone employed with the respective company, ask them for an internal referral. Send them a link to the job description, your resume, and a few sentences about why you think you’re the perfect fit. Sometimes it can feel intimidating to ask for an internal referral, but you should proceed with confidence knowing that in most cases people are happy to help. The worst possible outcome is that your contact declines to refer you and the reward, in this case, is greater than the risk.
If you don’t know anyone at the company, consider mutual connections. For example, if your friend is connected with a recruiter or employee at the prospective organization, ask if they’d be willing to introduce you to their contact over email.
If they agree and you have their contact’s attention, send them a message with a link to the job you’re applying for, your resume, and a few sentences about why you’re a good fit. In addition, ask them what their experience has been like at the company and if they have any tips to get your foot in the door. You might also suggest a phone call to discuss their experience with the employer.
Often, if you can establish a positive rapport with this person, then they’ll either be willing to refer you to the job, or they can introduce you to someone else within the company who might have more influence in this area.
If you don’t have any direct or mutual contacts who work with your prospective employer, then apply for the job independently. Afterward, use email or a professional networking site to message a recruiter, an employee, or a hiring manager (best if they work in your area of expertise) at the company and emphasize your interest in and qualifications for the role.
Avoid using abrupt or demanding language—while this is true for most professional requests, it’s especially important when interacting with a stranger—instead, follow a template similar to this:
"Hi, my name is [Your Name] and I’m a [Your Job Title]. I would like to introduce myself because you’re a [New Contact’s Job Title] with [Prospective Company Name] and I’ve recently applied to this role with the company: [link to job description]. I think I’d be a great fit because…[3 brief reasons] and I’ve attached my resume with more of my qualifications.
I’m sure you’re extremely busy, but I would greatly appreciate any amount of time you have via phone or email to discuss what your experience has been like with the company and if you have any tips for getting my foot in the door. Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you!"
Impress your interviewers
To impress your interviewers, you should cover the basics by properly preparing and dressing for the part. There are also ways to go above and beyond. Managers often hire people they genuinely want to work with, so connecting with your interviewers and showing them what it might be like to have you as a colleague can give you a competitive edge.
Here are some strategies that can help you build rapport with your interviewers and stand out from other candidates once you’re comfortable with the fundamentals:
Build your interviewing toolbox in advance
Preparing for interviews before they’re even scheduled can help you feel confident and calm when you’re asked to meet with employers. This is particularly valuable when you encounter a fast-moving interview timeline.
In a similar way that you might create a core resume tailored to your overall job search, it can be beneficial to plan answers to common behavioral and technical interview questions based on standard responsibilities assigned to the type of role you’re applying for. Essentially, you’re building a toolbox of generic answers that you can adjust for the unique employer and role.
I recommend writing down your answers within the STAR framework so you can refer to them as you practice talking through the answers out loud. This is a crucial step that many people avoid, but it can drastically improve your ability to communicate ideas confidently and coherently during interviews and give you a competitive advantage. Thoroughly rehearsing your answers can be helpful regardless of how comfortable you are with interviewing.
Tip: instead of fully memorizing your answers, which can come across as unnatural and rehearsed, remember key points such as your achievements and qualifications instead. Weave them into your answers in a natural, conversational way to develop rapport with your interviewer.
You can’t possibly predict every question you’ll be asked, but preparing this way may decrease your chances of being caught off guard with an interview question.
Express sincere enthusiasm
If you want to succeed in any interview, you will of course have to perform well and show that you’re right for the role. However, sometimes the other candidates interviewing for the position have qualifications that are equally as impressive as yours.
In this case, a simple but significant gesture that can help you shine is sincere enthusiasm for the company or position. This can indicate to employers that you have qualities that can’t be taught: loyalty and dedication to helping the organization thrive. Often, interviewers aren’t only assessing your fitness for the role, but for the company culture as well.
Here are a handful of ways to thoughtfully convey your enthusiasm:
- Show your knowledge of the company beyond basic facts such as their impactful projects, culture, mission, and values. Not only does this help you answer the question "Why do you want to work here?"—understanding their values can help you communicate your personality traits and values that align with the company such as humility, interest in learning or, for a fast-paced sales role, eagerness and healthy competition.
- Talk about your interest in what the organization does and how it aligns with your personal and professional goals. If you were interviewing with a social media company, you might end your answer to the question, "Tell me about yourself," by explaining how social media has impacted your life (without disclosing too many personal details), why you think it’s important to society and how that’s impacted your decision to pursue a career at a social media company.
- Express excitement for the role responsibilities—you should discuss how your skills match the job description at every opportunity, but you should also talk about why you are passionate and excited about the role.
- Come with ideas related to the role. For example, if you’re interviewing for a marketing position, you could review the organization’s marketing efforts via email or social media and prepare suggestions or ideas for a marketing initiative. You could present these ideas if they directly ask or you could naturally work them into your answers.
Ask insightful questions rather than questions about benefits, hours, and compensation. There will be an appropriate time to discuss those topics. When an interviewer asks, "Do you have any questions," use the opportunity to show your interest in the position. For instance, you might ask, "What have been the biggest challenges for this role or team in the last year?" This also gives you a chance to respond to their answer with how you can help them address those challenges.
After the interview
After your interview, there are still ways you can work to make your job search more successful. First, it’s important to follow up with your prospective employer—this is an easy way to give yourself an edge. You should also make time to mentally and emotionally process what’s happening in your search, which can help you build resilience.
It might seem old-fashioned, but interviewers still appreciate follow-up messages after an interview. The day of or the day after your interview, take some time to send an email to your interviewer(s) that thanks them for their time and re-emphasizes your excitement about the role. If you do not send a follow-up message, interviewers may interpret it as a lack of interest in the opportunity.
If you don’t get the job
The truth is that job searching can be tough. However, it can help to accept that rejection is a natural part of the process, allow yourself to feel what may come with it, such as frustration or sadness, but shift toward positive thinking as soon as possible. Persistence is a powerful tool, so rise to the difficulties associated with your search and keep moving forward. Keep working towards your application goals and moving through the job search cycle until you find something that works.
¹2019 Indeed job seeker survey, n=1000
²Indeed employer survey, n=1000
³2019 Indeed job seeker survey, n=1000