[See our list of the 50 Best Careers.]
After you submit your application. Like it or not, after you submit your application, the ball is in the employer's court. They might not even be reviewing applications for a few weeks, or they might have hundreds to sift through. So this stage of the game is about being patient.
Job seekers are sometimes advised that they should call at this stage to "check on their application" or to try to schedule an interview. But most employers don't respond well to this, viewing it as overly aggressive and, yes, annoying. After all, you're not the only person applying for the job; multiply your phone call by 200 to 300 applicants, and you'll see why employers are annoyed.
Realistically, the way to stand out at this stage isn't by having an overly aggressive, rules-don't-apply-to-me, pay-attention-to-me-now approach. Instead, you'll stand out by being a highly qualified candidate, writing a great cover letter, and being responsive, thoughtful, and enthusiastic.
However, it's fine to follow up once—in an unobtrusive manner—to underscore your interest. You can do that not by calling, but by sending a quick email saying something like this: "I submitted my application for your __ position last week, and I just wanted to make sure my materials were received. I also want to reiterate my interest in the position; I think it might be a great match, and I'd love to talk with you about it when you're ready to begin scheduling interviews." That highlights your interest without interrupting the employer or demanding an immediate response.
After an interview. Once you've been interviewed, the rules change. At this point, you've passed an initial screening, and you and the employer have both invested time in each other. At this stage, you're entitled to hear something back from the employer within a reasonable amount of time. But of course, that doesn't mean that you will, so you might find yourself wanting to check back in.
Ideally, you would have ended the interview by asking the employer what their timeline was for being in touch with next steps. If you do that and that time passes, then you have the perfect excuse to politely follow up. Simply drop them a quick email, explain that you're still very interested but understand that hiring can take time, and ask if they have an updated timeline.
If the company didn't give you a sense of the timeline in which they would be making a decision, you can follow up within a week or two of your interview to reinforce your interest and politely inquire as to what they expect their timeline for a decision to be.
[See 10 Myths About Job Searching.]
Notice that you're not just asking for an update on how things are going. That's not as likely to produce useful information and it's easier to ignore, particular if the employer doesn't have any update yet. Instead, ask for some more specific—a timeline.
At the same time, keep in mind that not hearing back right away doesn't necessarily mean bad news. It's not unusual for the hiring process to take longer than a candidate would like, for all sorts of reasons— decision-makers are out of town, scheduling conflicts are delaying a final interview, the company bureaucracy needed to finalize an offer takes weeks to work through (not necessarily a great sign about the work environment, but that's a different issue).
If you have another offer. There's one special case where you should act differently than the guidelines above: if you have another offer but Company A is your first choice. In this case, you should reach out to Company A immediately. Let them know you have an offer that you need to respond to by a particular date, and ask if there's any way they can expedite their timeline. If a company is very interested in you, this can spur them to move more quickly. (But you should also be prepared to hear that you should take the other company's offer.)
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.