While searching for work alongside 16 million people who are angling for the same openings, getting a hiring manager to tell you why you didn't get hired is about as easy as actually getting the job. But one of the best things you can do is examine your job search with a critical eye: Is your résumé really a good advertisement for your skills? Does your nail-gnawing habit turn off prospective employers? Do you tend to make your interviewers a little nervous?
Some of the most important elements of a successful job search are details. Here are nine tips to follow and details to consider, offered by the experts: hiring managers, executives, human resources managers, and career coaches who helm the U.S.News Outside Voices: On Careers blog.
Fine-tune your cover letter. Suppose you're a manager, and you're making your way through a thick stack of plain-vanilla résumés. You barely have a moment to scan a cover letter, and when you do, it appears to have been written by someone who knows your company's name but doesn't seem to have spent much time getting to know the business. You toss it. Employers want to know that you're interested in them specifically. You should fine-tune your résumé and cover letter to suit the position. "Spend two hours going through the company's website, executive LinkedIn profiles, blogs, and industry articles—before you even touch your résumé or cover letter," says G. L. Hoffman, chairman of Jobdig.com and blogger at Whatwoulddadsay.com. "Only then can you do a decent job with both."
Watch your body language at a job interview. Employers are looking for the candidate with the best knowledge and experience, but rarely do they hire for work skills at the expense of social skills. If you lack self-awareness, it shows. And it doesn't look good. Even in the critical small talk before the interview, make eye contact when you're speaking, smile when it's appropriate, and look alert, says Karen Burns, author of the The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use. "Most of all, don't jiggle your knee, kick the desk, twirl your hair, check your cellphone, play with your pen, stare off into space, or bite your nails," says Burns.
Fill in a long résumé blank with volunteer work. Nearly 6 million Americans had been out of work for six months or more in October. President Obama recently signed a bill providing another extension of unemployment benefits, giving as much as two years of benefits to eligible workers. Many Americans w ill have gaping recessionary holes in their résumés through no fault of their own—they wanted work but just couldn't find it. One solution: volunteering part time. "Volunteering tells potential employers that you are an energetic, compassionate person who, even when faced with problems of your own, found the wherewithal to help others," says Burns, who blogs at karenburnsworkinggirl.com. Volunteering also says that you didn't let your skills go to waste.
Don't be careless—watch the small stuff. You forgot to fix the date on your résumé. You whiffed on the hiring manager's name when you showed up for the interview. The small stuff is not always a deal-breaker in other areas of life, but it often is when it comes to hiring, says Alison Green, a hiring manager for a Washington-area nonprofit. "When you're on a job search, a small blunder can take on far greater importance than it would in most contexts," Green says. "Here's what can happen in a hiring manager's head when a job candidate makes a noticeable mistake: 'She told me she was going to send me this writing sample Monday, but then she sent it on Tuesday without acknowledging the delay. This might be out of character for her; everyone screws up occasionally. But if I ignore this possible red flag and hire her, and then she turns out to be scattered and bad with deadlines, I'm going to be kicking myself for not having paid attention to this sign now.'"
Your résumé must answer this question: Green, who blogs at askamanager.blogspot.com, spends a lot of time looking through résumés, and most of them "read like a series of job descriptions," just listing tasks and skills required in positions held by the applicant—and anyone else who held the same job. But that's not the information hiring managers need to make their decisions. Indeed, résumés that capture their attention offer more than that. "For each position, they answer the question: What did you accomplish in this job that someone else wouldn't have?" Green says. "Did you just go through the motions and turn in an acceptable, but not particularly star-quality, performance? Or did you do an unusually good job, one that impressed your boss and coworkers and made them devastated to lose you?"
Make sure you match the job description: If you were a 6-foot, 5-inch, 250-pound Frenchman with burly arms and a bushy beard, would you apply for the part of Little Orphan Annie on Broadway? However ridiculous that image is, every day in corporate America, thousands of managers shuffle through résumés that are totally unmatched to the position advertised. "If you don't have an accurate understanding of what the job is all about, your opinion of how well-matched you are will be based on an erroneous foundation," Green says.
Put your interviewer at ease: This is pretty counterintuitive. Most job seekers are prepared to follow the tone set by their interviewer. But that may not be your best plan. "A great many interviewers hate interviewing," says Michael Wade, a management consultant, who blogs at execupundit.com. "They know they're not good at it, and they are dealing with strangers and asking questions to fill a job with which they are unfamiliar." A job seeker can gain an edge by staying friendly, listening carefully, using body language to indicate amiability, and stressing that he or she gets along with colleagues, Wade says.
Plan before you pursue: Researchers at the University of Missouri recently studied the efforts of 327 job seekers, ages 20 to 40, and found that developing and following a plan at the beginning of a job search has a significant impact on its success. Similarly, Curt Rosengren, a career coach and blogger at curtrosengren.mapmaker.com, recommends setting "process goals" to keep you on track toward your larger career goals. "Process goals aren't big-picture objectives. They're 'roll up your sleeves and make it happen' objectives," Rosengren says. "Maybe you set a goal of making 10 phone calls a day or writing for two hours each day."
Take the less desirable job: The recession has shrunk opportunities in many fields, while maintaining or increasing the opportunities in others (think auto manufacturing versus nursing). That dichotomy has left many of the unemployed wondering how to break into a new industry. That's a tough goal anytime—and especially tough when the unemployment rate is 10.2 percent. Human resources expert Suzanne Lucas suggests that job seekers look for a job that no one else wants when trying to enter a new field. "If a position is hard to fill, they may be willing to hire you if you are willing to learn how to do the work, rather than requiring you to already be an expert," Lucas says.