The Most Effective Ways to Look for a Job

Rather than applying through job boards, take a more targeted approach.

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Over dinner recently with a friend, she revealed that she's unhappy in her job. She needs a new one, she said, but doesn't really know what she wants or how to get started. "I guess I just need to update my resume and start applying," she said.

When I heard that, I cringed. "Start applying" often means trolling big job boards and filling out applications. But while popular job boards like Indeed.com or Monster.com are fabulous for figuring out what's out there and which companies are hiring, they're not so great for actually landing a job. Sure, occasionally job seekers will get an interview or even a position by responding cold to an advertised opening at a company where they don't know anyone. But because so many candidates respond to listed openings, your chances of getting a call-back—or even an e-mail response—are slim.

I say this not only as a job-search reporter, but also as a former job seeker. Anyone who has a job has been there, and I was in that boat just eight months ago, ready to return to full-time work after taking time off to travel and write a book. I was selective, applying only for job-board openings that were near-perfect matches for my skills and interests, yet I rarely even got a note from hiring companies saying they'd received my application, much less an interview. I eventually landed my job through an alumni connection.

So rather than just starting to apply, try some of these strategies for your job search. They're likely to be far more effective:

Figure out exactly what you want to do. The No. 1 mistake job seekers make is being vague about what they want. Your network—both friends and professional contacts—can't help you until they know what you want. So be specific. Don't say you want a writing position. Say what type of writing position you're looking for. That's far more likely to trigger a helpful lead or cause your contacts to think of you down the road when a position opens at their company.

Target companies. Once you know what kind of job you want, figure out who you want to work for. Once again, this doesn't limit your opportunities but rather makes it easier to distinguish which connections you need to land at that organization. You might even take this strategy a step further and pitch the company you want to work for, telling them why you'd be a good fit. Here's how you should go about pitching your dream company.

[See The Top 50 Companies to Work For.]

Grow your network. If you were starting your own company and needed a co-founder, who would you be more likely to choose: someone who contacted you cold and looked qualified, or someone who came recommended by a friend and was also qualified? Probably the latter. And employers work the same way.

If you don't have the connections you need to wiggle your way into a job, create them. General networking can never hurt, but networking strategically is a far better approach. Figure out where the people who work at your dream company hang out, both online and in person, and go there. Meet them. Let them know you're looking for a job, so when a spot opens, they'll think of you. And don't forget to tap into one of the most powerful tools in your network-building arsenal: your alumni network. Even if you went to school decades ago, connecting with fellow alumni can be a good place to start.

At the very least, tailor your cover letter. See a position you really want on a job board? Apply! But be sure to tailer your cover letter for the company, telling them exactly why you want to work there and in that position. Especially when you're applying cold, your cover letter might be your only chance to set yourself apart from everyone else. Don't underestimate its power. Customizing your letter is time-consuming, but it's energy well spent.

[Did your cover letter land you a job? E-mail it to agrant@usnews.com for our new series, Cover Letters That Worked.]

Think outside the box. Large, traditional companies often have rigid hiring processes, and no amount of out-of-the-box thinking will help you skirt around them. But if your target companies show any versatility, particularly if you want to work for a start-up, think of other ways to get their attention. Maybe it's through social media. Or a video resume. Or running a Google Adwords campaign. Rather than following the resume-cover letter-application route like most job seekers, figure out a way to get yourself ahead of the pack. Organizations want to hire smart, innovative people. Show you fall into both those categories, and you'll be well on your way to a new job.