When it comes to advice on how to get a job, most of it is awful.
CollegeFeed suggests that you “be confident” as their first interview tip, which is a bit like suggesting that you should “be employable”.
Many advisers cover the “clean your nails and have a firm handshake” kind of thing.
A coach on AOL says that “you need business cards in your pocket at all times.” Which is great advice for job applicants who are so qualified that strangers at parties want to hire them, if only they had their email address.
A career expert in TIME magazine advises that “By writing blog posts and updating your social status routinely, recruiters will find you when they are looking to hire for a position. As long as your profiles are connected to what you’re passionate about, you will attract the right jobs and repel the wrong ones.”1
So post on Twitter a lot and you’ll magically attract the right jobs, right?
Over the last five years, we’ve sifted through this bad advice to find the nuggets that are actually good. We’ve also provided one-on-one coaching to hundreds of people who are applying for jobs, and we’ve hired about 20 people ourselves, so we’ve seen what works from both sides. Here, we’ll sum up what we’ve learned.
The key idea is that getting a job is about convincing someone that you have something valuable to offer. Ultimately, it’s a sales process. So you should focus on doing whatever employers will find most convincing. That means instead of sending out lots of CVs, focus on getting recommendations and proving you can do the work.
Let’s be blunt. You’re not entitled to a job, and hiring is rarely fair. Rather, getting a job is, at root, a sales process. You need to persuade someone to give you responsibility and a salary, and even put their reputation on the line, in exchange for results.
How to improve at sales is a huge topic, so we’ll just list our key advice for each stage of the process: (1) finding opportunities (leads) (2) convincing employers (conversion) and (3) negotiating. The common theme is to think from the employer’s point of view, and do whatever they will find most convincing.
Just bear in mind there’s no point using salesmanship to land a job that you wouldn’t be good at – you won’t be satisfied, and if your performance is worse than the next best applicant, you’ll be having a negative impact. We wrote this article to prevent the opposite situation: we’ve seen too many great candidates who want to make a difference failing to live up to their potential because they don’t know how to sell themselves.
A lead is any opportunity that might turn into a job, like a position you could apply for, a friend who might know an opportunity, or a side project you might be able to get paid for.
It usually takes 20 to 100 leads to find one good job, and getting rejected 20 times is normal. In fact, the average length of a spell of unemployment in the U.S. as of February 2016 is seven months, so be prepared for your job hunt to take that long.
However, there’s a lot you can do to raise your chances of success, which is what we’ll now cover.
Many large organizations have a standardized application process e.g. the Civil Service, consulting and Teach for America. They want to keep the process fair, so there isn’t much wiggle room. In these cases, just apply.
But what do you do after that? The most obvious approach is to send your CV to lots of companies and apply to the postings on job boards. This is often the first thing career advisers mention.
The problem is that sending out your CV and responding to lots of internet job ads has a low success rate. The author of the best selling career advice book of all time, Dick Bolles, estimates that the chance of landing a job from just sending your resume to a company is around 1 in 1,000. That means you need to send out one hundred resumes just to have a 10% chance of landing a job.
Moreover, the positions on job boards tend to be highly standardized and at large companies. That’s because job listings work best for standardized positions. And because they’re well advertised, they tend to be competitive, receiving hundreds of applications.
The best opportunities are hidden away and personalized to you. You need a different way to find them.
The key is to use the methods of getting leads that employers like best. Employers prefer to hire people they already know, or failing that, to hire through a referral – an introduction from someone they know.
Think about it from their point of view. Which would you prefer: a recommendation from someone you trust, or 20 CVs from people who saw your job listing on indeed.com? The referral is more likely to work, because the person has already been vouched for. It’s less effort — screening 20 people you know nothing about is hard. Referrals also come from a better pool of applicants — the most employable people already have lots of offers, so they rarely respond to job listings.
For these reasons, many recruiters consider referrals to be the best method of finding candidates.
But job seekers usually get things backwards — they start with the methods that recruiters least like.
Moreover, applicants find around 50% of jobs through connections, and many are never advertised. So if you don’t pursue referrals, you’ll miss many opportunities.
You need to master the art of asking for meetings and introductions.
Here’s a step-by-step process on how to handle each type of connection. If you’re not applying for a job right now, you can skip this section until you are.
We prefer the above tactics, but recruiters can be worth talking to, and are often more effective than just making applications. Look for those who have a good network in the industry you’re interested in. If you want to work in an organization with a social purpose, check out ReWork. There are also recruiters who specialize in new graduates e.g. GradQuiz (UK).
In case you want to browse job listings, which does sometimes work, and can be a useful way to get ideas, we listed the main sites in the footnotes.
When you’re in contact with someone who has the power to hire you, how do you convince them?
Employers are looking for several qualities. They want employees who will fit in socially, stick around and not cause trouble. But most importantly, the employer wants to be sure that you can solve the problems they face. If you can prove that you’ll get the results the employer most values, everything else is much less important.
So how can you go about doing that?
Sometimes the process is highly standardized e.g. applying to Teach for America. In these cases, you have to jump through the hoops. Maximize your chances by finding out exactly what the process involves, and practicing exactly that. For instance, if it’s a competency interview, find out which competencies they look for, then have a friend ask you similar questions. Some public service organizations publish the rubrics they use to assess candidates.
The most useful thing you can do is find someone who recently went through the process, ask them how it works, and, if possible, practice the key steps with them. Sometimes there are books written about exactly how to apply.
Most employers, however, don’t have a fully standardized process. What do you do in those cases?
Ideally, you’ve successfully done similar work in the past. If so, explain exactly how your past experience is relevant, the results you produced and why it proves you can do the work. For instance, if you’re trying to get hired as a marketer for a charity, explain a similar campaign you ran, and quantify your results in terms of dollars raised or people reached.
But if you’re at the start of your career, or switching sectors, then you won’t have similar experience to point to. Then what?
The basic idea is: do free work.
The most powerful way to prove you can do the work is to actually do some of it. And as we saw, doing the work is the best way to figure out whether you’re good at it, so it’ll help you to avoid wasting your own time too.
Here are four ways to put that into practice.
This is what the web engineer did with our career quiz, as above.
The briefcase technique
A similar option is to bring out your preparation during the interview. Ramit Sethi calls this “the briefcase technique.”
Speaking from personal experience, we’ve overseen four years’ worth of competitive application processes at the Centre for Effective Altruism, and doing either of these would immediately put you in the top 20% of applicants, even if your suggestions weren’t that good. It demonstrates a lot of enthusiasm, and most people hardly know anything about the role they are applying for.
If the employer is on the fence, you can offer to do a 2-4 week trial period, perhaps at reduced pay or as an intern. Say that you’re keen to work there and feel confident that you’ll work out. Make it clear that if the employer isn’t happy at the end, you’ll leave gracefully.
Only bring this out if the employer is on the fence, or it can seem like you’re underselling yourself.
If you can’t get the job you want right away, consider applying to another position in the organization – like a freelance position, or a position one below the one you really want. Working in a nearby position gives you the opportunity to prove your motivation and cultural fit. When your boss has a position to fill, it’s much easier to promote someone he or she already worked with than to start a lengthy application process.
If you can convince an employer you can solve their problems by doing the work, you’re most of the way there, and you can ignore most of the interview advice out there. However, you won’t always have time to prepare, and there’s more you can do to become even more convincing.
Here’s the best advice we’ve found on preparing for interviews. It’s also useful for getting leads while networking. If you’re not actively looking for a job right now, feel free to skip this.
Negotiation begins after you have an offer, once the employer has said they’d like to hire you.
Most people are so happy to get a job, or awkward about the idea of negotiating, that they never try. But ten minutes of negotiation could mean major benefits over the next couple of years. So actually consider doing it.
For instance, you could ask the employer to match your donations to charity. That could mean thousands of dollars of extra donations per year, making those ten minutes you took to negotiate the most productive of your life.
You could also negotiate to work on a certain team, have more flexible hours, work remotely, or learn certain skills. All of these could make a big difference to your day-to-day happiness and career capital.
Negotiation is not always appropriate. Don’t do it if you’ve landed a highly standardized offer, like a Civil Service position — they won’t be able to change the contract. Also don’t do it if you’re only narrowly better than the other candidates or have no alternatives. And definitely don’t negotiate until the employer has made an offer — it looks really bad to start negotiating during the interview.
However, we think negotiation should be tried in most cases. Hiring someone takes months and consumes lots of management time. Once an employer has made an offer, they’ve invested many thousands of dollars in the process. The top candidate is often significantly better than the next best. This means it’s unlikely that they’ll let the top candidate get away for, say, a 5% increase in costs.
It’s even more unlikely that they’ll retract their initial offer because you tried to negotiate. Stay polite, and the worst case is likely that they’ll stick to their original offer.
Negotiation should be most strongly considered when you have more than one good offer, because then you have a strong fallback position.
Explain the value you’ll give the employer, and why it’s justified to give you the benefits you want. The idea is to look for objective metrics and win-win solutions – can you give up something the employer cares about in exchange for something you care about? For instance:
Once you start the job, try to perform as well as possible, and then negotiate again. Most employers will be very unwilling to lose someone who’s already doing excellent work for them. Just bear in mind, most companies have a standard review process, so wait until then to make your ask.
The job search may be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done — you’ve probably never been rejected 30 times in a row before. And you may have to do most of it alone. It makes online dating look easy.
This means that you’ll need to throw every motivational technique you know at the job hunt. For example, set a really specific goal like speaking to five people each week until you have an offer, publicly commit to the goal, and promise to make a forfeit if you miss it. We know one job seeker who, although he is liberal, promised to donate to the Trump campaign if he missed his goal.
One of the most useful approaches our members have found is pairing up with someone else who’s also job hunting. Check in on progress, and share tips and leads. Alternatively, find someone who recently did a similar hunt and is willing to meet up and give you tips.
Your job hunts will get easier and easier as you build career capital.
The most important thing you can do to put yourself in a better position is to gain more connections, so you can get better referrals.
After that, focus on developing strong skills and really kicking ass in your work. The best marketing is word of mouth — employers seeking you out rather than the other way around. If you’re great at your job, then people will actively want to refer you to employers, because it’s doing the employer a favor as well as you.
Getting a job can be an unpleasant process, but if you go through the steps in this article, you’ll give yourself the best chance of success. And that will make sure you fulfill your potential to find a satisfying career and contribute to the world.