In 2011, I began a new job search in earnest, submitting close to 100 job applications over a three-year period. The only two interviews I got were for unpaid internships. I was positively baffled and discouraged by the experience. Why was this happening to me?
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To find the answer, I examined my job search, scoured what seems like every job-related chat forum on the planet, read books and blog posts, and spoke to job seekers about their experiences.
While the specific reasons why people don't land certain jobs vary, I did uncover a common theme: Job seekers were putting more effort into the quantity of their applications (e.g., "I have applied to 100 jobs in five months") than the quality of their applications.
Here are five ways to make yourself more competitive in the job market by focusing on quality:
1. Identify Peers in Your Industry and Emulate Them
With a LinkedIn account, you have access to a wide range of folks who are already working in your industry of choice. While looking at all these established professionals could certainly make you feel even less qualified, you can also flip the script by emulating those who have already succeeded in their career searches.
Action: Browse the profiles of at least 10 people who are already working in your industry or job of choice and note the hard skills that they possess. It is useful to start broad, perhaps writing down as many as five teachable, measurable skills per profile that you visit. After you've done that, begin to draw lines between profiles, looking at the skills and experiences that you find on more than one profile.
At one point in my career, I was interested in working in the financial services industry. I networked with folks and searched the profiles of dozens of LinkedIn members. I also began reading short biographies of several industry leaders to get a sense of their experiences. I noticed that folks working in my subsector of choice all had credit analysis and financial modeling experience, so I learned as much as I could about these fields and added them to my profile.
The Spin: This exercise prepares you for the job search in several ways: It helps you talk like an industry veteran, even though you may not be one yet; it helps you identify industry needs that you can add to your skill set (see No. 2 below); and it shows the potential employer that you are both up to date and ready to hit the ground running when you begin the job.
Don't feel intimidated if you find that others have 10+ years of experience with several degrees from Harvard. Often, these degrees are a function of social standing, so compete with people head to head by being prepared. Furthermore, this step also helps you discover new companies that may interest you.
2. Give Yourself the Education You Want
Best-selling author Alvin Toffler said that "knowledge is the most democratic source of power." Today, more than at any other moment in our history, we have access to countless free educational resources that allow us to build skills that make us more desirable candidates.
Action: Look through job descriptions of five positions you applied to but did not get an interview for or five positions that you would like to apply to. Identify 2-3 skills in these descriptions that you do not currently have but would like to add to your skill set.
For example, in looking through job descriptions, you might notice that they all call for experience with Salesforce, but you have never used the software. Through sites like Udemy, you can search for courses on Salesforce and find that you can become a certified beginner for as little as $19 and eight hours of your time.
The Spin: Employers look favorably upon a job seeker who has taken a proactive approach to acquiring skills. In an episode of the James Altucher Show, Freelancer.com CEO and founder Matt Barrie told the story of a candidate who was vying for an engineering position at his company. This candidate had several formal education degrees along with Coursera courses on his transcript. Barrie said his hiring team was more interested in the candidate's Coursera work because it was something the candidate pursued on his own. Such independent education initiatives demonstrate commitment to the job and the industry.
3. Obtain Professional Certifications
Much like self-education, certifications are vocational qualifications that demonstrate your commitment to an industry or job and can distinguish you from competitors. By that same token, professional certifications can also help candidates acquire industry-standard credentials and/or transferable skills that are useful in other industries. For example, those in accounting or finance may pursue certified public accountant (CPA) or chartered financial analyst (CFA) certifications while also taking courses in project management or leadership in order to gain skills that will increase the scope of their searches across industries and job types.
Action: If you are not aware of the specific certifications needed to land a job in your industry, you should follow the advice outlined above in order to identify necessary skills you need to develop. Then, think about pursuing certifications that fall into the following broad buckets:
- Business management
- Marketing and communications
- Finance and accounting
- Law and policy
- Creative Communications
The Spin: There are a number of means through which to pursue certifications, from continuing education programs at universities and community colleges to professional industry associations. Your primary concern here should be narrowing down which areas from the above list interest you most.
4. Use Google Alerts
Give yourself the edge in your job search and your career in general by staying current on industry trends and topics. Though it's hard to stay current on everything, Google allows you to set custom news alerts that are delivered to your inbox as often as you like.
Action: Go to www.google.com/alerts, and type in your search term to create the alert. The research that you have done already through the steps above should help you choose relevant terms, such as target company names or industry watchwords.
The Spin: In today's world, it is easy to suffer from information overload. Alerts will direct you to relevant content and help you steer clear of irrelevant information. Alerts can also help you get ahead of the curve by learning as much as you can about new trends as soon as they appear. This, in turn, gives you the edge in networking conversations and interviews, allowing you to speak knowledgeably about your industry.
5. Research and Learning Is a Two-Way Street
Just as you are doing your research on employers, employers will do theirs on you, too. Helping potential employers find you while also asserting your newly acquired skills can give you a leg up on the competition.
Action: In the spirit of emulating others, make sure that your LinkedIn page (and resume) are as up to date as possible when it comes to you knowledge, skills, and experience. Make sure to list certifications and courses clearly on your profile so that recruiters can find you. In your cover letter, you may also choose to point out the initiative that you've taken to learn new things.
The Spin: If recruiters are trying to fill a role, or if you've already landed the interview, expect that you will be Googled. By being prepared, you position yourself to either be found by recruiters or to be impressive to those searching for you.
Alex Demosthenes is a financial professional who works and lives in New York City. He recently launched a blog, Agama, that examines education and professional development and the roles they play in a fulfilling career.