Are you looking for a great career?
It’s not easy out there these days. I wrote this post to help everyone that could use some guidance (and perhaps even some motivation) in navigating the job market in this crazy era of outsourcing, automation, and rapid technological change.
As someone that has interviewed dozens of people and worked in multiple industries, I have a fairly good grasp of what employers are looking for in candidates. Let’s get into it.
This article is divided into four sections:
- Selling Yourself in The New Job Market
- Writing a Resume That Will Get You Noticed
- Finding Great Jobs To Apply For
- Hacking the Job Interview
Note: most of my personal work experience is in the tech/startup industry, so the advice below might be slightly more applicable to that field. However, I believe just about anyone entering the corporate world stands to benefit from the tips below.
Part 1: Selling Yourself in the New Job Market
In many parts of the world, good jobs are hard to come by.
On one hand, more and more tasks are being automated away – any kind of repetitive work is better left to machines. At the same time, companies are increasingly outsourcing jobs to countries with cheaper labor. To top it off, there are more college graduates than ever before, eager to enter the workforce and clamoring to displace the old guard. Hiring managers sometimes receive hundreds of applications for a single position – it’s fiercely competitive out there.
So is it all doom and gloom? Not quite.
Despite our present economic struggles, it’s an exciting time to be alive. As the world becomes more interconnected, information travels faster – and with it, good ideas. New technologies are disrupting old industries at a breakneck speed, changing the way we live, move, and communicate. In short, there’s plenty of work to be done.
So what’s the secret to finding a good job?
Some say it’s education, but that’s only part of the answer. It’s true that certain college degrees can give you a significant advantage – with so many candidates vying for the same position, employers can afford to be picky, giving preference to those with the most relevant diplomas. This is why you hear so much STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) degrees – they are considered valuable because the coursework can be directly applied to industry needs.
So it’s not just a matter of getting any kind of degree (contrary to popular sentiment in the Western world, simply finishing post-secondary education does not entitle one to a job). If you don’t have an in-demand degree, don’t worry – there are plenty of other ways to set yourself apart.
Good connections can also be very helpful. There are many jobs that are never even listed on job boards or classifieds – instead, existing employees are asked to refer people they already know and/or have previously worked with. Referrals are more trusted from the get go, and are far more likely to get an in-person interview. The more employed people you know, the more likely you are to hear about employment opportunities.
Some are lucky enough to be born into a family with connections – interning for the family business is a great way to build experience early on. In short, there’s no shame in using every career connection you have.
But there’s something missing in the equation.
While education is about what you know and connections are about whom you know, your skills and abilities dictate what you can do. Another way of putting it: if you can deliver the goods, nothing else really matters.
The best way to become known as someone who gets things done is to solve people’s problems. That’s the real secret: be the person that can solve real, tangible problems. Instead of telling people about the great things you can add to their business (e.g. sales, marketing, design), sell yourself as a problem-solver – someone who makes the pain go away. An aspirin, not a vitamin.
At any given workplace, the truly indispensable employees are the people that can solve critical business problems (and do so on a regular basis). Real problems include: website/server downtime, payment processor breakdowns, lawsuits filed against the company, critical system slowdown, and so on. In short, any problem that threatens the operation and/or existence of the business or its sub-divisions. It could be as simple as high operational costs or slow product restock times – if it’s a major risk to the company, it’s a problem. Consequently, any employee who can solve these problems is highly valued (and usually very well compensated).
Those who can solve tangible problems have the best kind of job security – they have options.
Take the banking industry, for example.
In the world of finance, there is little room for error – system reliability and up time are critical to ensure transactions happen smoothly. Incidentally, many of these systems still run on archaic programming languages such as COBOL (as they serve their purpose just fine, there was never a good case for rewriting any of the code in a more modern language). In any case, all these systems need regular support and maintenance – this is how COBOL experts stay in demand.
There are examples of critical staff in every industry. While many employees are easily replaceable (if not downright expendable), problem solvers are valued and sought after.
You must market yourself as a problem solver. The more specific the problem, the better – the goal is to be seen as a domain expert (as opposed to a jack-of-all-trades generalist). Keep this in mind as you prepare your résumé/CV.
Where possible, refer to concrete problems you have solved in the past. Be sure to quantify key accomplishments (e.g. “reduced downtime by 80%” or “saved company 12% in quarterly operating expenses”). Demonstrate that you get things done and you will be taken seriously.
If you don’t have any applicable experience, take the time to acquire a few valuable skills.
Put yourself in the shoes of a business owner/operator. What do employers want? They want people who can keep their businesses stable and/or more efficient (e.g. reduce costs, increase profits, streamline processes, optimize headcount).
If you’re pining for a corporate job, for example, make sure you’re proficient with Microsoft Excel – just about every company out there uses it, and it’s a skill you can take with you to almost any office job in the world. This powerful spreadsheet software has a variety of uses, from basic metrics tracking to statistical analysis – it can even be used to set up basic “dashboards” for internal company use. Become an Excel expert, and make sure you practice your skills on real-life problems.
SQL (Structured Query Language) is another good tool in your toolkit – familiarize yourself with the syntax and common usage patterns (there are plenty of free web tutorials online). Even basic familiarity with relational databases (e.g. MySQL, PostgreSQL) will allow you to manipulate and analyze large data sets – a much-desired skill in today’s world of digitization and big data.
Above all, you have to develop the will and ability to adapt. The business landscape is constantly changing, as new tools and technologies come online and market needs shift. Don’t be surprised if your skills may become outdated with time – keep learning new tools/technologies, and practice the ones you already know. Education should not end with school!
Part 2: Writing a Resume That Will Get You Noticed
Does anyone actually read resumes? Sort of.
It’s a competitive job market, and employers often have to sift through dozens of submitted resumes for each open position. While it’s a luxury to be able to choose from so many willing candidates, there’s simply no time to review each application in detail. Chances are, the hiring manager will skim your resume for a grand total of 10-15 seconds, at which point it will be placed in one of two piles: “follow up” or “discard” (trash). Only those in the first pile will be considered for an interview.
In short, unless you have connections or extensive experience in your field (i.e. recruiters contact you, not the other way around), submitting a good resume is a necessary first step to landing a job.
So how do you write a “good” resume?
- Make it simple and easy to read. Black text on white background, size 10-12 font, single-spaced (i.e. the default settings in Microsoft Word). No fancy fonts – go with Arial, Times New Roman, or Georgia. 1-inch margins. Avoid paragraphs – use bullet points whenever possible.
- Keep it concise. Unless you have more than 20 years of experience (or have authored numerous academic papers), keep the whole thing to one page. There are very few exceptions to this unspoken rule. There are plenty of hiring managers out there who won’t even read past the first page. If you are having trouble cutting it down to a page, focus on removing all but the most relevant information.
- A good resume is well structured. Your name, address, and contact information go at the top. Everything else follows. I recommend having three main sections: Experience, Education, and Skills. Each should have a title, and a blank line should serve as a section separator. All dates (or date ranges) should be in line with each other on the page.
- Experience – this is where you outline your current and previous employment, presented in reverse chronological order. This is the most important section, and should be placed at the top – immediately after your contact information. For each role, specify the employer (company) name, your title, dates of employment (e.g. 2017 – 2019), and which city you worked in. Outline your major accomplishments in each role, using present tense for your current job and past tense for previous jobs. Don’t write paragraphs – use bullets. Try to be brief: 4-5 lines per position is plenty (very few people are going to read past that).
- Education – this is where you list all your degrees. For each one, specify the name of the institution, your degree/major, dates of enrollment (e.g. 2012 – 2016) and location. Leave out anything prior to college/university (unless you’re still in high school). If you got good grades, go ahead and mention your cumulative average (e.g. “3.6/4.0 GPA”). You can also include any notable coursework and/or projects. Again, be brief and make sure any extra information is relevant to the job you’re applying for.
- Skills – use a new line for each sub-category (e.g. software, soft skills, languages). Separate skills with commas. Example:
- Proficient in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Axure, Balsamiq, Powerpoint, and Excel.
- Fluent in French and German.
Important: don’t underestimate this section. Recruiting/talent staff will look for particular keywords as a way to filter candidates – look at the requirements of the original job posting to see what skills they desire.
Pro tip: if you’re submitting your resume online (e.g. through the employer’s job portal), you’re probably uploading it through what is called an ATS – an Applicant Tracking System. If you want your resume to even be noticed, you absolutely have to make sure your resume matches as many keywords from the job description as possible. Employers receive hundreds (sometimes thousands) of resume for each position, and HR personnel don’t have time to look through everyone. Some people get around this by directly copying and pasting skills and requirements from the description into their resume – use your discretion here.
In any case, be prepared to answer interview questions about anything you list on your CV!
- All content should be relevant to the job you’re seeking. This cannot be stressed enough. The best resumes are tailored for a specific job opening. Put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager – they are mostly interested in whether or not you will be able to do the job. Anything else is usually superfluous. If you’re going to list your hobbies and/or interests, do it all the way at the bottom (and keep it to one line).
- Don’t write in the first-person. In fact, avoid all personal pronouns or articles (e.g. “I” or “we”). For example, “I developed a new tool that saved employees 10 hours per week” should be changed to “Developed a new tool that saved employees 10 hours per week.”
- Finally, proofread it before sending it out! Spelling and/or grammar errors will hurt your credibility in the eyes of the employer. It’s just one page – keep it professional!
By following the advice above, you invariably will have a better resume than most.
Want to truly stand out from the competition?
An ideal resume should be accomplishment-based, not duties-based.
Don’t just list your responsibilities and past projects – instead, write about the results of your efforts. In other words, focus on what you have achieved (problems you’ve solved at past jobs). By doing this, you will immediately stand out as someone who gets things done.
If at all possible, quantify your accomplishments. Be specific!
Instead of simply stating “Decreased production costs,” include the amount: “Decreased production costs by 13%.” Including numbers immediately adds credibility to your claims, and is much more likely to pique the employer’s interest. Don’t be afraid to highlight these accomplishments – bold any relevant numbers or amounts.
A good resume is like a good first impression – it sets the tone for all your future interactions with a potential employer. Make it count!
So what’s the deal with cover letters?
In my experience, cover letters are becoming less and less important. People simply don’t have the time or inclination to read page-long personal introductions anymore.
With that said, it certainly doesn’t hurt to write 2-3 paragraphs to go along with your resume – if anything, you will stand out to employers who specifically look for enthusiastic candidates (and good writers). Be direct and to the point.
You can start by stating how you found out about the position, making sure to call out if you are a referral of an existing employee. Then, call out any experience and/or skills you have that are directly related to the job. Assert that you’re the right candidate – show that you’re confident, ambitious, and highly interested in the role. End with your contact information – don’t be afraid to directly ask for the interview (“Please call or e-mail me to schedule an interview”).
Unless you’re in a more traditional industry (e.g. law, banking), there’s no need to attach a separate cover letter – anything you wish to say can go directly into the body of the e-mail.
Part 3: Finding Great Jobs to Apply For
So what’s the best way to look for jobs?
It all depends on how desperate you are.
Be honest with yourself: how soon do you need to start making money?
If you’re badly in need of cash, there’s no time to lose – any income is better than 0. If you already have a decent job, however, you can afford to be more picky (i.e. go for the most promising positions). Your approach should be depend on your situation.
Scenario A: you need money right now
This is how you get a job in 1-2 days:
- Make a general-purpose resume – highlighting your communication and teamwork skills. Provide examples of how you have successfully worked with others (if possible, be specific about the goals you achieved as part of a team). If you have any sales or customer service experience, include it – even if you think it was minor or trivial.
- Be sure to include any leadership and/or sports experience. In short, advertise anything that makes you a good team player. Leadership experience shows you are able to take initiative and make decisions, while participating on sports teams demonstrates you work well with others, can follow directions, and are able to commit to a schedule.
- Assume your resume(s) will be looked at for a maximum of 20 seconds. Be brief. Important: double check to make sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors!
- Print 10-15 copies of the resume you have made. Put them all into a folder. Put on smart casual or business casual clothing (for men: slacks and a collared shirt).
- Go get yourself a job in retail! This means physically going in to local coffee shops, department stores, etc. It may not pay well, but it’s the easiest kind of job to get – there’s constant turnover in retail, so positions open up all the time. If you’re willing to start immediately, you may be able to get a shift within 48 hours of applying.
- When you walk in to a business, ask to speak directly to the manager (don’t just drop your resume off with regular staff, unless they absolutely insist that is the procedure). Be polite and professional – quickly introduce yourself, state that you’re looking for a position, and hand them your resume. Be positive – smile. Thank them for their time. In general, just leave a good first impression and move on to the next store/business.
- Note: if you are embarrassed or nervous at the idea of working in retail… don’t be. It’s how many of us got started (myself included). While it can be frustrating dealing with irate clients and customers, it’s great for strengthening interpersonal skills. You will learn how to handle money, deal with shipments/inventory, address customer complaints, and more. You may even make some great friends!
Scenario B: you want a better job
Maybe you have a job that you feel is going nowhere (e.g. retail), and you want better – more pay, more benefits, and career potential.
This is how you get a job in a few weeks:
- Get your online presence in order. Prospective employers are going to Google your name – don’t give them a reason to discount you based on what they find. If you have a wild Facebook profile, lock it down so it’s only viewable by your immediate circle of friends (look up Security and Privacy settings). Make sure your profile picture on all public social networks and websites is work appropriate. If you don’t have one already, create a LinkedIn profile (more on this in Scenario C below).
- Make two general-purpose resumes – one highlighting your communication and teamwork skills, and the other focusing on your analytical abilities. For the first one, provide examples of how you have successfully worked with others – if possible, be specific about the goals you achieved as part of a team. For the other (“analytical”) resume, present yourself as a quantitative problem solver – someone who can be relied upon to accurately interpret data.
- As you prepare these resumes, try to think like a recruiter – they are looking for all the hot accomplishment-signaling keywords (e.g. sold, assisted, increased, managed, led, reduced). Where possible, bold your achievements. In the “skills” section, be sure to list out all the general computer programs you are able to use (e.g. Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint, SQL). As always, be brief and to the point.
- Perform a search online for “[your city] staffing services” – within seconds, you will have a list of local recruitment/placement agencies (e.g. Kelly Services, Robert Half). Get the names, phone numbers, and website URLs of at least five such companies. One by one, call them and tell them that you are seeking employment, and are able to start immediately. They will likely request your resume (or even an in-person meeting to discuss your qualifications). Remember: it’s in the agency’s best interest to get you a job as soon as possible (this is how they make money), so be prompt, professional, and courteous in all your communications. Bring up the fact that you have two resumes, one for customer-facing positions, and the other for any kind of analytical work – they will appreciate your versatility.
- Don’t assume victory just yet. As the recruiting companies process your application, start working on a back-up plan. I recommend reaching out directly to close friends and acquaintances – state that you’re actively looking, and inquire about any open positions. Internal referrals are a great way to get your foot in the door, and you may very well stumble upon a great job opportunity.
- At this point, you should hopefully have some interviews lined up – whether through an employment agency or from referrals. Make sure you are familiar with everything on your resumes – you will be asked about it. Good luck! (Interview tips are in Part IV below)
Scenario C: you want the dream job
Maybe it’s been a few years since graduation, and you already have a half-decent job (or considerable savings), so you’re looking for something truly great – a career that will fulfill you. You’re willing to dedicate a few months or more to finding this job.
Note: there are entire self-help sections in the bookstore devoted to this subject. Finding an “ideal” career could very well take years, so don’t be discouraged by early setbacks. There are many possible routes here, and no single blanket solution can be prescribed to everyone. With that said, I offer a path that I believe will work for many.
- As described in Scenario B above, take control of your online presence – get all your public profiles are in order. Assume that recruiters and hiring managers will look you up online. Make sure there are no red flags. Google yourself before they do!
- If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, set one up. At the very least, make sure you specify your degree(s), employment history, and basic personal details (real name, location, and industry). LinkedIn has become the network of choice for working professionals – and recruiters actively scour site profiles to fill positions in their company. It’s akin to not finding out about parties and social events if you’re not on Facebook. If you’re going to join only one social network this year, make it LinkedIn.
- (Optional) Looking for a highly specialized position (e.g. user experience, data science, web design)? Showcase your work online! Certain positions all but require it – and your application won’t be considered complete without links to past work. If you’re gunning for a design position, an online portfolio is a must. Software developers will likewise benefit from linking to a GitHub account. Planning to write for a living? You better have a blog, or some way of linking to finished pieces. You get the idea.
- Before you get into full-on job-hunting mode, ask yourself: is there an open position at your current employer that would fit the bill (e.g. in another department)? Find out about the company’s internal transfer policy. If others have moved teams, talk to them about their experiences. There could very well be a team or project that’s much more suited to you – and the experience you have already accumulated gives you an advantage over other hopefuls. If you are adamant about switching employers, however, keep reading!
- Take a look at the Venn diagram above. It’s hard to argue with the message: if you find a job you enjoy doing (and are good at) that also pays well, then you’ve hit the career sweet spot. The trick is sitting down and having an honest conversation with yourself. It goes back to goal setting and picking the right things to pursue (read this post for more on goal setting). You must identify what you’re naturally good at, and then look for a job where your talents and strengths will be rewarded. For some, this is easy (for example: do you enjoy negotiating and winning people over? look for a sales position within a growing company). However, this kind of exercise often results in even more confusion (e.g. “I love photography, but how will I make a living from it?”) While just about anything can be turned into a career, there are many fields that a long time to break into – and where most of the rewards are concentrated at the very top of skill and ability (professional sports, acting, art, music). Some may also require additional schooling. The best way to break into such a field is to seek advice from those already doing it.
Tip: if you’re unsure of what kind of jobs to apply for, try taking the Holland Code and Myers Briggs personality tests to get some ideas. While these are by no means perfect, they are great for getting some initial ideas. Both are online, free, and take just a few minutes.
Warning: be careful when it comes to turning your favorite hobby into a job – it may very well end up with you no longer even enjoying the hobby (and needing a new one).
If you’re still stumped, don’t worry – there’s another approach. On to Step 6.
- Try approaching the problem from the opposite direction: first determine market needs, then figure out how you can best contribute. In short, take a look at who’s hiring and work backwards: see if any of their open positions appeal to you. The key is to aim for positions in rapidly growing companies – where you can make a big contribution, learn a lot quickly, and rapidly rise in the ranks (if that’s what you want). Companies experiencing rapid growth can be crazy places to work – but there’s opportunity for those who can navigate the chaos. Begin by searching online “fastest growing industries in 2020” – compile a list of the industries that are already big (>$1B market size) and growing fast (>10% year/year growth). The results will also greatly vary by location – legislation in certain countries can have a bit impact on adoption rates of alternate energy sources, for example. If you’re in the USA, check out SortWork to see which jobs are going to be the most promising and highest paying.
- Be methodical. Pick five rapidly expanding sectors that appeal to you, and get a list of the 10 most promising companies in each one. Only interested in two sectors? Get 25 companies from each. Either way, compile a list of 50 companies. Start a spreadsheet with the following columns: Company Name, Industry, Location (city), Website, Position, Date Applied, and Notes. This will be useful for tracking your job application progress.
Note: 50 may seem like too many, but it really is a numbers game – even though most of these companies are likely hiring as fast as they can, there are many hopefuls out there with the same idea as you.
- Start applying. Go down the list, and make an effort to apply to at least two companies a day. Where possible, customize your resume to match the job requirements. Do not be afraid to apply for positions that look out of your league (e.g. “minimum of 3-5 years of experience in [x]”). Apply anyway! Even if all the listed positions seem too junior, send in an application anyway – there’s a good chance there are more positions that will be posted soon, and this way the company’s HR team will have your resume/CV on file. Remember to track everything in your spreadsheet.
- (Optional) If you’re particularly enthusiastic about a company/position, it may make sense to take a more surgical approach. Before you apply, look the company up on LinkedIn – check to see if you already know someone working there, or if one of your connections can refer you to someone (networking, baby!) Chat to someone at the target company, and get the scoop on internal company culture and hiring practices. Demonstrate that you’re interested in working there, and ask if you can be referred (many will be happy to do this, as there are often cash bonuses for successful company referrals). As long as you’re polite and professional, there’s really no downside to this approach – the worst they can say is no.
- Keep the momentum going – apply to all 50 on your target list of companies. This seemingly “blind” approach is actually anything but: by working at one of the fastest growing companies out there, you are giving yourself a big career boost. Furthermore, most of these industries are relatively new – just a few years of experience will make you a domain expert. This is the other way of thinking about career satisfaction – just pick something and become great at it. Your efforts will be rewarded, and you will in turn develop passion for what you do. And a company with a fast growth trajectory is the fastest way to see this in practice. A rising tide lifts all boats.
Finally, if any of this sound like generic career advice – that’s because it mostly is. The difference will come from you do – simply reading bullet points and nodding will not bring you any closer to a dream job. Take action!
Don’t wait for the “perfect” time to look for a good career – that time is now. Rid yourself of self-limiting beliefs – go after what you want, and start punching above your weight (go for jobs that will push you out of the comfort zone).
Part 4: Hacking the Job Interview
A job interview is a performance.
The show begins as soon as the interview starts. Regardless of how she feels about it all, the interviewer must do her best to represent the company and its interests – her role is to appear professional, organized, and confident. Similarly, you – the job seeker – are expected to be polite, courteous, and enthusiastic about just about everything.
As in any theatrical production, the acting is enhanced with props and costumes. The job seeker dresses up in formal clothing to demonstrate that he is serious about the role – a suit, tie, and leather case complete the look. Meanwhile, the interviewer will bring a notepad and pen for recording important talking points (or doodling, most likely). Additionally, at least one hard copy of the candidate’s resume will be placed on the table in the interview room – this is crucial to keep the conversation moving along when either party runs out of things to say. At some point, a glass of water is offered to the interviewee. In most cases, there’s also a time limit (~30-60 minutes per interview).
There are usually no surprises. Both parties are well aware that any deviation from the norm will be noted and remembered.
So why do we still bother with this antiquated, predictable ritual?
Because it works.
Much like a first date, a job interview is a situation that reveals how we behave under immense pressure to perform. It’s a societal rite of passage during which we show off our best side.
It works often enough that, in most industries, this remains the norm. At the end of the process, employers usually get what they want: a candidate who is willing to conform to the rules and expectations of the company.
While the resume/CV is a way to screen candidates for basic competency (“can they do the job?”), the interview process is designed to identify people suited to the particular work environment (“are they someone we could work with?”) Despite obvious flaws (e.g. interview skills being a poor predictor of long-term job performance), it makes sense in our heads – and so we stick to it.
If the job or industry is particularly competitive, employers are known to complicate the interview process to filter out more candidates. Microsoft, for example, pioneered the practice of asking job candidates to solve brainteasers and puzzles during the interview. Much to the annoyance of job seekers, this has now become standard practice across the tech industry – there are now books designed to prepare you for an interview at Google (all the interview questions are known, which makes it just like studying for a college exam). The process filters out all but the most enthusiastic – those willing to participate in the charade of pretending to solve problems during the interview (having already memorized the answers). Every slip up mid-interview can thus be used as an excuse for rejecting the candidate altogether.
So how does someone stand out in this sea of desperate and eager job seekers?
Here’s the plot twist: even though all of the above is common knowledge (and has been covered ad nauseam by just about every career advice blog/book out there), many remain unprepared – poorly formatted resumes are still the norm, and interview performance is all over the place. It’s an inefficient market – just as employers take advantage of the fact that there are more willing workers than positions available, an enlightened job seeker can aim for positions that are out of their league. If you’re great at interviews, there’s a good chance that you will be selected over more qualified (but less socially aware) candidates.
If earning money through employment is at all important to you, becoming better at interviews should be high up on your list of priorities. It’s really not that hard, either – in economic terms, there’s a high ROI (return on investment) associated with practicing interview skills.
I recommend a methodical approach: study the system, find a way to hack it, and mercilessly exploit its weaknesses for your own gain.
As you go about securing the job you desire, I encourage you to stick to a system. By and large, companies have a lot in common with one another: there’s an executive team at the top, a bureaucratic layer of middle management, and a large base of front-line workers at the bottom. People work set hours, take the occasional vacation, and follow a booklet of company rules. All this may vary across industries (and geographies), but this is typically the way humans have chosen to organize work environments. In short, you can apply a successful approach just about anywhere you go – which makes it a good idea to develop a systematic method.
What follows is a system that I have developed for myself. It’s scarily effective, and I recommend it to anyone interested in securing a well-paid job. There are three parts: research (information gathering), preparation, and improvisation.
Note: as ridiculous as the modern corporate interview process is, I strongly encourage you to take every interview seriously. Even if you’re just doing it for practice, try your best to actually secure an offer (i.e. “oh, I didn’t want the job anyway” should not be your excuse). Go into every interview assuming you will get the job, and be confident in yourself and your abilities.
Think of yourself as a secret agent, on a mission to infiltrate an enemy organization.
If you are going to successfully pass for one of them (“he would be a great fit here!”), you must become familiar with their culture, history, and values. The internet makes this very easy – a few online searches about the company will get you most of the way there. With a piece of paper handy, write down all the useful company/industry you can find.
Some ideas to get you started:
- From the company website: jot down the name of the leadership team (e.g. CEO, CFO, CTO) and the previous positions they held. Summarize the company’s history (where/when was it founded, and what markets it has served in the past). Skim through any recent white papers and/or press releases, if readily available. What’s their mission statement? Tagline?
- Look them up on social media. If there’s a Twitter/Facebook feed, scroll through it to see what’s been happening recently – you will quickly determine how much they value customer service and public perception. Make a mental note of the image that they project to the world – are they strictly business, or do they try to appear quirky and different?
- Find their LinkedIn profile and look up the profiles of employees with similar job titles to the one you’re applying for (to stay anonymous, copy the profile links and read them in a different browser – where you’re not logged in to the service). This is particularly useful if you know who will be interviewing you. For each person of interest, write down their job history and make a note of anything extra they have on their profile (e.g. interests, skills, hobbies, publications).
- Look the company up on Glassdoor. This is an invaluable resource: you can read reviews of the company written by past and current employees, get a sense of salary ranges by position, and read about previous candidates’ interview experiences (complete with interview questions and answers). Note: smaller companies may not yet have a profile.
- Google them. See what others (e.g. blogs, publications) out there are saying about the company. This is for getting a sense of their business practices, growth trajectory, and their place in the industry/market. If they are a large enough corporation, you may be even able to find out things about them by searching directly on news sites.
- Look them up on any industry-specific websites. If it’s a tech company, for example, look them up on Crunchbase. Here you will be able to see all relevant company news/announcements, track the investment history (e.g. if they have raised outside capital), and find out about their main competitors.
If you do even half of the above, you will already be way ahead of the competition. By learning about the company in advance, you will come into the interview already speaking their lingo. Interviewers are always impressed by a candidate’s knowledge of the company – it’s one of the easiest ways to win them over to your side (“oh look, they already know about our unique values!”).
Even if you consider yourself a great salesman (a “people person”), you must still get the basics right – run through the following checklist prior to your interview date:
- Make sure you look the part. If you’re a man, you can’t go wrong with a dark (charcoal or navy) suit. A light-colored (blue, white, pink) dress shirt and simple tie complete the look. There’s no need to get fancy here – save the bright purple socks for another occasion. Dress as if you were meeting the company’s board of directors. Outside of highly creative fields and/or intentionally casual work environments (e.g. a 3-person tech startup), no one will fault you for dressing to impress. At the end of the day, people are still conditioned to respect authority – and a suit is a perfect representation of it.
- Have all your props ready. Print out two copies of your resume, and bring them with you in a folder. Optional: bring a pad of paper and pen – even if you don’t plan to actually take notes, this will make you appear more serious.
- Review your resume again. Be ready to talk about anything you have listed on there. Get your story straight – prepare to explain what you do at your current position, why you’re looking for a new job, and why you would be suitable for the new job. It’s usually too late at this stage to make any edits (they already have a copy of it!), so be ready for anything.
- If you have any inside information about common interview questions, run through the answers once again. Simply writing them down on a piece of paper will make you more likely to remember them on the day of the interview.
- Double-check the logistics. How are you getting there? What time do you need to be there? Aim to arrive 10-15 minutes early (even if you’re late by just a few minutes, it will be counted against you).
- Sleep well the night before – you should look alert and energetic for your performance!
You must also prepare your mind.
It’s all an act, remember? As a performer, you must get yourself into the right mental state for the show – in other words, truly become the character you are playing for the duration of the interview. If you’re faking or overly exaggerating, it will show (many people actually have great bullshit detectors).
Here’s a secret: good acting is not about how well you lie, but about how well you tell the truth.
In short, try to make the following be true for your new character:
- You are a responsible, conscientious person. When it comes to doing work, you prefer to start in advance – so that you will finish before the deadline. If something needs to be done, you are one of the first to volunteer.
- You are respectful of authority. If your boss tells you to do something, you do it – and to the best of your ability. You know your place in the hierarchy, and take care not to overstep your limits. You recognize that “paying dues” is an important prerequisite to advancing.
- You are a positive, enthusiastic individual. You don’t let setbacks or inconsistencies discourage you – instead, you expect that it will all improve with time. When you meet someone for the first time, you smile and shake their hand. You know the power of positive thinking, and don’t hide it – for every apparent setback, you are quick to point out how you have learned from it (and grown as a result).
- You value the opinions of your peers. While you are confident in your abilities, you know that the team can achieve far more by working closely together.
- You are practical and straightforward. You don’t make overly sarcastic remarks or let yourself become cynical. You recognize that political correctness is an important part of maintaining harmony in an organization. You avoid stirring up conflict of any sort.
Generally, the above mentality should serve you well. Remember: they are looking for someone compliant, obedient, and diligent. Appear as that person, and you are ahead of most.
Well, that’s enough preparation – time to take center stage!
A typical interview lasts about 30-45 minutes. After taking away the time wasted on niceties, hellos, and goodbyes… this leaves about 20-25 minutes for the actual Q&A. Simply put, it’s not nearly enough time to make a good prediction about someone’s job performance in a full-time role. There’s simply too much left to chance – making a decision off of a single meeting means that anything could easily sway things either way (e.g. the interviewer’s mood that day). This is why it’s important for you, the job candidate, to put every minute to good use.
Your one and only goal during an interview is to get the other person to like you.
You could try to impress them with your deep industry knowledge, or prove that you would be the clear choice over other candidates (with similar credentials). You could even demonstrate that you’re a big advocate of the company already, and that this is a natural fit for both parties. None of it will matter if they don’t like you.
At the risk of encroaching on the realm of professional con artistry, here are some basic tips:
- Smile and shake their hand as soon as you walk in. Make eye contact as you do so – even if only for a split second. This creates a basic level of trust, and at minimum ensures that the interview is off to good start. Make it a habit to make eye contact with the interviewer when you’re talking to them.
- Be brief when talking about yourself. They are not interested in your life story, or a play-by-play account of every past position you may have held. Play it cool – keep the answers short and bring the conversation back to the present day as soon as you can.
- Mirror their energy level. If they are upbeat and talking in rapid fire, make sure you pick up the pace. Conversely, calm down and relax if they are taking it slow. This will make you much more likable, and maximizes the chances of the conversation moving to a personal level.
Note: this is different from physically mirroring the interviewer, a tactic that is all too obvious and, if discovered, will make you look ridiculous.
- Seize every opportunity to move the conversation away from you. Inevitably, their first few questions will be about your suitability for the role – past jobs, project experience, problem solving skills, etc. The goal is to get past that as soon as possible (remember: be brief in all your answers). Exhaust all their prepared questions. Eventually, they will ask if you have any questions for them. Which brings us to the next point.
- When given the chance, ask questions about their personal experience. People love talking about themselves. Ask about their experience at the company. Get their opinion on the company’s work culture here. Carefully pry about their career choices (e.g. why they chose to work here, and why they still do). Subconsciously, the interviewer will like you more and more – for caring and listening.
- Act as if you already got the job. It sounds ridiculous, but it works. Assume the mental state of someone who has already gotten an offer – and is now just discussing details. Pretend that the whole interview is just a formality – this will help you relax and stay confident. Most importantly, this approach will make the interviewer see you as an equal (i.e. someone they can respect – and therefore work with).
People buy on emotion – and then justify it with logic. (If you want any evidence of this, just ask a man to explain why he bought that shiny new sports car).
If an interviewer likes you, they will go on to vouch for you internally. Simply being likable can overpower many other apparent shortcomings (e.g. not solving a brain teaser correctly). People will make up all sorts of excuses to justify hiring someone who they felt they had a personal connection with.
Similarly, even the most qualified and genius candidates can get turned away by coming across as weird, rude, or overly nervous.
Simply put, it’s all about being great with people. Those skilled in sales or customer service will have a natural advantage here (there are many parallels to draw with seduction, too).
Mastery of this game comes with experience. Hardly anyone gets it right the first time around – it’s important to practice your interview skills on a regular basis (whether you have a job or not).
Part of it is learning to quickly recognize the type of person you’re dealing with – and to adjust your approach accordingly. Yes, we are all unique and special. However, there are certain types of people that crop up again and again in office settings – and there’s a good chance you will meet them at the interview stage, too. If you stay employed, you will get to know them quite quickly.
Here are my recommended approaches for a few of the more difficult personalities you’ll encounter during an interview:
A common type on client-facing and administrative teams (including HR), he or she is overly excited about The Company and everything it stands for. They are full of energy, and can go on for an hour about how amazing their work is – often parroting lines found on company marketing materials (“we’re saving the world”). There’s a good chance you will encounter this person as part of the interview process, so it’s critical that you learn how to deal with them.
For best results, dumb down your act: big smile, a lot of nodding, and agreement with everything they say. Emphasize that you’re a team player, and that you like seeing everyone succeed – together. Do not say anything negative, and don’t try to get creative (i.e. funny, snarky, or sarcastic). Play along, and you will be golden in their eyes.
Often an insecure individual from the ranks of middle management (this type is rampant in competitive, zero-sum fields like banking and management consulting). He or she will try their best to make it difficult for candidates – because only the “worthy” should be allowed to join. The Hard-Ass enjoys asking trick questions and brainteasers to get the unprepared to trip up. The trick with them is to not lose your temper. Play it cool, calmly answering their questions.
When faced with a quantitative problem, ask if you can solve the problem “out loud” by talking through your thought process as you work towards a solution on a piece of paper (or whiteboard). Hard-Asses get weak in the knees at this, as it is exactly how they have been taught to solve problems. They will be in awe if you can show them that you are a clear, rational thinker that can handle anything they throw at you.
This is your classic, type A, power-tripping company executive. He or she is at the interview for one of two reasons: he is either pretending to be a Hard-Ass (see above) to raise the hiring bar, or to sell the candidate on the role (by using grandiose language and making sweeping promises about the company’s future). In any case, it does not matter – your approach with this individual should be the same.
Do not try to impress them with your knowledge of things they don’t personally understand (for example, bragging about you knowing Java will remind them of something they can’t do). Don’t try to be a rebel here – just listen, nod, and show them that you are curious and get things done. They love seeing signs of humility and a strong work ethic – qualities that they like to attribute their own success to! Most importantly, do not appear weak or helpless – there is a fine line between humility and submission.
Keep in mind that the Napoleon is the closest thing to a company celebrity – if you try to suck up to them, they will notice (and won’t like it). Ask open-ended questions.
As the resident Mr. or Ms. know-it-all, this person will not hesitate to rattle off information they have memorized about the company’s structure, products, processes. etc.
He or she does not particularly care what you know (or claim to know) – they assume that they know more than you possibly could and, if challenged, are get very defensive. Usually (academic) overachievers, the Einstein types are commonly found on Engineering and R&D teams -where they routinely get into inane verbal spars with each other.
Recognize this type early.
The idea is to put them on a pedestal. Act like a student would – ask questions, take notes, and show amazement at their responses. If they ask you about your research, be clear and concise but don’t forget to also downplay it – talk about the weaknesses in your work and how you would improve things down the line. Be sure to praise the company, and thank them profusely for their time – almost all of these characters think their time is very valuable.
In short, act as if you’re dealing with a University professor (coincidentally, this is the job that The Einstein wishes he or she was actually smart enough for).
The Skeptic is an overly cynical employee, typically disillusioned with the job and everything related to it (industry, products, coworkers). He or she does not actually care much about your resume, what you say, or how enthusiastic you are about the job.
The Skeptic often looks uninterested and detached from the conversation – if there’s a window, they will be looking out of it. While there’s a good chance that they will quit by the time you get hired, it’s still worth it to learn how to win them over.
Being able to spot them is practically the entire key to success here – after all, mistaking any of the other types for a Skeptic will end badly. Signs include: slumping in chair, monotone voice, overly casual clothing, bored expression, breaking interview protocol (e.g. checking their phone), constantly looking at the clock, etc. The trick is to appear as human as possible – if you use buzzwords or marketing lingo, the Skeptic will immediately dismiss you as yet another boring corporate drone (i.e. what they fear of becoming).
When it comes to answering questions about your capabilities, get straight to the point: if something comes up that you can’t do, just say you don’t have much experience with it – but that you will be able to learn fast. Don’t ramble. If there’s an opening, ask them philosophical questions (“why did you choose to work here?” is a great one, as it show that you, too, seek to find meaning in your work).
Now get out there and get that job!
Your time will be far better spent getting actual interview practice. Be confident and bold, and never allow yourself to think that you are somehow “unworthy” of a job position/company. We’re all winging it.