By Chris Tobias
Everyone needs a job, but few applicants actually know how to get one. For most people starting out in the job market, it’s a process of trial and error– mostly error. But it needn’t be that way. Finding the right opening and conducting a professional interview is part common sense, part luck. It can all be boiled down to four simple steps: locate, prepare, execute, and follow up.
The most obvious step is to locate the right position for yourself. This is perhaps the most time-consuming and crucial step of all because you don’t want to waste time applying for positions that you have little chance of getting, and you do not want to be stuck in a miserable place. You should be scanning all the online job boards and put together a good, flattering but honest résumé that is brief, accurate, and tells the potential employer what you can do for them. Write a short but forceful cover letter that sells the hiring manager on your drive and ability to help them get work done. There are countless examples online; look for example at the Career Resources tab of Monster.com, where you will find a lot of advice.
Research local employers where you would like to work; study their websites, look at the positions they have advertised, and read the news about the company. When you write your cover letter, you should sound like you know exactly what they need. You are your own best advocate, so sell yourself.
When you go in for an interview, you should know as much about the company as possible. Don’t blow this off because you’re too busy, or you doubt they’ll hire you. Doubt translates into failure. Do the work up front and you will delight and amaze the hiring manager with your knowledge of the business. It doesn’t matter whether you’re going for a minimum wage job stocking shelves or a computer programming job; be a winner and let them know you’re a winner.
From the minute you arrive, you are executing your plan to advance your career. That means, you show up well-dressed, with a comfortable safety margin and, if necessary, wait in your car or at the café or in the lobby until it is five minutes before the appointment, then go in and get the job.
You do not want to show off your nose stud and forehead tattoo. Societal norms are evolving, but it’s safer to project a moderate, pleasant persona who will get along with 20-year-olds and with 75-year-olds. Don’t make a political statement of any kind in how you dress and comport yourself.
Above all, you want to project strength and confidence and humor. You are pleasant and easy to get along with and you have prepared answers to average interview questions (more on that below). If you can execute this plan well, the hiring manager will enjoy meeting with you and will come away from the interview feeling great about you.
Even if you don’t get the job after the first meeting, you have made an inroad that may pay off later. Interview questions are a topic for an entire article unto itself. To summarize: questions are generally designed to test your ability to get along and become a valuable team player. They may ask you questions about your home life, what kind of food you like, what sports you follow; this is just to get an impression of you as a human being. Give them honest answers and don’t forget to smile and be humble. This is your chance to show them you’re a fun person to be around.
They may try to test your knowledge, sometimes with ridiculous trivia questions that can be most annoying. They may give you a written test. Take it all with a grain of salt, and be good spirited about it. Chances are, they had to go through the same thing, so show them you understand that it’s a necessary chore to get through. Challenging questions are usually meant to see how you respond under pressure. If you have no ready answer to an odd question, provide a smooth, comforting response that reassures them you know how to find the answer. People in customer care are expected to handle great stress, and this is your opportunity to demonstrate that ability.
Don’t neglect this final, crucial step. It may be that they will close the interview with something like “Thank you for your time; we will get back to you by Friday.” Don’t wait by the phone. Go ahead and email the hiring manager or recruiter if you have their email and thank them for their time. It’s surprising how many people forget that the hiring process is tedious and time-consuming for those involved, and a little appreciation goes a long way.
You may also feel free to send them more information about yourself. “After our interview, I realized you might be interested in more details about my previous work…” “Here’s another story of how I helped a customer solve a big problem.” Don’t flood them with follow-up emails; one is sufficient. If they say, “Don’t contact us; we’ll be in touch” then you obviously need to respect that rule but be thinking of ways to stand out from the crowd.
It’s reasonable to ask them an informational question, for example, as an excuse to be in touch: “Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering about this detail about your 401(k) plan.” If this kind of inquiry annoys them, then you have learned something valuable about this company — they might not be a place you wish to work! The most important thing of all is to not become discouraged. Job hunting is like building Rome: it doesn’t happen in a day. The more you do it, the better you will become, and the more jobs you get, the easier it gets to find the next one. And one last thing: remember to have fun!