get a jobI've run a few companies over the years and have made my share of new hires. Still, every time we put out an announcement for an open position, I continue to be amazed at how misguided some of the respondents can be. Perhaps nobody showed them the right things to do, maybe they skipped that free seminar by their college career center on do's and don'ts, or perhaps they are just lazy. As an employer, I have no way of knowing, but I can guarantee that a poor first impression will always land a resume in the junk pile.

Here are seven things that you absolutely must do to make sure that you stand out as a candidate, especially in this economy where employers can get the pick of the litter.

  1. Learn about the company so you don't look ignorant. Poke around the company's web site. One of the first questions I ask candidates is to describe what we do. I ask if they visited our site. Many say yes, but then when I dig deeper, they admit that they looked at it only briefly (read: "I just said I looked at before I came here this morning, but I didn't really pay any attention.") Call the phone number listed on their contact page. If they are an online service, create a trial account. Take notes about what you encounter, including the responsiveness of the people you contact. You will use these notes later in your cover letter and during interviews.
  2. See where they are headed. If the company is publicly traded, go to their investor relations page and download or request their latest annual report. It contains a wealth of information about what they do and the direction they are headed in. If they are venture funded, find out who funded them, when, and how much they got. This is useful for two reasons: 1) to see if it will last during your tenure as an employee and 2) during an interview you can ask if they are seeking more funding, why and what they hope to do with the money. Check their venture capitalist's web site to see what kinds of company's they fund. Is there a trend? If a company is self-funded, you will want to know that, too. During an interview, you can ask them if growing organically has helped or hindered them.
  3. Find out who is in charge and what their hot buttons are. Read up on the founders and/or senior management. You will likely be able to see who your potential boss would be. Look them up on LinkedIn, ZoomInfo, FaceBook or other sites that might have information about their background. People often include their Alma Maters, interests and even hobbies in their online profiles. You might find that you went to the same college or grew up in a neighboring town. Maybe they share your interest in traveling, chess or charitable giving. Try to find out as much as you can about who you will be interviewing with and use it in your interviews. It will help foster a much more engaging conversation than the standard "blah blah" dialog. It will also make you much more memorable.
  4. Discover something they might not know but should. Learn about the company's competitors. This is easy to do online. Again, if they have an online trial account, sign up for the competitor's accounts and make a grid that compares products. There is nothing more powerful in an interview than showing the interviewer something they don't know that can help them. It shows tremendous initiative on your part.
  5. Tell them you know something that can help them. Include a cover letter with your resume. NEVER just send your resume by itself via email. Whenever I get such emails to our job postings, I view it as someone just firing off their resume to every job posting out there in the hopes that something will stick. It makes you look lazy and no employer wants to hire a lazy person. In your letter, don't make it read like a stock letter in which you mail merged the company's name. Personalize it, which is easy to do now that you have done your research on the company. Try something like "I am applying for the position of software developer. I visited your web site and created a trial account for your service. In doing so, I noticed some areas that users might be confused with and would be happy to discuss them with your team. I have worked on web based products in previous positions and can share some ideas that can help you increase your sign-ups. Can we schedule an interview for next Friday?"
  6. Highlight your past accomplishments, not others'. And don't ramble. Keep your resume to a maximum of two pages. Highlight your key accomplishments and responsibilities. A good employer will quiz you on your direct involvement with each project you list. Do not say "Worked on various marketing initiatives to increase sales." Say "Responsible for creating and managing online advertising campaign that resulted in additional $3 million in sales within 18 months." Also, make your resume look pretty. Do not use small font and do not list every piece of software you ever touched. I laugh every time I see a resume that shows "Internet Explorer" as a skill. (Note for graphic designers: use your resume as the company's first look at your portfolio. Most designers' resumes - and portfolios - are really bad. Make yours look like the personality of the company and you will dramatically increase the chances of landing an interview. Also, include a link to your portfolio in your resume. That's the first thing employers want to see.)
  7. Send a handwritten thank you note. Immediately after the interview (like that evening), send a thank you card to every person you interviewed with that day. There are few things as powerful as a handwritten note. Make it short and sweet. Thank them for their time, reinforce your desire to work with them and say that you are looking forward to the next steps (include your contact info again so it is easy for them to reach you). Doing this will make you significantly more memorable than everyone else. In my experience, only 1 or 2% of job candidates take the time to send a "thank you" note after an interview.

Sound like a lot of work? Not really. It just takes a little extra time. And if you are really serious about getting a job, going about it in this methodical manner will give you a HUGE advantage over other candidates.