Should You Take Advantage of Family Connections to Get a Job?

When you're seeking a summer internship or a first job out of college, you may find yourself in the situation that a parent or relative who owns their own business offers you a job. Or maybe they're high up in a company and have enough influence that they could make a strong recommendation for you. Should you accept?

There are a few factors to consider here. One is the ethical considerations — some people feel uncomfortable with the idea of taking a job that they didn't have to compete with others for, a job that was essentially handed to them. The way I think of it, there's a reason people talk about "who you know" when job searching — connections play a huge role in the way many people land their jobs. Whether you sought out those connections yourself through networking or were born into them, it comes down to the same kind of advantage.

There are plenty of other "unfair" advantages people may have when job seeking, from the ability to access the best education to privileges of race, sex, ability, or other factors that unconsciously bias hiring managers. Unfortunately, you are unlikely to ever be competing on a completely level playing field when applying for jobs, so you have to determine if you want to take advantage of what you can.

Ethical considerations aside, you have to determine if you actually want the job that's being offered to you. More than likely, it's not exactly the kind of work you had in mind in an ideal world. It's simply what's available. Are you able to land a job that's more like what you want to do? If you haven't already given it your best effort to apply for your top-choice jobs, that's where you should start. There's no reason to choose an easy path just because it's there.

Your relative may be thinking, "Oh, the economy's so bad, they'll be lucky to get any job," but that's not necessarily the case. As long as there are job openings out there, there are hiring managers looking for candidates who can make the case that they're right for the job. And if you're willing to put in the work, there's no reason that can't be you.

On the other hand, if you've been striving after the kind of job or internship you want and are still coming up empty-handed, then I would argue that some work experience is better than no work experience. Even if it's not exactly the kind of work you want to be doing, there is a lot you can learn from simply having a regular job and getting accustomed to the culture of the working world. And much of what you learn is likely to be transferrable in some way or another to the next job you seek out.

There is a lot to consider when determining whether to go into a family business or let a family member push for you to get hired at their company, and there's no one right answer. Hopefully the information above gives you some food for thought in making your own decision.

Interviewing with People You Know

There are a number of situations in which you might already know the hiring manager for a particular job. You might be a college student seeking an on-campus job with a department where you already know some of the staff or faculty members. You might be a new graduate interviewing at company where you interned for several months.

When I interviewed for my current job, I already knew almost all the people in my department because my husband had been working there for a year. One of the people interviewing me was a good friend. I had to strike the right balance between personal and professional to successfully handle the interview.

Whatever the case, here are some do's and don'ts for this kind of situation.

DO take the process seriously. Put together your application materials with as much care as any other job, and dress professionally for an interview just like you would to meet a stranger. You don't get a free pass on any part of the process, and acting like you do is not going to work to your advantage.

DON'T assume you have an advantage. Someone who has a good relationship with you may think you're a great person, but that has very little to do with whether you're capable of doing the job at hand. In fact, if they know you well, they may be more aware of your faults than a candidate they've never met before. Be prepared to make a strong case for yourself as it relates to the job you're interviewing for.

DO acknowledge that you know each other. You want to be professional, but there's no reason to be abnormally stiff and formal about the whole thing. Give them a firm handshake, but say, "It's good to see you again" and ask after their family members, mutual acquaintances, or past projects you worked on together. It's also OK to mention in the interview ways in which you believe your individual work styles mesh well together or specific past experiences with the person that led you to have an interest in working there.

DO focus on the importance of fit/match. One fear an interviewer who know you may have is that you will react badly if they go with another candidate. Show that you're mature enough to understand how the process works by proactively mentioning that you want to make sure the position is a good fit for you, and you understand that they need to find the "right" person for the job. This helps reframe the discussion from the awkward "I am choosing / not choosing you" to "We are both determining if this is a good match for this job."

DON'T take rejection personally. This framing I just described is important for you to keep in mind as well, particularly if you're not selected for the position. At the end of the day, the person you know has to choose the candidate they think will do best in this specific job, and that is unrelated to their personal feelings about you.

Have you ever been interviewed by someone you knew, or had to interview someone you knew? What was your experience?

Does It Matter What You Major In?

Answer: Yes... but not as much as you might think.

You've probably heard that most college students change their major at least once before they graduate. Some, however, change their major over and over and over again, which can lead to extending the amount of time in school and, consequently, the amount of debt accrued to afford those extra classes.

I see this most often accompanied by the mindset that "I don't want to do Career X anymore, I want to do Career Y, so I need a different degree." I want to share some thoughts to break apart the assumptions that underlie this kind of thinking.

First of all, take a look at some job postings in your intended field. Many jobs will not specify an exact type of degree you must have, but will instead require "a bachelor's degree in business, communication, or related field" or something equally vague. That's because oftentimes a hiring manager doesn't know exactly what they're looking for, or they don't want to limit their candidate pool too much by being overly specific.

Some professions, like being a computer programmer or a nurse, do require specialized training, but many, many of the jobs out there do not map exactly to a particular college major. And there are new jobs being created all the time that do not have corresponding college majors because they haven't even been defined yet.

Second, many people change careers at some point in their life. This doesn't always require going back to school to get a completely new degree. If needed, you could get a master's degree in your new field (the threshold for what kind of bachelor's you have going into a grad program tends to be even lower than when getting a job), but really, you may just need one training course or a certification program to get up to speed in a different field.

Finally, your job experience will quickly become more important than your degree. A bachelor's in any field can help you get your foot in the door with an entry-level position, and from there you will have the opportunity to learn new skills and take on new responsibilities within your company. Once people see what you're capable of, your exact field of study becomes far less important, and you can then develop a track record for successfully completing the kind of work you want to do. In some fields (such as graphic design and editing), you can take on freelance work to build your portfolio regardless of your field of study — or lack thereof.

If nothing else, remember this: The most important thing is that you can articulate the applicability of your degree. If you can explain well — whether in a cover letter or an interview — how your course of study has helped prepare you for a position, then the official title of your major matters little.

Job Searching in Another City

There are a lot of reasons you might apply to a job in a city other than the one you're living in. Maybe you're finishing up college and plan to move back to your hometown or to be with a partner after graduation. Maybe you just have your sights set on a particular city because you like it or you know it's popular in your industry. Whatever the reason, here are some tips to give you a leg up in your long-distance job searching.

1. Make connections nearby. You can use the LinkedIn search tool to find people who live near you but used to work in the city you've got your eye on. It's much easier to hit it off with someone face-to-face, and if that happens, they'll be sure to offer to put you in touch with people they know in the place you're moving to. Getting that personal introduction can make a huge difference in helping you stand out in your new city.

2. Find professional organizations in your new city. As I mentioned last week, some professional organizations may not even charge a fee to join or to access their online resources. If there are online forums on their website or on the group's LinkedIn page, you can start making connections virtually before you even arrive, plus find out about job opportunities that aren't posted widely.

3. Acknowledge your desire to relocate in your cover letters. For entry-level positions where the candidate pool is larger, employers may be reluctant to consider candidates from farther away, whose costs they may need to cover for interview travel or relocation, if they have equally qualified local candidates. Level the playing field by explaining upfront that you're already committed to moving to the area, and provide your timeline for doing so.

4. Consider whether additional explanation is needed on your resume. An organization or university that is well known in one part of the country may be unheard of in another, and even more so if you're interviewing internationally. Don't assume that they'll recognize regional schools and brands, either in your application materials or your interview.

What else do you recommend doing when seeking a job in another part of the country or the world?

How You Fit into a Hiring Manager's Day

If you've never been in a professional role where you hired people, you might have only a fuzzy idea of what happens on the other end once you sent off an application. Here are a few things to keep in mind, based on my own experience:

Hiring managers are busy doing other things. This is perhaps the most important thing you can keep in mind. Except for situations where your application is first screened by an HR person whose sole job is hiring, the person or people making hiring decisions have other full-time jobs and are trying to squeeze this whole hiring process into the midst of their other responsibilities.

This means that despite what you may have heard, "following up" — to make sure your application has been received or to reiterate your interest in the position — is generally going to annoy the person you're e-mailing or calling. Not only have they had to carve time out of their day to review applications, they now have to spend additional time on the phone with you or replying to your e-mail. This is more likely to cast a negative rather than a positive light on you as an applicant.

This is also why it's meaningful to genuinely thank a hiring manager for their time after an interview. Every candidate they interviewed meant another 30+ minutes out of their day when they could have been doing other work. Their time is valuable — acknowledge that.

Your application may not get reviewed right away. Some hiring managers will review applications as they come in, but many have to set aside a block of time once the deadline's passed or enough applications have been received, and this may take a while. This is another reason following up can mean a strike against you — they may not even know if your application's come in because they haven't had time to review them yet, so you risk seeming pushy or impatient if you follow up right away to check on your application.

This doesn't mean you can wait as long as possible to apply, though. It's possible they'll start scheduling interviews well before the listed deadline.

There may not be a concrete hiring timeline. Sometimes a position needs to be filled by a specific date, but often it's not that urgent. A hiring manager may set aside a certain day to review applications but end up pushing it off when an important project suddenly comes up. They may be convening a committee of people to review applications or trying to schedule a panel interview, and it can be difficult to find a time that everyone's free. The fact that you haven't heard anything yet after a week or even a month is not a clear sign that you've been eliminated.

Thus it's not a good idea to try to bug them by asking for a definite hiring timeline or, worse, calling after a certain period of time to ask if you can set up an interview. Only once you're at the interview stage is it appropriate to ask what the next steps are and what their estimated timeline is for making an offer. Even then, understand that this may be a rough estimate.

Hopefully this gives you a clearer picture of what happens after you send off an application. Ultimately it's best to trust that once you're in the applicant pool, a hiring manager is going to move at their own pace and make decisions based on their own criteria. Your responsibility is just to make your application as excellent as possible before you send it.

Another Way to Expand Your Professional Network

Today I've got a tip about another great way to expand your network besides setting up informational interviews.

The best contacts for you to have are people in your field or the field you want to be working in. Where can you find a bunch of people who are all in the same field and interested in meeting new people? A professional organization.

There are many, many different types of organizations, associations, and other gatherings of like-minded professionals, and there may just be one near you. They're usually centered around cities, so if you're not living in a city you may have the most luck searching for a group in the city closest to you, or searching for a state organization that meets in different locations throughout the state.

Search the Internet for "[City] [Profession] Association." Try substituting other words for "Association" like "Organization," "Guild," or "Society." You may also have luck searching Facebook or Meetup.com to find groups who use these sites rather than their own websites. Meetup even has a subcategory called "Professional Networking Groups" where you can find all professional networking organizations in your area that use Meetup.

Some organizations, particularly the more established ones, have a membership fee to join, but some don't. They may also have a greatly reduced fee for students. Some require a membership to access their job boards but not to attend their events, or vice versa. Many organizations have both structured, regular meetings and low-key happy hours or other socials, so you can determine which environment is more comfortable for you.

Professional organizations are a great way to meet people who are excited about the same things you're excited about and want to talk about them. And that's a great way to make a new connection!

How Do You Know Which Job Will Make You Happy?

Answer: Sometimes you don't until you're in it.

Story time.

When I first moved out to Portland for my husband's job, I had a specific idea of what my dream job would be. I wanted to move out of higher ed, where bureaucracy seemed to hamper everything, and into a small organization, either a non-profit (save the world!) or a for-profit company (make more money!). I wanted to continue doing evaluation work, which I loved, ideally still related to education. And after working in an open office plan for three years as an introvert, I wanted my own office.

After a few months of job searching, I landed what seemed to be the absolutely ideal position. It was with a small educational evaluation firm, where I'd get to take on my own clients — schools and museums — plus as part of my job I'd help manage a non-profit organization the firm ran. And I'd get my own office.

Perfect, right?

Not so much. First off, even though it was a for-profit company, I had to take a pay cut from my previous position, but I thought it was worth it to do what I loved. Then it turned out the non-profit I was supposedly running had to shut down because the person before me had neglected to do any fundraising that year, which was the only thing keeping it running. And all the new evaluation clients we were supposed to be getting never materialized, so I had literally nothing to do most days (but was still expected to fill out a detailed time sheet of how I spent my day), and I only got handed projects when they'd turned into such a huge mess no one else wanted to deal with them. I also had an hour-long commute both ways, and worked ("worked") an 8-5 day.

So every day I would get up when it was still dark out, take a long bus ride, and sit alone in my office, isolated and bored, until a few months later I finally quit.

I spent some time reevaluating what I wanted out of a job and, just as importantly, how my job should fit into my life. I decided I couldn't do a long commute again; I wanted more time with my husband, my friends, and our kids once we had them, and time for my own hobbies and projects. And I needed to be sure I would like the people I worked with, because you really only get one shot at quitting a job after a few months or your resume starts to look sketchy.

Eventually I ended up taking a job as an office manager on the campus where we live. By my original criteria, it was the exact opposite of what I wanted. It's back in higher ed, and it has nothing to do with evaluation work. I sit at a front desk where people are constantly talking to me, and I answer the phone all day long (introvert nightmare!). And I took another pay cut.

But I love it. I work a 7-hour day plus lunch and I have a 5-minute walk to work, which means I can now wake up at the same time I used to have to be at the bus stop and still get in a half-hour run, shower, and breakfast before work. I work with great people, including lots of people I was already friends with, and I get to have lunch with my husband most days. And it turns out I love helping people, even angry parents. I also have lots of time for my side projects, including doing freelance data analysis, so I can still keep up with that kind of work.

My story is not everyone's story, and I'm not suggesting that you have to try out a bunch of jobs and quit them to find your fit. As I've said before, there is no perfect job. However, this is a good case for internships, volunteer work, informational interviews, and any other research you can do ahead of time. What you think will make you happy in a job isn't always the same thing as what will make you happy.

Formatting a Resume When Your Experience Is Limited

There are a few basic building blocks of a resume, but the big one is your experience. I've previously covered how to describe your experience, but if you're like many college students and young professionals, your experience is not necessarily as straightforward as a list of job titles and companies where you've worked.

Here are a few tips on compiling your resume, based on some different possible situations.

What if my biggest qualification is my education?

If you're in college and applying for an internship, or fresh out of college without much work experience, your coursework and/or degree may be the best thing you have going for you to land that first job. In that case, list your education first on your resume, and flesh it out as much as possible. I've previously provided some tips for explaining in greater detail how your education is a selling point for you as a candidate. Don't go overboard, but make sure it's the first and most compelling thing the hiring manager sees on your resume.

What if I have a lot of volunteer experience?

There's generally no good reason to differentiate between paid and volunteer experience on your resume. Experience is experience, and the skills you gained are valuable regardless of how you gained them. You can list your position title as "Volunteer" (although a more detailed title is better, such as "Volunteer Proofreader" or "Circulation Desk Volunteer"), but the rest of it can be exactly the same as for a paid position, detailing what organization it was for, the dates you served in that position, and what you accomplished during your time in that role.

Two caveats: Once you gain relevant work experience, I suggest taking off volunteer positions except for those that are directly related to the kind of work you'd be doing in this new role. Secondly, if you're applying for any job where volunteer work itself is an asset (e.g., a Volunteer Coordinator position), calling out "Volunteer Experience" in a section by itself can show the hiring manager at a glance that you can connect to the volunteers you'd be working with.

What if I have work experience that's not related to the job I'm applying for?

As you move along in your career, you'll be able to trim the less relevant experience from your resume, but when you're starting out you may have to draw on this experience to illustrate transferable skills — skills that you gain in one type of job that are valuable for another type of job. It is 100% your responsibility to connect the dots and describe your past experience in such a way that it highlights the skills you gained. This doesn't mean writing "gained X skills" but rather describing the work that you accomplished that illustrates said skills.

In some cases, I recommend having two experience sections: Relevant Experience and Additional Experience. If your most relevant qualifications are kind of scattershot — a practicum, a certification, a summer internship — you might consider drawing them all together in one place with a "Relevant Experience" section, and putting your other experience — an on-campus, retail, or entry-level job where you learned valuable skills doing unrelated work — in another section.

When considering how to present your experience on a resume, you should think less about the "right" way to format a resume and more about what's going to best present your own experience. This doesn't mean you should throw away the basic conventions like including titles, companies, and dates of work — your resume still needs to be easily comprehensible by someone glancing over it. But consider some of the options above for organization if they seem to work well for your situation.

Some Thoughts on Crafting Your Life

Many young graduates do not immediately dive into their chosen career after college. They may take advantage of being single or being healthy or some other facet of this time of life to travel or pursue daring projects. They may take a retail, service, or other lower-paying job, either because they are unable to land a job in their preferred field or because they want the time and flexibility to pursue other projects, seek additional education, or figure out what they want to do long term.

But then there comes a time — maybe they get married, are expecting a child, or finally decide they need to move out of their parents' home — when they feel like it's time to Settle Down. They need to find a career path that is going to be stable and well-paying and devote themselves to it. They need to follow in their father's or mother's footsteps, working those long hours and making the big bucks to support themselves and their family.

I have a serious aversion to this way of thinking. I don't believe that there's One Right Way to have a career or provide for a family. Money is nothing more than a tool that helps us to determine what our day-to-day lives can look like.

Even if you had the experience of growing up in a suburban house with two parents who worked full time or one parent who worked full time and one who stayed home full time, this does not mean that this lifestyle is your ultimate goal. Many people are choosing to rent long term in part because people don't expect to keep the same job forever. Childcare arrangements can have many configurations — my husband's grandmother lived with his family and worked during the day but was there to greet him and his brother after school each day, and now my husband's schedule has so much flexibility that we don't anticipate having to use daycare full time.

The point is this: Don't start from the assumption that your life needs to look a certain way or that you need a certain type of job to make that happen. Start from a place of determining what you want your life to be like. If you're partnered, talk with your partner about what you both expect your life should look like. What standard of living do you both expect? Do you plan to have children, and how do you plan to educate them (public, private, homeschool)? How often do you want to go on vacation?

Then let these answers drive the type of job you look for. Does your chosen field allow for the kind of life you want, both in terms of compensation and in terms of schedule/hours? If you're not sure, this is a great opportunity to do some informational interviews and find out what work/life balance looks like (if it exists) for people who are doing what you hope to do professionally. Make decisions about your career based on how it will actually shape your life, not on assumptions about what your job or life ought to look like.

For more on crafting the life you want, I highly recommend Laura Vanderkam's book 168 Hours.

Responding to Application Questions about Salary

You should never, ever lie on a job application, but that doesn't mean you always have to volunteer information that could be to your detriment.

Companies will often ask for your salary history on an application, but you should pause before answering that question. It can be a way for employers to try to justify paying you less than you deserve simply because they know it's an increase from your past salary. It provides you with less leverage when conducting a salary negotiation. If you're new on the job market and most of your experience comes from volunteer work, it can be seen as less valuable just because you weren't paid for the work.

What many people don't realize is that these fields can often be left blank or will accept free-text responses such as "Not disclosed" or "Confidential." It is to your benefit to keep this information to yourself if at all possible.

Another tricky application field is "Expected salary." If you've already done your research, then you choose whether you want to share your expectations. If you do, provide a range, not an exact number. However, this can be to your disadvantage — if instead you wait until a hiring manager interviews you and decides they absolutely want to hire you, you may find that you're offered a higher salary than you would have even asked for.

These fields, too, often can be left blank or accept free-text responses rather than only numbers. My go-to answer for Expected Salary is "Negotiable." This is not an aggressive answer, nor does it imply that I didn't see the question — it illustrates that I want to have a conversation about salary once we're at a point where we're both sure this is the best fit for everyone.

This question may crop up again if you make it to the interview stage. Thankfully, at that point it's much easier to give a carefully crafted answer than within the black-and-white confines of a job application. Alison Green shares some possible responses to salary questions that I encourage you to check out.

Seeking Opportunities for Your Story

There's a reason I recommend the ABC method to answering interview questions. Despite the increasing prevalence of behavioral questions in interviews, you are still likely to encounter plenty of questions that don't explicitly ask you for examples of your past behavior: "What's your philosophy of nursing?" "What are some of your strengths as a leader?" "What do you consider the most important trait of a good teacher?"

Your stories are your most valuable tools in an interview, and you shouldn't wait to be fed opportunities to tell them. Every question should be seen an opportunity to tie in an example from your past. This is where I see people fall short again and again — they get stuck on the "A" portion (answering the question) and miss the chance to tell a memorable and compelling story about their past accomplishments.

Having a framework for your responses is important not just to keep you from rambling, but also to make sure that you remember to tie every answer possible to a concrete example. If you're talking about your strengths as a leader, talk about a specific leadership experience where you demonstrated those strengths. That puts you at a higher tier right away — you're someone who can not only conceptually understand and articulate what good leadership is, but you're someone who has actually put this into practice in the past.

Remember, one of the primary, underlying questions that interviewers are seeking to answer about you is whether you're capable of doing the job well. The best evidence that you can do any particular aspect of the job is that you've done it before. But they're not necessarily going to ask you directly for an example of your experience. It's on your shoulders to find out how to work your past accomplishments into the question at hand, no matter how it's phrased.

Words and Phrases to Avoid in Interviews

Do you know what's worse than finding out you've been mispronouncing a word your whole life? Mispronouncing the word in an interview.

I am not someone who believes in "magic words" when interviewing — that you just need to sprinkle the right buzzwords into your resume and stay away from overused clichés when interviewing and you're good to go. But there are some situations in which you need to be careful about what you say. Here's what I mean:

  • Not sure how to pronounce a word? Don't use it in an interview. Talk around it. If it's a word that's directly related to the job and you're sure it will come up, check the pronunciation ahead of time (Merriam-Webster has pronunciation audio on their definitions) or wait until someone else uses the word first if at all possible. 
  • Know how to say the company's name. This might sound obvious, but one slip-up is an easy way for them to rule you out. Search the Internet for commercials or interviews with employees to make sure you're saying it correctly. Bonus tip: Pronounce Names is a great resource if you're meeting a person whose name is unfamiliar to you.
  • Be cautious when using idioms, analogies, and metaphors. If you're not into sports and you try to use a sports analogy, you risk distracting the interviewer with your misunderstandings of the sport and not getting across the point you want to make. Ditto if you use an idiom without fully grasping what it means.
  • Familiarize yourself with commonly misused phrases. These include "all intensive purposes" (rather than "all intents and purposes"), "doggy-dog world" (for "dog-eat-dog world"), and "mute point" (instead of "moot point"). Here are some others.
  • Avoid culturally charged or potentially offensive sayings. You might not know that some common phrases are considered racist. It doesn't matter whether you agree that they're offensive; you don't want to risk an interviewer thinking you have zero cultural sensitivity. Erase them from your vocabulary.

What are some other words and phrases to use with caution or not at all?

Getting a Job on Campus

A new school year is getting underway, and this means many colleges and universities who have recently started up again or will soon are hiring new student employees. Because of fair hiring practices, many colleges are not able to hire anyone until the school year starts in order to allow first-year students an equal shot at getting a job. So what should you keep in mind when applying for one of these jobs?

Your application will be taken more seriously if you take it seriously. For many students, this is their first job ever, and they don't know the ins and outs of putting together a professional cover letter and resume. That's no reason to be sloppy or write a cover letter like it's a school paper. There are plenty of resources out there (like this site!) that can give you tips on cover letters, resumes, and putting together a solid application. Search the Internet for examples, and treat it just like it was your first job application out of college where you were competing with experienced professionals.

Making money shouldn't be your only reason for applying. I'm surprised at how many students say in their cover letter that they're applying for a job because they need to help pay for college. (One student whose application I reviewed even took the time to list out the things he would spend the money on!) It may be true that you need to earn money for college, but that's probably every other student's reason for applying too, and it doesn't tell the hiring manager anything about why you would do well in the job. That's what the space on your cover letter should be devoted to!

You do have experience. College students seem especially prone to emphasizing their weaknesses on a cover letter ("Although I have no real work experience..."). There's a reason you believe you can do this job or you wouldn't be applying for the job — so what is it? Is it because you've excelled in student leadership positions or volunteer work? Even if the only thing you can point to is a strong academic record, point to that! Talk about your punctuality in turning in assignments and your ability to learn new information quickly, or whatever else will show that you understand the skills needed for doing well in the job you're applying for.

Getting a job on campus can be one of the best ways to gain work experience before you graduate and head into a world that expects you to know what you're doing before you apply. The bar for getting hired is a little lower in college — but not so low that you shouldn't try your best. Keep these things in mind when putting together your next on-campus application.

Researching a Company Before Applying (Part 2)

Last week we talked about where you can go on the Internet to find out more about an organization before applying for a job there. Sometimes, though, a company's not big or old enough to have a collection of reviews out there. How else can you find out what it's like to work there? You can talk to the people who used to work there.

I encourage seeking out former employees rather than current employees because current employees may not feel they can be completely honest if they don't like aspects of their job. Those who no longer work there have less incentive to spin the truth in a positive light if that wasn't their experience.

This process is more time-consuming than doing a quick Internet search, so I don't usually do this before applying to a job, but I will do it before going for an interview. That way I at least have an idea of what questions I should ask when I go to the interview (though in one case I actually pulled out of the interview process because of what I learned).

Finding some to talk to is similar to what I described when talking about informational interviews. You can use the LinkedIn search tool to find people who used to work at the company you're interviewing with. Look for people who worked in the area where you'd be working — even better if they held the same position or internship you're interviewing for. Also look at how long they worked there and how recently, as it can be valuable to speak to someone who has a historical perspective on the company as well as someone who left recently.

Then send them a short, professional e-mail explaining that you're interviewing with X Company soon and would like to ask them a few questions about their experience there. A phone call is best, as you don't need as much of their time as in a full informational interview, but you want to be able to get the vocal inflections that you can't get from an e-mail.

Here are some of the questions you can ask:

  • How would you describe your overall experience at Organization? Positive, negative, in-between?
  • What did you like best about working at Organization?
  • What was most challenging about working at Organization?
  • Why did you decide to leave Organization? Would you ever work there again?

If you know the specific person who supervises the position you're interviewing for, it's a good idea to ask the person you're talking to whether they know that individual and how they would describe him or her.

This might sound like a lot of work, and it is, but it's worth it. At one job where I stayed less than four months, I found out shortly after arriving that the people before me had stayed for similarly short periods of time. If I'd taken the time to look any of them up and talk to them, I might have saved myself a lot of stress and misery.

Do You Have to Fit a Job Posting Exactly?

(Spoiler alert: No.)

Let me tell you a secret: Sometimes, hiring managers write job postings, and then they don't remember what they wrote. Sometimes they make a rubric based on their job posting and carefully compare every application to it, and sometimes they're so busy, inexperienced, or overwhelmed by applications that they just pick out the ones that sound generally like they fit what they're looking for.

What this means is that you should not automatically rule out applying to jobs where you don't fit every single criterion on the posting exactly. You may have to work harder to make a case for yourself as a candidate, but you were going to do that anyway, right? If you can convince a hiring manager that you would do a fantastic job in a specific position, then they're going to bring you in for an interview no matter whether you check all the boxes on the job posting.

I always tell clients: Don't assume you're not going to get hired before you ever apply. Let the hiring manager eliminate you; don't eliminate yourself because you think a particular skill you don't have is the one thing they really care about. And do you think the person writing the position description can really make that fine of a distinction between someone with 2 years of experience and someone with 3 years? No — they made an educated guess about how many years of experience they'd like a candidate to have.

To a certain extent, you need to be realistic. For your own sake, don't waste your time putting together an application for a position that requires 10 years of experience when you only have 2 years and are missing half the skills they're looking for. But if you genuinely think you could excel at a position, make your case! Let them be the ones to say no.

Researching a Company Before Applying (Part 1)

When you come across a promising job posting, your first instinct is probably to settle in and start putting together your application materials. But wait — have you ever heard of this company before? And if you have, are you sure they're a company you'd be happy working for?

Before putting time and effort into a job application, it's worth taking some time to research the company or organization offering the position. Today we'll discuss finding existing information, and next week we'll look at seeking out additional information from real people.

There are a number of sites dedicated specifically to allowing employees to rate and review their workplaces. Two of the most established (and therefore with the most reviews to draw on) are Glassdoor.com and Careerbliss.com. Indeed.com, which I recommend for finding job postings, also offers some reviews of companies.

Approach these reviews with a critical eye. One review written by a single disgruntled employee may not be indicative of an entire company culture, though it may give you an idea of things to look further into or ask about in an interview. Also pay attention to the department and title of the person writing the review, if available, as culture and management can vary widely from one department to the next.

Be aware that some marketing or HR staff members may write reviews of their own company to try to boost their ratings. Look for reviews that offer honest pros and cons, and be skeptical about those that make an organization sound like heaven on earth.

Larger organizations are more likely to have reviews and ratings out there than smaller organizations, but don't worry — this isn't the only way to get information on a company. Type a company name into Google News or a similar site to find out if there's been any recent press about the company. Search the Internet for the name of the organization and the specific department you're applying to, and scroll down past the top results from the company website to see what else is out there. Searching for the company name + "I worked at" may also turn up one-off reviews from personal blogs and the like.

You don't have to spend all day on this, but it's worth taking a few minutes to see if there's anything out there you should be aware of before you put together an application. There's nothing worse than starting a new job, running into lots of problems, and then discovering that there are lots of online reviews that could have warned you before you even applied.

Can't find anything, or just want a more personal opinion? Next week we'll talk about contacting former employees to hear about their experiences.

The Problem with Templates

When you're first putting together a cover letter and a resume, looking at examples is a great idea. It's easy to find many examples with a quick search online, and this can help you get an idea of what some people consider quality application materials.

However, I'm not a fan of templates. This is when you download something and then change only the information specific to you and the position you're applying for. Why is this a problem?

Well, keep in mind that hiring managers often look through dozens, even hundreds, of resumes and cover letter. If a template is easily available online, then a hiring manager is going to end up with multiple resumes that look exactly the same or cover letters that use the same phrases. Far from assuring that your materials will be high quality, this immediately pegs you as someone who is lazy or unoriginal.

Another problem with using cover letter templates or, worse, lifting entire sections of example cover letters put online for your reference, is that they tend to sound ridiculous out of context. For example, when hiring for a student position recently, I had multiple people use the exact same aggressive-sounding "This is why you need to hire me now" cover letter script. While this might (!) be appropriate for an experienced professional applying for an intense sales position or the like, it's over-the-top for this particular context.

Plus some templates are just bad. You might be tempted to copy something from online because it's hailed as being an example of a great resume or cover letter, but that doesn't mean everyone would agree. Many times the examples you find online are ones that are unusual, where someone took a chance on the format or being overly aggressive or overly casual, and it just happened to work for that particular position, company, applicant, or hiring manager for some reason. But in any other context, that application would have been tossed.

Look at examples. Read tips. But put together your own materials. When they're genuine and passionate and individual to you, you're going to find you have a lot better success than trying to copy someone's "great" example.

Having a Successful Video Interview

This month, we've been talking about interview situations outside of the traditional "sit across from a person who asks you questions" model, including phone interviews, group interviews, and interviews with multiple interviewers. Let's wrap up by talking about a type of interview that's halfway between a phone interview and an in-person interview — a video interview.

Why might an organization ask to do a video interview? If they're interviewing candidates from out of state but can't afford to fly them in, this is a way to be "face-to-face" without physically being in the same room. Being able to see a candidate's facial expressions can be more valuable than doing a voice-only phone interviews. Also, if there are multiple interviewers, it's easier to follow who's talking if you can see their faces.

As with the other types of interviews we've reviewed, it's most important that you prepare for a video interview in the same way you would prepare for any interview. However, there are some additional things you can do to make a video interview as successful as possible.

  • Use a wired Internet connection if at all possible, and make sure it's not going to cut out if the phone rings. (I once had to do a Skype interview at a family friend's house while on vacation, and they failed to tell me that their Internet and their phone were on the same line! When the phone rang, it dropped the video call completely.)
  • Practice making and receiving video calls with someone until you feel comfortable with the technology. If you're using a headset (which I recommend so you don't feel like you have to shout), test this out ahead of time as well.
  • Be aware of your background. Unlike in an in-person interview, they're going to be seeing into your personal space or wherever you are for the call. Is anything in the background going to be distracting, or could be considered inappropriate? Take it off-screen.
  • Be patient. Many organizations are trying out video interviews for the first time, and they may not have the technology or sound figured out on their side. The more you can have a good sense of humor and avoid displaying impatience or frustration, the more positively you'll be perceived.
  • Look at the camera! Your webcam is probably on top of your computer screen, which means if you look at the people on the screen, it will look to them like you're looking down and not at them. So make a conscious effort to talk into the camera. Just like you wouldn't maintain unbroken eye contact with someone for an extended period of time, you can look down every now and then to gauge the interviewer's reactions, but the majority of the time you should keep your eyes on the camera.

What tips would you add about making a video interview successful?

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

So many of the tips I share come down to one simple concept: respect. Having a genuine respect for the hiring manager or interviewer(s) goes a long way toward keeping you out of the "No" pile. But respect is not just about the words you use or your tone of voice. Let's look at some different ways you show respect when applying for a job.

Following directions. The company took the time to design an application process a particular way. When you ignore that and try to do things your own way or expect them to make an exception for you, you're showing that you don't respect them enough to care how they want things done.

Proofreading your application. There's a reason I call this the indispensable step in every application. When there are glaring typos, incomprehensible sentences, or the wrong person or company's name, it shows a lack of respect for my time. You expect me to read through your application, but you couldn't be bothered to reread it carefully yourself before submitting it?

Tailoring your application to the position. Sending out a generic resume and cover letter to a bunch of job postings doesn't show respect. Why? Because you're essentially saying, "Your company is just like any other company, and this job isn't different from any other job." Take the time to demonstrate that you are qualified for and interested in this position at this organization specifically.

Being on time for interviews. This should be a given, but it's not. If I call for a phone interview and you don't answer, meaning we have to reschedule or I have to stop what I'm doing when you call back later, that's disrespectful of the fact that we made an agreement to talk at a certain time. And it's not just being late that's a problem. If you show up for an in-person interview more than 10 minutes early (I'd even say 5 minutes), you are asking people to accommodate you in their space until they're ready to do the actual interview.

Doing your research. The interviewer has taken the time to prepare for an interview, by reviewing your application, writing out interview questions, and possibly even needing to reserve space for the interview or coordinating with multiple people's schedules. If you come in not knowing the first thing about the organization and not having reviewed the job description, you're indicating that you think your time and energy is more valuable than theirs.

These are very basic steps, and you're not going to land a job simply by virtue of doing this bare minimum. But without respect, you're much less likely to be considered a viable candidate. Keep this in mind as you go through your job search and you'll save yourself from getting cut as easily.

Talking to Multiple Interviewers

Last week we talked about being in an interview situation with multiple candidates. But what about the other way around — when you're the only candidate, but you're facing multiple interviewers?

Just like with phone interviews, the most important things to keep in mind are the basics: knowing what you want to communicate and practicing ahead of time, keeping your answers on point and organized, and preparing good questions to ask. But here are some other tips for when there's a table full of people asking you questions:

  • If possible, find out ahead of time the list of people you'll be interviewing with. It's OK to ask this when you arrange the interview, though not everyone will tell you (often because they don't yet know who will be available to conduct the interview). Do some research so you at least know each of their titles and which particular area they work in.
  • If you don't know everyone's name ahead of time, they will likely do introductions at the start of the interview. Jot down some quick notes of each person's first name and area of work.
  • Even if one primary person is asking the questions, address everyone equally. They're all taking their time to be there regardless of how active a role they're taking, so acknowledge that by making eye contact with each person as you talk. The same goes if they're each taking turns asking questions — don't just address your answer to the person who asked the question.
  • Some people may keep their heads down writing notes the whole time. Look at them anyway while you talk. They won't notice whether you try to make eye contact with them, but everyone else in the room will.
  • Prepare a variety of questions ahead of the interview. This allows you to direct your questions to different individuals based on their particular area. Also prepare questions that can be tailored to any individual, such as, "[Name], what is the primary way that your team in [Area] interacts with [Position Title], and how could I better support if I were in this position?"
  • If the job posting didn't specify who you'd be reporting to, ask. If the person is in the room, ask them directly about their management style. If they're not in the room, ask the group generally to describe the person's management style and anything you should know about them. This is a great chance to get some insights from multiple people at once on what to expect.
  • I've had the experience where one of the interviewers has a thick accent or is otherwise difficult to understand. Your temptation will likely be to look to someone else in the room in a gesture of "What are they saying?" Don't. It's disrespectful. Act as if you and that interviewer are the only people in the room, and kindly ask them to repeat the question.

What experiences have you had interviewing with multiple people? What tips would you add?