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Standing OUT in the Crowd

How to add a little luster when applying for a job.

By Gordon Ross

Standing OUT in the Crowd

I'm sitting in the CEO's office. My suit is making me itch something fierce and I'm trying not to squirm. Then he asks:

"Why should I hire you?"

Before I can even answer, he spends the next 15 minutes berating me on how I lack creativity and he's only seeing me because he's doing my cousin a favor. He goes on to tell a story of how someone once sent him a plaster cast of his foot with a note that read, "I'm just looking to get a foot in the door." He thought it was brilliant.

Are you kidding me?

After realizing this was a complete waste of both of our time, I politely thanked him and got the heck out of there. I was 22, living in New York City, and felt sick about my prospects of finding a job.

I wasn't sure which was making me feel worse: the humiliation this jerk put me through or the thought he might be right. Here I was, a recent college graduate, competing for a job with tens of thousands of other graduates. Why should they hire me? What makes me different from the next guy?

I've got news for you: everyone else applying for the entry-level jobs you want are the same as you. You need to stand out in this competitive world, especially in this economy where the jobs aren't as plentiful as they were when you started college.

Don't Stand Out For the Wrong Reasons

First of all, don't send a cast of your foot; it turns out that guy didn't get hired either. Secondly, don't give your intended employer a reason to laugh at you. Once I received a resumé from a student looking for an internship at our software company. The cover letter, which was part of the body copy of his e-mail, was well written, that is, until his e-mail signature, which contained his name followed by "Pimp Daddy of 'em All." His cover letter made the rounds in the office and sparked laughter all afternoon while his resumé went in the trash.

At the risk of sounding obvious, proofread your resumé and cover letter. "Duh," you might say, but you would not believe how often applicants' papers end up in the trash because of carelessness and haste.

Make Your Resumé Stand Out

These days, companies are making it easier than ever to apply. Online forms on company websites allow you to just copy, paste, and send your information with little effort. Hey, that's great, except that your information will look like everyone else's. So how can you stand out when all formatting is the same?

Many of these application forms remove the formatting from your slick Word Document-formatted resumé and will often add spaces or other funky characters you didn't intend on using. A way to prevent this is by copying your document into Notepad, TextEdit, or another text editing program that removes all formatting. For areas that you normally would use bold text (i.e. headings like Experience and Education), consider making the whole word uppercase. Make sure to use your returns and spaces effectively to get a look that works. Use this version to paste into the forms.

Back it up by sending that slick Word Document-formatted resumé by snail-mail. These days, a company's human resources department receives most applications via e-mail or online forms. A nicely formatted outline of experience printed on quality paper (that is, good stock—not brightly colored) doesn't come into HR as often as you think. The mailed piece says you are serious about the position, and your resumé will stand out among the stacks of unformatted drivel printed on thin white sheets.

Your resumé should be a constant work in progress. Tweak the wording to correspond to each job post.

The Cover Letter

Often, job sites have the field for cover letters marked optional, leading you to question its importance. I've got two words for you—it is! For years I've heard people tell me that cover letters get tossed into the trash as soon as they come in. Not true, in fact, a cover letter can help you break through the clutter, especially if many of the resumés are so similar.

The cover letter is your introduction to the company—their first impression of you. You will need to make them feel like they are the only company you're applying to. It can be so easy to write a generic letter and swap out the company name and position title, but don't fall into that lazy trap.

Your personality should come through in your cover letter. You can discuss what you've learned and how it relates to the position advertised. Be specific about qualifications the company is seeking and tell them why you want to work for their organization. Subtle humor doesn't hurt as long as you make sure you let them know you are still serious about the job.

Do you have a friend who is a name-dropper? You know, that guy who always knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone at every school or every city in the universe? As annoying as he is, he has a definite advantage over you when it comes to seeking employment. If you can, name-drop in your cover letter, for example, "Gordon Ross recommended I apply for this position." Having some sort of connection to that company can give you an advantage. If you have no connection, ask around. A friend of mine once updated his Facebook status to ask if anyone knew anybody who worked at a certain company he was applying to. It turned out someone did, they got in touch with each other, and three weeks later he was hired.

The Follow Up: Part One

This is often an overlooked step, but it is an excellent way to get your name in the minds of those who received your resumé. A simple e-mail to verify your information was received can bring about a response that gives you a correspondence with the potential employer. They also might pull your resumé from the pile for verification thereby putting yours on top.

No phone calls please. Yes, that means you.

The Interview

If you made it this far, you've obviously caught their attention. You now have a foot in the door, and you didn't have to send any plaster casts! Make sure the clothes you choose to wear are not a topic those interviewing you discuss afterward. With appropriate business attire, you can't go wrong.

Eye contact. It's amazing how many people fail in this simple category. It shows confidence, respect, and interest. A nice smile exudes confidence as well.

If your interview is in the office of the interviewee, take a quick scan of the room. Is there something innocuous that can give you an opportunity for a casual inquiry (i.e. an autographed baseball, skydiving photo, etc.)? Just don't ask about anything personal if there are only family photos around.

Ask a lot of questions about the position and the company itself. Refer to the job posting and be prepared to discuss projects you worked on as it relates to the position. Make sure you ask for a business card.

The Follow Up: Part Two

After your interview, write a thank you letter to everyone you met. Refer to specific items in your conversation. Reiterate your desire for the position mentioning your particular skills suitable for the job. Employers are more impressed by a hand-written letter as opposed to an e-mail, unless your penmanship is atrocious.

Remember, the hiring process can take several weeks, so don't be surprised if you don't hear from a company for a while. If a month passes and you haven't heard, just send a quick e-mail to Human Resources to inquire if the position has been filled.

Good Luck

Let's face it, it's not a great job market out there. Don't get discouraged! Finding your first job out of college is a long process. You can do everything right and still come up short. Eventually your hard work will pay off and make your hiring that much sweeter. Standing out doesn't mean not being you (unless your instinct is to mail a cast of your foot), it means taking the time to do the little things employers will notice.

Gordon Ross is a freelance writer living in Boston.

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