The complete job search guide – how to land a job at a great company

When I graduated from college I sucked at job search and spent six miserable months unemployed. From the lessons I learned then and over the last 15 years in business, I’ll teach you to be better than 99% of all other job seekers and land a job at a great company. Below, you’ll find those lessons distilled down into a step-by-step guide complete with e-mail templates and telephone scripts.

Job search was the last thing on my mind when I graduated in 1992 – I went to the beach instead (Ocracoke island, NC) and spent six months ignoring all the talk about an approaching recession. Not too smart, but still, the memories are priceless and I’d do it again.

paying the bills during my job searchWhen winter came and my money ran out, I started searching for a job in Virginia Beach and it didn’t go well (foolish grasshopper). While I searched for the real estate job I really wanted, I worked a succession of crappy jobs which lasted about three weeks each and made me feel like a loser (working as a busboy, garden center helper, time-share sales rep, etc).

I became depressed.  This was the sort of depression where you stop talking to friends or family – I was in a black mood. My dream of becoming a real estate developer or builder was fading. Real estate was sinking all across the country, but that wasn’t my biggest problem. It was this:

How could I have known what mattered to a recruiter at a great company? Did it ever cross your mind that you could get whatever you want from people if you could hear their private thoughts? Well in job search, it would be true – you would breeze your way through the job search process if you knew what recruiters and hiring managers were thinking.

I sucked at job search because at 20 years old, I’d never run a company or managed people. Until you’ve recruited and managed people yourself, the whole business of recruiting will appear simple. You might think “I’m a hard worker with a good education and experience – what’s so complicated?” Keep reading and you’ll find out.

deeply depressed during unemploymentMercifully, after six long, humbling months, I landed a job as a bank analyst. It was a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute? that saved me. I pored through it, completing all the exercises and it worked. When a good opportunity came along, I was prepared and landed the job. Though it wasn’t the job I wanted, it was a great company and gave my career a good start.

If you haven’t studied and practiced job search skills, you should assume you suck at job search. Here’s why. At great companies:

  • bosses and recruiters like me will notice little mistakes that are totally off your radar.
  • we’ll assume those mistakes are signs that you’d suck at the job you’re applying for.
  • you won’t get good feedback and will assume the problem is any factor but you.

Sounds harsh… yes. And I know there are jobseekers so desperate they’ve considered suicide. Here’s why tough love is the right approach.

First, change is hard. Improvement is hard. I’m sharing from my personal experience, so if I’m passionate, think of it as reality coaching. A good coach is someone who tells you the plain truth with the intensity to grab your attention and hold it.

Second, the surest way to fail at job search, is to think about yourself and talk about what you want from an employer. I want you to forget yourself and get inside the mind of the hiring manager (that’s me). I want you to hear what it sounds like in our heads.

You’ve probably already guessed it’s not pretty… Competition in business is fierce and everything that can go wrong, will. We’ve made every kind of mistake, especially in hiring – we hire people who cannot perform the work, people who can, but are dishonest or have no interest in it, people who say all the right things but never do anything, and so on.

Nothing we do in business is so difficult as recruiting the right people. And yet recruiting problems are just the first layer. Natural disasters happen, too, equipment fails, hackers attack our websites, employees get sick, they divorce, they burn out, customers go out of business, business models fail, costs go up, competitors rise, etc. etc.

It’s a manager’s job to take on the turbulence, to tame it and out of the chaos deliver a reliable product or service. We recruit because we dream that all the problems are solvable. We recruit to lighten our load – because we need help. That’s why the most effective message you can send is this: “You’ve got problems I can solve — let me show you how!”

Third, we’re in a crisis of massive proportions – a perfect storm. It started with the baby boom parents who built up their kids’ egos creating the ‘entitlement generation‘. The kids came into the workforce just as the Internet and government policy enticed businesses to get work done cheaply overseas.

So, we outsource to China, India, Russia, Argentina, or take your pick, and we don’t find the entitlement there.  As if we needed more encouragement to hire overseas, our public education system has bottomed out. Fortunately for employers, they’re automating the intelligence out of many brick-and-mortar jobs just in time.

hiring "A players"As a result of all this, we have too many Americans without challenging jobs and with toxic resumes showing strings of jobs they worked in for less than 2 years. Ironically, business leaders are “desperate” to hire workers with skills and attitudes our job seekers don’t have.

Fourth, great companies aim to hire only top-tier talent today – we’ve entered a winner-take-all age. Harvard Business Review and all the brilliant management gurus advise us to recruit and employ “A Players” only. Throw everyone else overboard! This is what they say it takes to compete and win.

We only need a couple great companies in every market – one e-commerce company like Amazon who can send us any book on Earth or toothbrushes and Q-tips on a schedule every six months.  Amazon’s competitors are going out of business and this process is repeating itself across markets. Every year that goes by, it gets more profitable to win and more painful to lose. When companies win today, they (and their employees) earn millions and billions. Where do you want to ride out this wave?

company mission statementWhat is a great company?  If you put in the effort to learn what I’ll share here, you get to decide what ‘great company’ means to you in your life – your definition, your choice (profit-sharing, open book, telecommute, etc). If you can’t do it, get used to working for one crappy company after another and long hours, high stress, low satisfaction and few rewards.

Do you want to work in a great company with a great future? You’ll need to be great and show your greatness in a job search and on-the-job. Here’s what you need to learn and do to turn your work life into a source of pride and satisfaction:

How to land a job at a great company.

  1. forward
  2. prospecting
  3. cover letters
  4. resumes
  5. blogs
  6. interviewing
  7. references
  8. networking
  9. working smart


Job search sucks – you’re being evaluated! You’ve got to laugh about it and ask others for help. Mostly though, you need to do everything right to avoid wasting your time and burning yourself out. Here are five general principles that will take you there – apply these in every aspect of your job search. Finally, if you have questions not answered in this guide, please ask.

1. Know yourself. Know what you are good at and what you enjoy. Search out positions that will engage you fully – nothing will make job search easier for you.

2. Understand that cultural fit is an important factor in every hiring decision and you are being scrutinized for it. If you fit, you’ll be hired.

3. Get feedback from someone who will tell you the cold hard truth about your clothes, your grooming, your speech, your handshake, your blog/website and your writing. This needs to be someone who understands the culture you want to be hired into (not necessarily your best friend). Don’t know the right people? Meet them through informational interviews or get professional help.

4. Show up ready for battleupbeat and energetic.  This is make or break for your job search. It may not be easy, but it is doable.

5. Use checklistsunderstand the process and keep this checklist in front of you.


Spend about a third of your time on job boards but no more. Remember that employers make roughly 33% of their hires using job boards (so 66% come from other sources).

1. Know what you want and go after it. We want passion. If you’re just looking for a place to park your rear so you can pay your bills, we’ll pick up on that and will take a pass on you.

2. Go to companies and cities that are thriving. There is always low hanging fruit somewhere in our $15 trillion economy. Hunt it down. Listen to Gisel:

. . . I left my job in June during the current recession. I tried applying for jobs online and nothing worked. . . . I grabbed my local newspaper and found an article that listed the top 100 employers to work for and the runners up. I created a spreadsheet that listed my top 4 characteristics that my future employer should have and then plugged in the companies that had these. . . . I used [LinkedIn] to find HR persons in the companies that I wanted to work for and sent them a request to connect.  The majority of the persons accepted my request and to make a long story short – I obtained 3 job interviews using this method and LinkedIn as a job search tool. . . . next week I will be starting my new job! –Gisel

too many resumes from posting jobs3. Use old-fashioned mail and the telephone. Start by sending a value proposition letter to the CEOs of companies you’d like to work for. Make cold calls. Most jobs are not advertised and the competition for those hidden jobs is much lower than the extreme competition you’ll face on job search engines.  You’ll never network your way into hundreds of companies in the same amount of time it takes to get off a letter campaign.

4. Do some free work to prove yourself if a company you really want to work for says they are not hiring. Or offer to work for a time as a contractor. Show your passion for that company.

5. Show that you won’t go away or give up if you really want to work somewhere. Don’t make yourself a pest (ask the recruiter how often), but continue to check-in periodically. Be like a dog with an old shoe – don’t let go. And don’t try to remember it all in your head either, use tools like JibberJobber and startwire.

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the US

Cover letters

A good cover letter is like a sip of cold water in the desert to a recruiter sifting through his inbox. A good ‘cover letter’ is really what we call a ‘value proposition’ letter and can even stand alone with no resume and trigger an immediate phone call or e-mail. Here’s a detailed blueprint for writing one. Not a gifted writer? Consider asking someone to help you.

1. Talk about the needs of the employer. Don’t talk about what you want from the job. When I read your cover letter, I’m looking into your mind. Nine times out of ten, what I see is self-absorption and those applications go right in the trash.  If you’re self-absorbed, you don’t listen well, you’ll have weak people skills and trouble living by your boss’s priorities.

you must meet the strength requirements2. Keep it short. No more than three paragraphs with three or four sentences each. If it’s long, you look unfocused and self absorbed. Short and sweet piques my interest in you when you say the right things.

3. Keep it focused. How can you help me? Why would you want to? What’s special about my company? How do your skills and experiences fit with our needs? What’s the most similar work you’ve done in the past? Answer those and you’ve nailed the cover letter. Don’t ask questions like “Can you give me me more info about this position?”

4. Be authentic. Speak in your own words and you’ll catch my attention. Sound like everyone else and I’ll know you copied and pasted from someone else’s resume.

5. Follow instructions. RTFM.  If you are responding to a job posting that outlines a couple of steps for applying or requests you complete a task, follow the instructions carefully or don’t bother responding at all. We figure you’ll flat out suck at the job if you can’t or won’t follow some simple steps to apply.

Only about 2 out of 10 applicants will follow directions, so if you can and do follow the instructions, your chances of being contacted will skyrocket. If there is some test of your skills involved, 2 out of 100 may follow the directions.  Your odds go way up if you are one of those two!

One possible exception – if asked for your salary history, you may want to hold back. We will screen you out immediately if your history or expectations don’t match our opening.


Your resume is a tool for connecting with a recruiter – not a list of work experience, not a puzzle for the recruiter to figure out. Here’s what you need to do it right, or, if you have a professional help you, this is how to evaluate their work:

1. Make it easy on my eyes and brain. Less is more. A clean uncluttered resume will stand out and show you put some thought into what’s most important, that you have an eye for detail, and have thought about the reader’s experience. Include a short objective statement which summarizes your cover letter. Sometimes the screener is not going to see the cover letter you spent an hour writing – so the objective is your chance to boil it down into a couple lines. It’s also a good opportunity to match keywords from the job description (see item 3 below).

2. Sell yourself by talking about your accomplishments. Don’t list responsibilities. In 5 or 10 seconds, I want to know what you’re good at and proud of. I want to know what impact you had in your previous jobs. Impact is about your skills and abilities, not a laundry list of your experience.

3. Sell yourself by showing what’s relevant. Your resume is not your work history – it’s a tool for connecting with the recruiter/hiring manager. To make that connection, your resume should include keywords from the job description. In 5 to 10 seconds I want to see you are a good fit because you’ve done similar work and can solve my business problems. Make it crystal clear. Make every single word earn its place on your resume. Leave your street address out.

Include important details. Give me numbers! How many people did you supervise? How many clients did you manage? How much did you sell? I can tease these things out of you, but will be very impressed if you deliver them before I ask.

4. Are you over the hill? ‘Overqualified’? Don’t call attention to it. Only go back 10 years in your work experience. Consider leaving the dates off your education and tone down your responsibility level as you can. Most recruiters will be wary of a candidate with 20+ years of experience or significantly greater level of responsibility in prior jobs.

Yes, you have to tell the truth and we’ll figure out your full story eventually, but your chances of having a conversation with the recruiter are better if your resume doesn’t scream that you are old and overqualified. I know, it’s unfair and it sucks – read the next section about blogs if you want to change your luck.

we do not have a bias against younger applicants5. No abbreviations or industry jargon. No typos. Abbreviations or acronyms that I don’t recognize are a red flag that you lack situational awareness and empathy and is a clear mark against you. Typos, misspellings and grammatical errors are a sure way to get your resume deleted. Why?

You put your best foot forward in your job search, right? So if you’re making easily avoidable mistakes, you’re going to be a pain in the ass when you’re working for me. So use spellchecker and read everything you write out loud. You’ll catch many more mistakes, if not all of them.


Most jobs are not advertised — so how are the ‘hidden jobs’ filled?

People like me always start by asking around informally: “Hey, we’re going to add another PHP developer, do you know anyone?”  You get recommended for these positions when you have a healthy professional network – lots of friends in good places.

But, there are many ways that networking can go wrong and it’s natural to fear it. We fear the awkwardness of approaching someone cold, we fear being rejected and fear we’ll sit at an event talking to someone we already know the entire time. We fear getting stuck with someone who talks too much. If you have fears about networking, this is for you:

1. Put yourself in the pole position – volunteer with a trade association or business network so that it’s your job to coordinate invitations to speakers. Smart, successful people will come to you and you’ll meet everyone you want to! You can also create a website and interview your heroes for it.

your job search fear2. Embrace your fearyou will be rejected a few times when you start growing your network. So what! Accept it and set a goal to meet three new people at the next event you attend. Embracing rejection and failure is the key to succeeding in anything. Think of a kid learning to ride a bike, he wails “I’ll NEVER learn” and you laugh. Right?

When you send 10 e-mails inviting people you want to meet to lunch, expect 8 or 9 to reject you. You only need the 10th to say yes to change the course of your life. Try not to take the rejections personally. I decline 99 of 100 invitations. I’m over-committed and have health limitations, but that’s about me, not you – so brush it off.

3. Start doing informational interviews. They work as Steve will tell you:

The informational interview works! 5 years ago I called my now current supervisor and started asking him questions about the company, the department I am now in, its roles, responsibilities, challenges, and other pertinent information. We talked for at least an hour. We exchanged contact information, and I spoke with him one other time afterwards when I inquired about specific software that is used. 5 months later I received a call inviting me to apply and interview for the job. I was hired in 2007. –Steve

A. Make a list of 10 people you’d like to meet. Start with:

  • people who have a job title that interests you (preferably with some connection to you, college alum are best)
  • people who work at companies where you’d want to work
  • people who are doing interesting things you want to learn about

LinkedIn is a good place to start your research as Gisel points out:

LinkedIn is a very useful tool . . .  I used this tool to find HR persons in the companies that I wanted to work for and sent them a request to connect.  The majority of the persons accepted my request and to make a long story short – I obtained 3 job interviews using this method and LinkedIn as a job search tool.  I began this new process in December and next week I will be starting my new job! –Gisel

B. Send an email like the example below (using your university email address if you have one) or choose a template here that fits you better:

Subject: Eric – request to chat from a UVA alum

Dear Eric,

My name is Jason Hall and I’m a recent UVA grad also living in Boulder, Colorado. I found you via LinkedIn and am writing to see if you have 15 min. to chat with me about internet business which I can see from your profile and website you know a lot about. I’d really value the opportunity to hear how you got where you are and ask you for advice.

If you are free, I’m available during the following times:

  • Fri 2/12 from 3 to 6 pm
  • Sat 2/13 from  noon to 4 pm
  • Mon 2/15 from 6 to 8 pm
  • Tue from  2 to 4 pm
  • Wed from  1 to 4 pm
  • Thur from  4 pm – 6pm

Thank you,
(303) 422-6762

C. Why this works:

  1. The subject line calls attention quickly with my name, it’s short and easily readable on a smart phone, makes a personal connection with my school, and has clarity (no tricks or confusion).
  2. In the body you make two connections – you are in the same tribe (University) & same city.
  3. This is easy to say ‘yes’ to, your request has a short limited scope, you took time to share your calendar with specific hours when you will really be available (and on your A game, not just waking up or eating lunch).
  4. You used a polite salutation and included your phone number (you may get a call right away, so send the e-mail when you have the next half-hour free).

D. What to talk about on the call:

  1. Ask if it’s still a good time to talk.
  2. Thank this person for his or her time.
  3. Give a short introduction of yourself and why you contacted this person.
  4. Be positive so you are associated with good feelings.
  5. Get the ball rolling with something like this: “So, I’m really interested to hear your story – how you got where you are and if you have any advice for someone like me…”. But, if this person writes a blog, make sure you’ve read it first and mention it! If it sounds like you want me to personally tell you on the phone what I’ve spent hours writing in my blog, I’ll think you’re a jerk.
  6. Shut up and listen, don’t interrupt.
  7. Ask: is there anything you wish you had known when you are starting out?
  8. Ask: is there anyone else you think I should talk to?
  9. End the call on time even if you know the person is enjoying the call. You want to be perceived as an efficient communicator and don’t want to leave the person feeling drained. If you asked for 15 min., end the call at 15 min.!

E. Keep in touch!

  1. Send a quick thank you e-mail after the call.
  2. Understand that you may not have much to offer a successful expert who’s willing to give you time he might otherwise bill at $200 an hour or higher.  What you do have to offer is good karma – show him how he made the world a better place.
  3. Send periodic updates letting the person know how you implemented his advice and how it worked out. Let him know his impact on you and the end of the story. That’s priceless.


Great companies all want to hire the same “talent”. We want to hire smart, high-energy, passionate workers with an edge, who execute well, care more, and energize themselves and people around them.

“Whoa! Is that all?” you ask. I’m sorry, but it’s true, that’s what we want and that’s what you are trying to communicate in your cover letter, your resume and interview – that you are the cat’s meow!

The problem with recruiting is that many job seekers (and now you) know exactly what I’m looking for and precisely what I want to hear. That’s why I do two-hour long interviews using Brad Smart’s TopGrading process. That’s what it takes to reliably screen out the pretenders.

If you are one of those with genuine smarts, energy, leadership, passion, caring and ability to get things done, the absolute surest way to demonstrate that is with a blog. When you’ve been writing regularly for six months, a year or longer, we know for a fact you aren’t faking anything.

A good blog is solid gold for your credibility and has the potential to push you to the top of the candidate list. But, be careful – your blog can also get you screened out. Here’s a blog checklist you’ll want to review.


Want to be first on the short-list after your interview? Do more preparation than any other candidate. But, that’s not always enough, because walking away with a job offer is all about driving the sales process. Just about everything you need to know is here, but if you aren’t a natural, consider getting help from a coach also.

was really hoping you'd fit in here1. Research the company, the position and the management. You can look great on paper, sound great on the phone and answer every question well, but if you have not bothered to research me and my company, I won’t hire you because I know you’re not really interested in the job. How could you be without knowing who we are and what we do?

Cultural fit is an important factor in every hiring decision and researching the company allows you to dress, look, and speak like the team. True, fit is in the eye of the beholder, but do what you can to fit in (if it’s comfortable for you). Do your research to discover if we’re a good fit for each other and try not to show off in the interview. If you’ve done the research, just relax and let it show naturally.

If you don’t do the research, you can’t ask intelligent questions, so you’ll also fail below in item 12.

2. Know clearly why you want to work for my company. It matters to me because I’m looking for someone who’s going to be with me for years through thick and thin. If you don’t know why or it is not a compelling reason, we’re not a good fit for each other.

3. Know what you are proud of in your life and career. Tell me about the impact you’ve had in your prior jobs. Think of a few stories you can tell that illustrate each key point you want to make about yourself. Tell me how your experience and skills relate to the position I’m recruiting for. Talk to me about the similarities between your previous experiences and my needs. Talk to me about your ideas for having an impact in my company. How will you save or make money for my company?

4. Know how you will answer the most common and most difficult questions you may be asked. Every interviewer is going to ask you about your weaknesses and failures. If you’re perfect or the best you can do is “I’m impatient”, I’m not going to hire you.  Never met a talented person without a few character flaws and who hasn’t made some interesting mistakes. Questions you should be able to answer without babbling include:

  • Why should we hire you?
  • Tell me about yourself. How would you describe yourself?
  • What is your greatest strength? weakness?
  • What motivates you?
  • What are your salary expectations?
  • Describe (for each position you’ve held) a low point/mistake/difficult situation and how you overcame it?
  • What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done? Funniest thing that’s ever happened to you at work? Biggest disappointment?
  • What would you like to be doing 5 years from now?

5. Proofread your resume and any other materials you plan to offer the day before the interview. Read everything out loud to yourself – you’ll catch more errors that way, if not all of them. Wait a day or two and proofread it again. Ask at least one other person to review your resume.

6. Bring copies of your resume and a notepad. Take notes if appropriate.

7. Be likable with good hygiene.  Never smoke a cigarette before an interview and be aware that body odor or bad breath will ruin your interview before you even get started.

8. Be likable by making a connection: First, the basics – be on time, turn your phone off, shake hands firmly, make eye contact, smile and use the interviewer’s name (last name is safest unless asked to use first). Be confident and positive – don’t badmouth previous bosses because, as a hiring manager, I’m likely to identify with your ex boss.

Remember to smile genuinely at everyone, not just your interviewer. Everyone you meet counts — remember all their names.  If you treat me differently from my  team, that’s an important red flag.

Second, look for something you have in common that might build rapport, someone you know in the company (check Facebook and LinkedIn), favorite sports teams, hobbies, etc. Research the interviewer online before the interview and look around the office for clues when you arrive.

9. Read body language. Most interviewers don’t like to give bad news and will only tell you what you want to hear even when they’re trying to get rid of you as fast as possible.  Our body language gives us away, though. Our voice lies, but the body always tells the truth. We cross our arms, avoid making eye contact or fidget when we’re internally conflicted or just bored. Read the body language and if it tells you your interview is not going well, find out why!

When your interview is going well, your interviewer may be leaning forward,  arms and legs uncrossed,  hands open,  jacket unbuttoned, with good eye contact. This is the same good, open, engaged posture you want to display yourself.

10. Don’t babble. Stay focused on the answer to each question and be careful not to go off on tangents. Don’t give a lot of details initially – that’s babble. Trust me to ask you good follow-up questions. Don’t jump to fill silences unless asked to. Sometimes I want to think during an interview let me.

11. Avoid soundbites and buzzwords. If your answers sound scripted and I sense that you are dropping buzzwords to impress me, I’m going to associate you with all the candidates I hired that talked a good game but couldn’t deliver. Don’t do it! Speak from your experience about your experience – keep it honest and authentic. That will impress me.

12. Ask good questions that show you care. If you ask something you could’ve learned in 60 seconds on our website, you’re unlikely to get the job. If your questions are mostly about compensation, I’m unlikely to hire you. The questions you ask reveal your interest level in the position and the depth of your research. They also help me understand your previous work experience.

Ask me difficult questions – express your concerns about my company freely. Most likely, you’ll impress me with your critical thinking and authenticity.

Early in the interview, ask your interviewer to describe the qualifications of the ideal candidate. You want to confirm what you think you already know about the job before leading the interview in the wrong direction.

Good questions are open-ended and can’t be answered with a yes or no.

Ask your interviewer for feedback during the interview – “How do you see me fitting in at your company?” or “On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the best), how do you think I’d do in this position?” The rating question sets up a good follow-up: “What could I do to score higher?”

Asking for feedback during the interview may be uncomfortable for you, but, ‘closing the sale‘ as it’s called, shows strength and maturity on your part. Best of all, you get information you need if not a job offer.

13. Send a thank you e-mail the same day you interview. If you interview with me and fail to send a quick thank you, it’s game over, no matter how perfect a candidate you are in every other aspect. It’s not about my ego, it’s just business.

We look for people with 1) high interest in working for us and 2) a sense of urgency who 3) will treat everyone inside and outside the company with care. The ‘thank you’ (or lack of it) is a perfect test of those characteristics for us. In your thank you note, take the opportunity to include any materials or references you think may be helpful.

Here’s a real-life example from an online chat I had today:

Keith: Hi Eric, I was wondering if you made any decisions regarding the Customer Support Position?
Eric:  hi Keith, did you send me an e-mail by any chance?

Keith: no, I thought you had my resume
Eric: Yes I did have your resume and would have loved to hire you, but needed more communication from you. Looking for somebody with a sense of urgency and who will take good care of customers. That means a lot of communication. After our second interview I sent you an e-mail asking for references also…

Keith: ok, I don’t think I got that email
Eric: I suppose not, anyhow thanks for your time and best wishes.

Keith: ok, same to you

14. Leave something for the employer to remember you by or be just another face in the crowd. Be fascinating or forgotten.

15. Contact your interviewer regularly for updates, until you are hired or rejected. Unless you are asked to do this less frequently, once a week will work nicely. Remember that contacting your interviewer is a display of your ability to manage a process and follow through. You’re showing skills you may be hired for.


When you apply for a job at a great company, your references become much more important in the hiring process. I’m not talking about letters of recommendation.

I’m talking about a key role for your references. If you want to be prepared for the toughest process you may encounter, this is what to expect. First, pretend your name is John and I’ve just interviewed you asking the same questions for each of your previous employments:

  • What was your boss’s name?
  • What was it like to work with him/her?
  • How do you think he/she will rate you on a scale of 1 to 10 when I ask?
  • What will your boss give as reasons for that rating?

At the end of the interview, I’ll ask for contact information for each of your previous bosses (and maybe some coworkers) discussed in the interview. I’ll ask you to give them each a heads-up and permission to contact them. When I reach them, these are the questions I’ll ask:

  • In what context did you work with John? (conversation starter, memory jog)
  • What were John’s biggest strengths?
  • What were John’s biggest areas for improvement back then?
  • How would you rate John’s overall performance in that job on a 1 to 10 scale? What about his performance causes you to give that rating?
  • John mentioned that he struggled with [something] in that job. Can you tell me more about that? (next I’ll ask for examples)
  • Is John one of the best people you’ve ever worked with?

I’m looking for people who consistently get ratings of 8, 9, and 10 across my reference calls. Anything lower is a warning flag I want to look at more closely. One 6 isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker but I will want to understand why it exists.

Recruiters know that people don’t like to give negative references. They want to help former colleagues, not hurt them and they want to avoid conflict. They want to feel good about themselves and try to avoid nailing anyone with a reference.

This is why a reference who hesitates (“if… then…” qualifiers or um’s and er’s) is probably trying hard not to say something that will harm you or put him or herself at legal risk. Faint praise in a reference interview is a nail in the coffin.

A good reference on the other hand will overflow with enthusiasm and clear admiration. There won’t be any hesitation or hedging about it. There is a spark that tells the recruiter, he’s found an ‘A player’.

Now that you know our tricks, the million-dollar question is – do you know what your references are saying about you? If you don’t, it’s time to find out!

Get the ebook

If you liked what you read here, and think you may want to refer back to this guide later, grab the e-book version for Kindle – the ebook also includes the WORK SMART guide you’ll read about next.


rules for success in job searchWhen you’ve followed this guide and landed a job with a great company, you’ve set high expectations. Your boss now thinks you’re an “A Player” so you want to deliver. Specifically, your boss expects you to work smart — don’t assume you know what that means! Find out how to avoid career-killing mistakes (and get promoted) with my detailed nuts and bolts guide to working smart.

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  • Hannah Richardson

    I feel like I don’t have enough experience when it comes to applying for jobs and interviewing for jobs. I am a 22 year old college student as well as a student athlete at a Division 1 school and rarely have time to work. This is the biggest downside to being a student athlete. There is no time to work except for the 2 months that we get off for summer vacation. So, unfortunately, the only job I’ve held was a lifeguard over the summer and during the school year I work as an assistant librarian at a library on campus.

    As I was reading this guide for a job search, one of the biggest things that stood out to me was the idea of knowing and talking about what you know and love in your life while in a job interview. I understand that I don’t have a lot of job experience but I also know that I have a lot of life experiences and connections through college athletics. Not to mention my major alone, exercise science, has a lot of connections to sport and people involved in sport. I am nervous to enter the job world in a year or two but I feel somewhat confident in my ability to interview well and convince someone that despite the lack of job experience, I am still a qualified candidate. I’m still unsure what I can do about the lack of job experience due to the fact that being a student athlete requires about 30 hours a week of commitment.

    This post shows that networking can be key in success, but it also has its drawbacks. With my little work experience that networking would be the key for me to get a job in this economy. The connections I have made as a student athlete and the experiences I’ve had should help with my ability to get a job.

  • frankie5274

    I have applied at many jobs only to get told that I have to have more of an open availability rather than the Mon- Fri 8a-6p that I had put down on my applications. Although some think it’s oh because she don’t want to work weekends. I will by any means work weekends if I had the dependable babysitter that my daycare only provides during the week. I have had to step down on a couple of previous jobs because of the dependability of a sitter which in turns makes me look bad. I just wish that people really understood how hard it is for a single parent of 5 to find a dependable sitter. I have also applied at jobs that say they will train and then just get told that they are looking for some experience so how am I to get experience if they aren’t willing to help me get experience. Have some classes ( MS Word, Powerpoint, Excel ) are good but they are looking for jobs that you have actually put them to use. It’s like a no win situation but I’m not going to give up. That isn’t going to stop me from putting applications in because somewhere someone will give me a chance!

  • Diego C.

    As i read these articles it reminded me on how i got my first job. I applied once and i waited three days before they called me to let me know that i was hired. At the beginning i was a bit nervous, but i told myself that i was going to make this interview the best. Throughout the interview i was asked many questions. they asked if i knew another language, if i knew good customer service skills, and if i was responsible. As i answered all their questions they were quite impressed with my results. now till this day i am still in the same job and it has been a very good journey. After reading this article i realized that i used everything that it talked about throughout the whole interview. that is when i realized that that is why i got a job. i recommend this source to everyone, read it, it has some very good pointer on what to do and how to do it.

  • Deidre Garcia

    When I was a teenager, getting a job wasn’t on my mind. My parents pushed me though, threatening to turn my phone off or taking away my car. So I spent my days applying to restaurants and business offices. It was rarely that I’d get a call to have an interview. Well with my immature mind, I didn’t really care to do my best. I’d walk in to my interviews under dressed with my piercings in and my tattoos out.
    The people interviewing me would check me out from head to toe and shack their head. When they thanked me for my time, that was the last time I’d hear from them. Interviews are definitely the most important factor when looking for a job. It is true what they say, your first impression is what sticks. Mine was never positive. As an adult and mother of two, I want to do better in the future. To land my dream job, these steps could help me ace any interviews.

  • Chelsea Reager

    Whenever I find a job that I want, I always get the feeling that I am not good enough or that I know I will not get the job. It is all negative feelings. After this lesson, I feel like all I have to do is be confident and strong. Expect the worst but hope for the best. I use that for every other aspect of my life except for when it comes to job searching. I have applied at so many places that would be good money, good benefits and awesome hours, but have always been told I am over qualified. I know being over qualified is probably a good thing, but when a place is so desperate for workers, and will not hire people with experience, it makes you think that maybe it is not that you are over qualified but that you are not good enough. This lesson taught me that I need to be more confident in myself, and that if I want the job bad enough to keep trying, or to look for another opportunity,

  • Keillycomix

    When I turned sixteen, I began applying to local stores around my town. Unfortunately, no one would hire me. I can completely relate to this article, it answers so many questions I have asked myself because I’m still currently unemployed. I do not have proper grammar which would explain so much of their perspective of me. This article is inspirational and I’m taking in mind all theses suggestions from the author! I wish people knew more about this story it would help so many unemployed citizens searching for a job!

  • DiegoC99

    When I first started looking for a job I always told myself that I would get the job I wanted. Many people would tell me that I was very coincided due to the fact that I would say that, but I would say it to keep my mindset that it was possible.

    Then when I began to apply in several locations I knew that I was most likely got get the job because the managers were impressed with my interview. But I soon came to realize that I felt like if I was going to let my peers down. I had to overcome that once I got hired because if I didn’t I would be bringing negativity to the work place.

    Once I got the job I knew that it would help me mature, and that it is one step deeper in to the real world. It is very important to know that there is struggles in getting a job, but you are the only one that can over come them because at the end of the day you are the one getting a job and not your peers.

  • Ubong Okon

    Very Educative, especially for an up and coming graduate. These are important notes to take as it will lead to a successful career path. Thank you.

  • Ada Jarrar

    This was a great guide! Getting a job interview is a great opportunity to shine and having
    the appropriate tools to prepare is critical. I will save this guide and share
    it as it contains valuable information.

  • Inna Marie

    I have learned that perseverance is important in achieving
    anything. Sometimes you have to try 5,10,20,90 or 200 times in order to get
    what you want. Nothing can stop you if it is your dream to have something. I
    learned this in a simple way at my job when I would not find a prescription
    that a customer was there to pick up. However, I know that this principle
    applies to all areas of life. I you really want something you have to keep
    trying over and over until you get it or find it.

  • Inna Marie

    I have learned that perseverance is important in achieving anything. Sometimes you have to try 5,10,20,90 or 200 times in order to get what you want. Nothing can stop you if it is your dream to have something. I learned this in a simple way at my job when I would not find a prescription that a customer was there to pick up. However, i know that this principle applies to all areas of life. I you really want something you have to keep trying over and over until you get it or find it.

  • Caligurllovesgurley

    The article confirmed to be prepared before an interview. I need to make sure I know my skills and qualifications before I go to the interview. The interview should not be the first time you go over your attributes. The hardest thing for me in the interview is to have a question at the end of the interview. There is so much information on the internet it is hard to have a quality question.

  • Dakota Montoya

    I have not had much experience in the employment field but I have done a lot of volunteer work. I have lots of experience in different areas simply just didn’t get paid for it. I enjoyed reading this site as I will take the pointers that were given when I do venture out into the work field. In my experience, I have watched many different people in the process of looking for work and I have realized that there has to be a happy medium for the employer and the prospect. Meaning that although an employer wants the prospect to be open and him/herself, there also has to be a level of respect and professionalism. So even though you are not kicking back on a couch with your friends when talking to a possible employer, you are also not so tight and fake that you have to rehearse the answers to possible questions.

  • Kaesen Wilson

    When i was off for college the first thing that i knew i was going to have trouble with was CHANGE. Not only was i from California going to Iowa from the sunshine to the snow. I had no clue what iowa was going to be like , i was just going there to play baseball. Like most kids there i didn’t have my parents because my mom died that year and my dad was too busy to come out and help me move in so thats when my life really changed as i was officially on my own.

    Now that i am coming across my last 2 years in college this site gave me a good understanding of what too look for and what to not look for or what not to do when trying to get that job that you really want. Now days companies are looking for those people that are going to benefit them the most in there companies so that is why it is so important to get that degree and have the slightest edge on people you are up against.

  • Strang’e

    As I was reading this well written statement, I’ve began to understand why it is very important to work hard at what you do. I am a first generation college student and a senior at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Soon I will be looking for a job, and I do understand that as a Social Worker it is a must to reach above and beyond what life hands you. I believe that the main person to keep you from where you want to be is yourself. And even now, I am having a hard time with dealing with that. Forward and prospecting really spoke to me while reading each paragraph. I’ve come to the realization that you have to know what you want, plan how to get there and “show up ready to battle.” With most successful companies, it is important to understand that everyone wants that dread job, but who is willing to take that chance to do what it takes to live that dream. I most definitely have to print this document off to keep for myself. Thank you for opening my mind into another perspective on what it takes to be successful in the business world.

  • Julia Himes

    Networking is my biggest downfall. I often feel that I do not have the qualifications or education in my career industry to share what I do with others. I love what I do and feel successful at it. It is something inside myself that holds me back. I have realized missed opportunities because I did not open up and share my life and what I am interested with with the person that my friend introduced me to. Or someone I meet at the supermarket.

    I recently met a new friend whom I wouldn’t have contact with for very long. We are both military spouses and move often. She came into my life at the end of her husband’s career and they would be moving back to the states shortly after our first meeting. I was self conscious about my career. I have a large, wonderful clientele who obviously comes back to me for a reason. However, I did not share with her what I did. I told her that I was a student at the moment, which wasn’t a lie but wasn’t the full truth.

    Then, when she moved back home and gained employment in her area, she ended up working for my dream corporation. She could have very well put in a good word for myself at the branch in my area….if only she had known. Now, she no longer works for that company and has moved on with her life. I am kicking myself for not allowing myself to grow, only by sharing what I do.

  • Caleb Mize

    Such a common discussion, especially in regards to newcomers in the job market, is how to be professional. Someone professional will be well organized, enthusiastic, and ready for anything their potential employer could throw at them. These are some fantastic pointers to be able to do just that.

    The class I just finished, Comic Scripting, ended with the topic on how to approach publishers in as professional a manner as possible. This extends from the clarity of your papers and contact information all the way to how you behave with the editors themselves and others in the business. So many people fail to see how paramount these qualities are when approaching potential employment and then wonder how they possibly failed.

    I think most of us can agree that professionalism can take you a long way in the world, whether seeking a publisher, employment, or any interaction in the job market.

  • Catelyn DaSilva

    I most definitely had a horrible time trying to find a job when I was 16 going on 17, due to how my birthday was set in early September. I had tried for months to find a good job with reasonable pay and had all the requirements met by myself and especially my parents. I eventually found a job but it was one I could not stand.
    Eight months later I quit the job, thank goodness, but still had no idea what to do in terms of a new job and where to get a fresh start. I eventually went out to lunch one day and saw an application for a local restaurant I rarely ever ate at, I filled it out, listed a friend of mine that worked there as a reference and a was asked for an interview on the spot!
    My friend managed to put in a good word for me and because of her, now I have a job I really enjoy with co-workers I can’t imagine living without.

  • Megan

    This article was very helpful and gave me a better understanding of what is expected of me in the job world. I think many people can benefit from this article, as people are finding it harder and harder, not only to find jobs, but to obtain them. As a college student, I’ve only worked regular jobs, for the most part. However, even in those jobs, there is a degree of competition, particularly in areas with very few job opportunities.

    I’m really glad I read this article. I feel I’m walking away with more knowledge about the business world than I had previously.

  • Davis

    This article nice and Assignment Help service provide for student.

  • Anthony De La Herran

    In my area there are not many job opportunities given the high unemployment rates and also the fact there are mostly agriculture related jobs. Getting a job as a fieldworker is not very hard. The process for getting a job as an agricultural worker is very casual and you are hired in the spot, I don’t think there is anything else like this type of experience. However, trying get a job in a store or some other industry other than agriculture is close to impossible unless you know the right people. I have yet to experience the whole traditional job search thing to be able and make further comments on my experiences.

    Nevertheless, when asking for a job as agricultural worker, the foreman quickly interviews you and if you know someone from his crew, that person becomes like your “reference”. The foreman gives a fast job description, asks if you have the necessary skills, and if you have experience. Often times, experience is a determining factor on whether you get the job or not. I believe experience is the most important factor when applying for a job.

  • Whitney Griffin

    Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge of the workforce. I don’t have much work experience, but I will try to prepare myself with what you have shared in this article. I believe with an education and passion in my field of choice, I have a start. chosen for top 75 websites for your career

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About the author


In 1997, Eric Shannon launched the first job board for bilinguals who speak English/Spanish at Eric still serves as CEO of LatPro Inc., developer of He lives in Boulder, CO with his wife and two girls.