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 job search 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 job search 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 job search 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 job search 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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  • Isaac Sandoval

    I really had trouble having a job, I joined the military a few years ago. But what is trouble some is that I would to exit someday and that the scary part is that I may not be able to transfer my experience into the civilian market. I do have some “what if” at times, but right now I’m fine where I’m at.

  • Concepcion Obispo

    Fresh out of high school a lot of the jobs you are offered are not what you want or had in mind. The pay in one job is not good, the commute in another is not worth it, or the position is not what the advertisement was. In high school they never thought me how to prepare for an interview, what was expected of me or what to write on a resume. I have never had horrible job seeking moments but I have had applied to a position which at first sounds interesting but after a day or two the positions or the company was not what you had in mind

    When I graduated from high school I knew I had to get a job I immediately went online and looked at companies that were hiring. I found two place. One was sales the other was canvassing, I was successful in landing a position in both places but the position that I had was not what I was lead to believe. It is important to research the companies and making sure that their values are yours as well. I failed to do that I was so eager to land any job that I forgot to take my time and make sure that they were what I was looking for.

    Preparing not only your resume but also your background knowledge is equally important and making sure that that company is right for you.

  • Ana Martinez Kroh

    I teach at a high school and I am going to have my students read this and make a plan! I think this article conveys how much our future generation needs to learn!

  • Sharon Ruiz

    I have personally not been through anything like this before; however, after reading this article, now I have a better understanding of what companies are looking for in the applicants. I, as a college student, should start looking into the different jobs that will be available by the time I graduate or almost at the time of graduation, and start preparing all the requisites needed.

    I believe that it could potentially be hard for me to find a job because I could get to be very picky when it comes to choosing times for my schedule and the distance from my area.

  • Brandon Perez

    Job search is a truly miserable task and takes hard work and dedication. This article really has it all, in my experience I have been working in jobs that are just awful and of course do not want to be working at for the rest of my life. The article has great tips on finding ways to dominate the competition, how to start out right and have a strong finish, and of course how to really put in work and passion into the dream job you have always wanted.

  • Kenneth

    I’m currently looking for a part-time job while I study to earn some money before I transfer to another university to get better education. I have already applied for almost 9 job positions and I’m still going to be applying for more. But thanks to this article there’s one big thing I forgot to do that could sell myself for a good first impression, and it’s the cover letter. Right when I get of the browser, the first thing I’m going to do is start to elaborate and make a cover letter so I can attach it to my job applications.

    Thanks to this article I feel very motivated and more confident of getting a job. I also feel happy because now I can feel that I might be able to land a job much more.

  • Matthew Manninen

    When I graduated from college I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was dead set on getting into graduate school; I told myself I wouldn’t accept anything less than a full tuition waiver and a PhD. A perfect example of millenial entitlement.

    I ended up taking miscellaneous classes at my community college for 2 years, and finally started to applying to jobs after being rejected from several graduate schools. Apparently I sucked at both types of applications! Many interviewers were impressed with my resume, but many couldn’t get passed that one glaring flaw; two years of a lapse in employment. Even though I was employed, it wasn’t in my degree field. My degrees essentially had expired.

    I have spent the last 16 months undergoing several lower-limb surgeries, and this has given me time for self reflection and career evaluation. I need to return to school. I may even need to change careers since the nature of my surgeries may not allow me to work in a standing position for prolonged periods. I have been accepted to attend a Master’s program, and this time I will learn from my mistakes.

  • vegan22

    I feel like this article really illustrates what the person on the other side of the interview is thinking because a lot of the time I do think to myself “I’m a hard worker, I have experience, why would they not want me?” but I don’t know what the interviewer wants to hear. I applied for an internship position at the national parks of San Francisco and although I was definitely qualified for this position I only talked about my experience and my education instead of giving them the “you have problems, I have solutions” spiel. Now I know. I need to talk about how I can be of use, how I can help/improve the company I want to work for. Thank you for sharing!

  • Aaron F

    I feel that, when it comes to job searching, my greatest weakness is in the interview itself. At one point in the last few years I was without a job for several months. During this 3 month period I had applied to at least two job listings a day. I had had help looking over my resume and I had written a cover letter. In my mind, I had done all of the preparation I needed.

    I was able arrange interviews with multiple companies over this period but, for some reason, I never received any callbacks. Despite my thoughts of inadequacy, I hoped, at the time, that maybe it was merely coincidence. However, after the fourth interview or so, I realized that I was indeed the problem. As much as I liked to think that I was prepared, I would always babble or hesitate when answering questions. I believe that this was out of fear.

    Another area where I struggle, regarding the job search process, is in the acquisition of references. I never know who to ask, or even how to ask someone to be a reference. I had taken a three year long break in between jobs in order to do some self-reassessing and I no longer maintain any real connection to my previous coworkers from the former job. My last job was within a company that was, and this is from an objective standpoint, utterly dysfunctional to its core and while I may have a few contacts there, I am not sure who would be a good candidate to ask to be put down as a reference.

    This article has helped really look critically at myself and my preparation (or lack thereof) for job interviews. I always looked for a set of guidelines or a ‘rulebook’ as to what to do, how to know when I am prepared, and to help me identify what I was doing wrong. This article, particularly the sections about interviewing and references, have really given me much to think about. Through understanding more about what I need to change to be successful, I believe I can make interviewing into more of a strength of mine rather than a limitation. Hopefully, I will be able to either regain contact with former coworkers or try to determine who will be a strong reference for me.

  • CCBP2014

    Everything about this article is true. It is all necessary for success. Some important things are to make sure you keep your resume and cover letter to the point and not try to glorify things. It’s important to put all your past jobs on your resume and make sure you have great references.

  • Yan Fonseca

    I believe everything posted on this page is very resourceful to any student who is aiming to go to a university and hopefully better their lives through their education. Though I do believe that attending a university is much more than acquiring a title and getting some job. To me, school was always a form of broadening my understanding not only of my courses and assignments but of the colleagues around me. It’s amazing to see how many people you go to school with and what their goals and dreams are. Everyone has their own story, whether it be similar to yours or the complete opposite. In the end, everyone you meet or approach, is there at school for one reason, to LEARN. I went to a public high school in Ocoee, Florida and while I was there, I did not only identify myself and make many friends In the process but I was always motivated by all the friends and aquaitances I met who were willing to make a difference not for any financial profit, but for the impact. There were some many kids (at the time), who had such beautiful goals to help their home nation’s, states, and/or cities, and they could care less for the title or money they would get in return. In turn the only thing they really needed was themselves and their voices. It is quite moving and shows you that all these materialistic views that constantly try to pull and drag young people in, don’t matter at all. My advice is to strongly ignore the made up world of “Reality” television and worry not of how much money you will have, or which designer brand you are wearing, but instead worry about who needs help and why?, Who does not have enough and how you can possibly help? Worry more about educating yourself and getting out there in the world to better understand why people have the views they do. Life is a beautiful thing but many of us don’t get a chance to really live it all because we are worried about who is watching, and how we look, and who should we be friends with and blah blah blah. don’t worry, everything comes and goes and you really only have one choice, to continue moving FORWARD!

  • Jessica Sikes

    I have been at my current job fro 10 years and have been applying for jobs for the last 4 years to try to get a job where my skills can better be utilized. At times I get depressed and discouraged because I have filled out hundreds of applications over 4 years and have not received one call back or interview. You start to question your self and the previous job choices that you have made and if that is the reason why?

  • luisdiaz1997

    I have to say that I wish I read this before. I myself found interviews to be really hard and I feel like I should have research the job before I got interviewed since they ask questions about the information they had on their website so I ended up not getting the job.

  • Devonna Mueller

    When I graduated from high school I did not have a lot of confidence in myself and I was terrified of people. I knew I needed to get a job because that is what people did when they graduated. A friend of mine and I applied to the same place together, within a week she got a call for an interview which led to her getting the job. I wonder why I did not get a call like her because our applications where virtually the same. Later she told me that the hiring manager had said she remembered her because of her bright smile she had. I was a little discouraged about my failure, but failure has always prompted me to strive for success.

    I applied to more places, but in the back of my mind there was one place in particular that I really wanted to work at. I did not know anything about the workforce, so I went in blind and determined to get the job. I thought, “If I put in more effort then maybe they will hire me.” The day after I submitted my application I called and ask to speak to the manager and introduced myself. Then I told him that I had recently submitted an application. He replied back that he had my application on file. I then asked him if we could set up an interview date to which he told me to call back later. I did not know what he meant by later and waited another week before he called me to schedule and interview. I did not immediately get the job due to a switch in managers and ended up having to interview two more times before I landed the job.

    After getting my first job, each job after that I immediately was hired for within a week of applying. I’m not sure if I was doing the right thing or not. I just went into interview after interview with all of my social awkwardness and did the best that I could to communicate and answer the questions. Right now I am a big point in my life as the years count down to getting closer to starting my career. There is a lot of information in here that I feel will really effect the outcome of my future career. Before hand the kind of jobs I worked where ones where they had extremely high turnover rates, but in the future, I expect to stay there indefinitely. This article makes me realize there is so much that I need to work and and prepare for and how much I really do not know about the workforce still. I recently made my very first resume and submitted it to the college I will be attending next fall and I feel now that it may have been to unprofessional and laid back as far as writing style goes.

  • zaira_portillo

    When I was in high school, I was in the Academy of Finance, one of the requirements of the class was to get an internship, or a job. I began to apply for jobs at the very beginning of the summer before my senior year. When I first began to apply, I was easily discouraged, because none of the employers ever got back to me after I had submitted my resume. Halfway through the summer I decided to give it a shot again, but this time I tweaked my resume and decided to go in and personally talk to the managers when giving businesses my application.
    Surely within a week I received a call from the owner of ColdStone, we set up an interview for that same day. I was a nervous wreck going into the interview, it was after all my very first job interview. I decided that I was not going to let my anxiety get in the way of getting this job, I walked in with confidence, shook the manager’s hand and got right to the interview. I got the job, and worked at ColdStone for a year. If I had not gone over my resume the second time along, gone in to personally hand the manager my resume, and had been sure of my abilities during the interview, I’m sure I would not have even gotten the interview, let alone the job.
    Now that I’m in college, it has been a lot harder to get a job, because of the high demand for jobs. However my school, UCF, has a great Career Services Center. It has been preparing me to get a paid internship, which is my first career goal. They offer mock interviews, they look over resumes, every aspect of the job search that Eric Shannon talks about is fortified at the school’s career services. This shows how important it is to have a resume that sticks out, it emphasizes how important it is to have proper job seeking etiquette, like sending a thank you email after the interview. If the same advice keeps on showing up, it means that they are crucial in the process of landing that dream internship that could possibly become the job after college.
    I am very excited to put everything I have learned into action this semester on my quest for an internship!

  • Nolan Schmell

    One of the things that I have always struggled with is interviewing. I am a generally humble person and have a hard time talking myself up to other people, especially if I have never met them before. One of the things that I have really had to learn is how to sell myself. I found it easier to do when I did it indirectly, meaning that I did not come out and say “I’ve done this that was so great” but rather explained experiences that I’ve had and how I affected others through those experiences. It has always been easier when I the interviewer asks me a question directly about somethings I have done instead of me bringing it up. Through several interview experiences I have learned how to better sell myself without sounding like I am bragging.

    Another thing I have struggled with is being relaxed in an interview. I feel like I should always have great posture and be looking at the person directly all the time. I have found that it makes the interview easier for me and for the interviewer when I relax a little bit. I have also learned that it is important to make a connection with the interviewer as soon as possible. The more that you have in common with them the easier the interview will go and it becomes easier to tailor answers to the way that they want to hear them. Being well prepared, relaxed, and finding commonalities all make an interview more nature and it will generally go better.

  • Ivelis Rivera

    College is arguably one of the most intense, exciting, and stressful times in a person’s lifetime. There are tests, quizzes and let’s not forget about the long hours of reading a text book that’s font is also small. The universe looks like it cannot stop throwing stones in your path. As a young lady growing up in one of the worst parts of Chicago college was but a dream to me. Now, I’m here. Although, my nights are filled with paper cuts from index cards and migraines from staring at my textbooks I know that it will all pay off. I will be the first in my family to attend college and my father will be so proud of me.

    I have always been afraid of giving my dad because we are so close. I have gotten over that fear and realized no matter where I go that he will forever be with me. Sadly, I have acquired a new fear. I work on campus at the SXU call center and I call Alums all the time. After a whole semester of learning how they cannot donate because they are unemployed, that has become my new fear. What do I do if I cannot find employment? How am I going to pay off my student loans? This website has not made this fear go away, but it has lessened it. I now have a strategy. I have an idea of how to get the odds in my favor.

    As a college student, I found this really helpful. This is great information that I can use when I am applying for internships in the coming years. The section I found the most helpful was the part of networking. Often, people forget that networking is every bit important as performing well in an interview. Networking helps because you make connections, and it opens door you never imagined could open.

  • Juanita Goss

    I think if you continue to work on job skills, such as people skills, learn new things, ask for feedback from any employers on how to continue to improve and to never give up. These skills will continue to develop over time. I went on several job interviews will no luck. It doesn’t help much when you’ve been out of the workforce for many years.

  • Hannah Duckson

    For my first ever job interview, I could not stop babbling. I was so nervous and whenever there was a moment of silence, I felt the extreme urge to babble so the interviewer wouldn’t think I was too quiet. I definitely didn’t feel like I was being myself and it was obvious that I was very nervous. I tended to go off on tangents that I thought would connect nicely to what was being asked during the interview but at the end I could tell that I was saying too much. I hardly asked any questions about the company or what a normal shift would look like. All of these errors were because of how nervous I was!

    I especially enjoyed the section in this article specifically talking about interviewing because it will come extremely handy in the future when I am interviewing for medical school and medical license panels. The tips offered specifically about knowing about the company is extremely important and will help me stand out from other prestigious applicants that are applying as well. My first job interview is the perfect definition of what not to do during an interview and I’m glad I have read this article now to help improve on my skills in building my future!

  • Amy Cotton

    I thought the interview section was so important. As a freshman in college, I am starting to look for more intern or job opportunities. I have learned everything about calculus, the civil war, and proper grammar, but I never learned how to properly act in an interview. This made me more confident going into interviews and giving me the tips I believe I need to succeed.

  • BSanti

    One of the hardest things for me when interviewing is not letting my nerves get the best of me. I feel like I can get overly peppy and perhaps be a little fake during interviews. This article was interesting because I like how it emphasized not being overly generic, being unique with your work stories and genuine is what can make you stand out from others.

    Also I think this article calls my attention to the fact that spending that extra time to really pursue the job ,by for example, writing a follow up thank you email or researching the company is a surprisingly small step that can make a big difference. Makes me realize that sometimes the things I overlook are actually the ones that can tip that scale in my favor.

  • Angelina Fay

    When applying for jobs, I always think that putting little things on resumes won’t count – my 6 years working at a summer camp, my technical skills on the computer, my extracurriculars. But I think employers do want to see a well-rounded resume, these things included. I feel like I do not sell myself enough on resumes simply for lack of wanting to talk about myself in a praising way.

    I applied to about fifteen jobs the summer before my senior year in high school and I heard back from one. I took the job and really enjoyed it. It was a learning experience as well as a fun job to have. I was able to employ my bilingual skills, become approachable and flexible, and have a social experience throughout my job. I didn’t think I wanted to work at this place, and was disappointed when they were my only response. But the job taught me great values that I can carry over to many other jobs. Similarly, I developed great relationships with my managers and bosses, and I still use them for references to this day.

  • Daniela Andujo

    Forward. That section spoken out to me than all the other ones. I’ve always told myself “move forward” when things do not go my way or I do not get the job that I wanted. Sometimes you just have to move forward and believe that God has a better and bigger plan for you. Sometimes, doors will be close on you but bigger and greater doors will open and with those open doors will come is greater opportunities.

  • Quint98

    I am going to be applying for internships in the near future. Your interview tips are very helpful and I’m sure they will be useful as I interview with businesses and government entities to gain experience. I have printed a copy of your article to use to prepare for interviews as they arise. Thanks!

  • maggie coca

    This article was a wake up call. Taught me many thing, most of which I’ve experienced already. Great advise to those who need guidance. chosen for top 75 websites for your career

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WORK SMART - How to Land a Job at a Great Company and Get Promoted

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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.