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.

Share this post to get a full copy of WORK SMART, free!

This is just a sample of what’s in WORK SMART.  Share this post using one of the links below and you’ll get a download link for the full book in PDF format.

Email This Page
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

  • jozi roze

    The last part of this job search guide is such a different take on work because not many people think like that. “Work Smart” is something I live by because some people think you should “work hard” all the time but no, working smart is ten times better than working hard. My entire life I have been told to work hard, but no one has every told me to work smart. Working smart to me means to think deeper about my studies or what ever task is at hand.

  • Diana Sánchez Yaber

    For the last seven eight of my life, I have worked as a journalist in the magazine industry in Colombia. I must tell that the beginning of my career was not hard at all, since l landed my first job in a big publishing house after I completed a six months’ internship at the same company. Five years later, and a few freelance jobs on the side, I was offered a higher position in another publishing company, landing my second big job.

    Three more years in the business and I decided to take a break and embark in a new professional challenge (and a personal dream): pursuit a Master degree in Publishing at New York University. After being accepted and complete my first semester, I needed to find an on campus job, because even though my financial plan for college was fixed, living in New York City is not easy for any student.

    Here is where the real struggle started. As an international student, I was exploring a new job market with completely new conditions. I could practically say that this was my first cultural shock with the United States. Cover letters? Networking? What’s that? Things that are not part of job hunting in my country. I wish I could finish this story with a happy ending, but months have passed and I haven’t find a job. To be honest, it’s been frustrating, but this guide has showed me new strategies, so I can feel more confidence in the search. As I mentioned before, cover letters and networking are the areas I need to focus on in order to be successful in this task. I already started to put these points into practices and I hope to come back soon to this discussion with good news.

  • Danny U.

    Interviews, a conversation that can either make or break your chance of getting employed. I hate to admit it, but when it came to my first job interview, I was ill prepared. The only positive during that interview was my wardrobe. The interviewer asked very simple questions, “why do you want this job?”, “Tell me a little about yourself.” etc. Somehow, these questions became more difficult than my calculus homework. I do not remember the exact words in my response to these questions, but I do know that I did indeed ramble. Luckily, I still got the job since it was for a cashier position meant for minors (I was a high school student at that time) and I had relatives working in that supermarket.

    When applying to other occupations, colleges and scholarships, interviews were required as well. After experiencing my first job interview, I practice answering common interview question that were found online. Here are some useful tips that I have found useful during my experiences.

    • One of the most difficult interview questions is “What are 3 strengths/weakness you possess?” I found that the best way to answer this question is to list strengths that make you suitable for the occupation that you are applying. If you applying for a secretary position, make one of your strengths be organization. As for your weakness, list weakness that can be ‘fixed’ with practice or one that does not hinder you job performance. Continuing with the secretary example, you can say you are okay with public speaking, but you lack experience in large groups more than 50.

    • Confidence is key for a strong positive impression. As mention in this guide, DO RESEARCH about the position and institution you are applying for as much as possible. With this information in your mind, you can enter a conversation with the interviewer where you are confident with your responses.

    • Lastly, try to quickly think about your response as the interviewer is asking question and a brief moment after they finish asking the question. Do not answer immediately if you do know now what your response will be, it will lead you to make an unintelligible response. Delay a bit in order to collect your thoughts, perhaps with “let see…”, this can buy a couple of seconds. Although a couple of seconds does not seem to be much time, it can lead to a better response. DO NOT delay TOO long or this can backfire.

    Hope it these additional advises helps you as much as it helped me. Good luck out there fellow job seekers, let us meet out in the professional world.

  • Luna

    The most impactful line I have read throughout this webpage says “You’ve got problems I can solve — let me show you how”. This is line narrowed down the entire goal of job interviews. This is it. This is what I’m trying to prove to the recruiters. We as candidates want them to know that we are bringing something new to the table and that we have what it takes to make the company move forward regardless of problems that may arise. I plan on remembering this line as I step into my next interview. I will use this as motivation and as a goal when speaking with a recruiter. I have always had trouble knowing what to say to the recruiter or knowing what I am trying to prove. This job search guide has summarized it extremely well.

    • Ned Dragston

      The last time, I tried that line, the hiring manager snapped right back with this line: “We like to solve our own problems. That’s not why we are hiring you.” So be careful with that!

  • John Baron

    The part about immediately searching for a job post graduation is especially important because after investing large amounts of time and money in college level education, it will not matter if you’re not proactive and are actively searching for opportunities to use what you have learned. I am learning to be more proactive and taking steps to be successful ahead of time rather than waiting for the last moment.

    Recently, I applied for multiple hospital positions for which I did not get selected for. Despite having experience in the areas that the employer was looking, the decision came down to networking. For the company, it was easier to transfer someone from a different department into the position than to hire a new face they have never met before.

    I have learned a lot from this article especially about marketing yourself. Employers do not want to hear about you ramble about yourself and how good you are but would rather want to know about what you bring to the company and how you help and fit into their goals. Researching the company and finding information about it goes a long way when it comes to an interview.

  • Salvador Ramirez

    After reading through this I can honestly say that networking is most definitely associated with me the most. Not to long ago I was accepted to an interview for a better opportunity than what I had at the time and knowing me I grew up with a fear of talking with people I never been around with. It was like a fear for me but I always gave it my best nonetheless. In the end it was better for somebody else to gain that position and I learned to accept rejections to opportunities thrown at me. This specific topic has helped me understand that those opportunities will not be the only ones and there will always be a way of coming back from and improving the next time with even more will to succeed.

  • Unicorn_Milk?

    I found the information in this article to be extremely informative and relevant. I now know why all the jobs I apply for seem to be alluding and will take these factors into consideration my next go-around. One item that resonated with me was “research the company, the position and the management”; this idea helped me attain my first job.

    I was seventeen when I applied to work as a seasonal employee during the holidays at Sears. The manager chose said he chose to hire me despite my inexperience because I showed interest by talking about the history of the company. He saw that as a sign that I would work well even though I knew the job was temporary.

  • Evan Miller

    While looking for a job the summer before my senior year of high school, I knew that I wanted to work in the sport industry, but as a 16 year old I knew my work was cut out for me. I sent out emails with my resume to many of the local sporting news outlets, including one of my friends uncle’s who had spoke at a club I had started at school. I had his contact information and was always trying to talk to him about his company and his job. I began inquiring about a job for the summer, and he mentioned that they rarely hire high schoolers and focus mostly on college students.

    That didn’t deter me though, I keep in touch talking about sports and all sorts of different things. Eventually i brought up the idea of working with him again and he said he would let me know, It took a while but he eventually said that they would take a chance and hire me. He told me that one of the biggest reasons they hired me was because of my persistence. It goes to show that if you really want something you shouldn’t take no for an answer

  • Brenda G

    This lesson could not have come at a better time and I can resonate with many of the items in the Interviewing section.

    First off, I was recently accepted to every graduate program I applied to and the skills listed under Interviewing are what I’m very sure led to my success. For each program I applied to, I underwent intensive research into their mission statements, their curriculum, their faculty, and conversed with current students to fully grasp the culture and what kind of people the admissions office would be looking for. Before each interview, I would sit down and make a list of my passions, my experiences, and background and compare those to the program’s vision. In this way, I was able to bring to mind any achievements that I was most proud of and able to weave authenticity into my explanation that would make me memorable to my interviewer. By having this outline and mentally rehearsing I was able to reduce my levels of anxiety and prepare myself for the most common interview questions. Furthermore, I made sure to bring a padfolio in case any new information was disclosed and came prepared with meaningful questions such as asking what it is they most loved about the program and their own background.

    Moreover, I am currently a supervisor and conduct interviews for my department. Therefore, I can understand the amount of competition when applying to a position and how there are times when we may hire the wrong people and just because they appear highly intelligent, doesn’t mean the have the best people skills. However, I think this position has led me to perfect the understanding of being forward and letting the employer know how it is I may be of service to them. This article has provided me with even more experience now that I understand how to better convey this critical idea in a cover letter.

    Finally, I will take all this advice to heart as I begin my job search once again in the next few months and hope to find something more related to my career field. It has been difficult for me trying to figure out where to start and do not want to rely on just Linked In. This has motivated me to increase my networking group and try new techniques of reaching out to employers and standing out from the beginning. I will continue to persevere until I land the best job for this moment in my life.

  • Sarah N.

    Thank you letters or emails are always essential to interviews, as I have experienced the power of them. I once went to an interview a couple years ago, and decided to send a thank you note after it finished.

    The note simply thanked the interviewer for their time and consideration for even calling me into an interview. They responded promptly with a gracious acceptance, while also thanking me for sending them a thank you email.

    And while I did not get that job, I knew from that point on that I needed to send thank you emails to my interviewer because it is the respectful thing to do. It demonstrates that I am responsible and a professional business woman. Therefore, it is more than essential to send thank you letters or emails after an interview and get in the habit of doing so in the future.

    • Ned Dragston

      Many people I know in HR say the snail mailed thanks you never even make it to the hiring manager. They go straight into the shredder. When they’re in hiring mode, they simply don’t have time or don’t care to look at “not considereds.”

  • Marcos Vidal

    Number 13, mentions a great tip that I have never thought of and that is a thank you email after an interview. The is an example of how the lack of communication can after an interview can destroy chances of being hired.

    I have a real life experience of how I demonstrated great communication, and gained employment because of it. At a Ritz-Carlton in Arizona I worked as an outsourced employee as a valet attendant and noticed a job posting. Through face to face communication with the human resources director I obtained a footing. The job was very competitive and many were qualified for the job more than me. Communicating via email, and face to face I built a relationship with the hiring managers and I was interviewed. After the interview I sent a followed email saying thank you, and I hoped to be joining the team. This experience led me to understand how important communication and face to face communication is.

  • Nina Vallejo

    Forward was the section that most caught my eye. While it is important to remember that you are being evaluated (sometimes more intensely than others), it is also important to not take the employer or interviewers comments too personally. The most important thing to be in an interview is yourself, and make a case as to how you would benefit them, should you get the job. By showing up prepared and facing work with a positive attitude, not only are you more likely to make positive relationships, but you also show that you have a great work ethic. You also need to uphold your end of the deal, and work as efficiently as you said you would.

  • Maria Socorro Esqueda

    I remember my friend asking me what my biggest asset was. I thought for a while and named things off like my house, my vehicle, and other material things. To my surprise she said no to all of them. She said, your most valuable asset is YOU! You are the one that has worth and talents that employers are looking for. Honestly, I had never thought about it that way. I started to think about my job as a teacher. The more experience I have the more valuable I am as a teacher. If I invest in myself I become more valuable as a person. If I am respectful, honest, efficient and joyful I am an asset to my employers. Without me the job doesn’t get done. So I will continue to invest in myself and my talents by growing in the areas that need improvement. I will seek knowledge and advice from mentors.

  • Erica Victoria Mena

    I was applying to a dental office after completing my dental assisting course a few weeks prior. I knew that I wanted to go into the dental field, but my best bet of truly knowing was to try it out for some time. I had never had experience in a dental office, nor a medical environment at all. I had worked retail since the moment i received working papers in my junior year of high school. I had applied to multiple offices at the time and got a few calls back, some strictly wanted me just to come in and help out without pay. That was the ultimate shock to me, no pay? My mind went wild, that made no sense to me. After I had spent a good amount of money on a dental assisting course, and someone wanted to pay me nothing? I quickly ran from that situation! Then, came my favorite part of this story. I received a phone call from this well known dental office about 30 minutes away from my house. I was ecstatic! Come to find out they, they only wanted someone that was bilingual, and although I may not look fully hispanic, I most definitely am, and proud of it! I walked in and they made me read a sample script to see if my accent was up to par and than they quickly offered me close to nothing. I was hurt but not discouraged because what it all came down to was knowing my worth.
    There is only so much you can display to someone before they hire you. Being presentable, approachable and friendly. You need to be the package deal, but in the sense that you are providing all of that than you should be compensated for it as well. it was in that moment that I realized that I needed more than just a dental assisting degree, I needed to be someone of more worth to some others eyes. It is sad, because I look at people no different just because of the career that they may have chosen. We all are in the place that we need to be and in time people will come to understand that more as well. Now I am currently enrolled in a dental hygiene program and I can already say that I have received much more respect and it does feel good, although it comes with a price. It is worth it, but hopefully someday someone can see that we are all worth the money, whether or not I have more schooling than the person next to me.

  • Yesenia Ramos

    I enjoyed reading about the interviewing section. This segment provides great tips and advice before and during the interviewing process. I have researched the company, position, and management before the interview to be more prepared and aware of my future in the company. I ask several questions not only for myself, but also so the company notices my interest. I never thought about sending a thank you e-mail the same day or contact the interviewer regularly for updates. This is a great point and I will do this in the near future.

  • Lily Adler

    I totally agree with this article.

    As a freshman in college, something I am already worried about is getting a career in my career field. Although education is always a demanding field, something can happen within the next four years until I graduate that can ultimately impact my chanced of getting a job. I have applied to numerous jobs in the past to build up my resume and usually get them.

    I am a total people person and I have no problem talking to new people or customers. However, because of this reputation and streak of earning jobs on the spot, I tend to put myself down when I don’t get hired on the spot.

    Because of this article, I have learned numerous things from this article to help me continue earning jobs quickly. By creating strong references and a great looking resume. By learning these lessons now while I am in college, they will definitely help me after.

    Thank you for sharing this!!

  • Katelyn Lucas

    This article has some excellent advice for job searching. I just started college this semester and have been looking for a job all semester and while I have gotten a job and internship for next semester, I have not been able to get one for this semester nor the summer. Though two jobs have offered me a position, due to being unable to pay me and miscommunication, both companies took the positions back.

    Not having a job and running low on money is a hard hit, especually when I was so close to having a job twice. This can make me wonder what I’m doing wrong or what is wrong with me that i cannot get a job. Even loosing the jobs that I know was not my fault, such as the two that I lost due to corporate issues, I still felt like there was something wrong with me and that I will not get job. This article has given me some advice that helps build my confidence back up and reminds to not take it personally that I am not getting hired. This was a good reminder of several thins to do when looking for a job, like getting feedback and knowing the company, that will hopefully allow for me to get a job here soon.

  • Megan Dehn

    It is hard to find a decent paying job when you have no idea what you want to do with your life, and no experience in any type of professional field. This summer, the first summer after my first year of college, I wanted to find a job that would keep me on my toes, but also pay me well enough. I applied to over 30 different places, just hoping for a call back. I probably got about five calls back, and only one of those places needed summer help…so I had to settle for a job at Office Depot. This was not the ideal job I had in mind, but I couldn’t complain because I was only looking for a temporary job for the summer, which is more selective when job searching.

    But what I’ve realized through this experience, is that I can’t expect to have a great paying job right away, and I can’t expect to do what I really want to do right away. However, the experiences I will make at Office Depot are experiences that I can only learn from. I can use these lessons in future jobs and classes that I pursue, helping me in the long run. It is all a learning experience.

  • Aby

    As a current student still deciding on the right career path, this article was helpful in understanding what I should be working on to improve the likelihood of being hired. One of my biggest fears is to be unemployed after years of schooling and preparation. I am relieved to know that this it is not uncommon and that there is a way to better my chances of success.

  • Zaid Ramirez

    I agree 100%! As a college student I think this information is what makes or break any of these students when they re-enter the real world. As a past FFA member I agree that these key points are a beyond important skill to have. Many people don’t realize these tips, but the few do are they people on top. Even after years of knowing this, even I see points that I have missed like the strength my cover letter and references should have. I see this and I will change it up immediately because since I am in pursuit of a position in a high end business, I want to make sure my information is up to date using the information above. This is the key that separates the people that ge the job and don’t!

  • Bethany Saltz

    It was very reassuring to read The Complete Job Search Guide. Hearing the cold-hard-honest-truth was refreshing, and it gave me hope that I can accomplish my career goals. Finding jobs can be very intimidating, especially when you feel like you suck and nothing will ever come of your application. This reading has shown me that it does not matter how unsuccessful you have been in the past; you can still change for the better and transform yourself into the high-energy, promising candidate every great company is looking for.

  • Val Cerda

    This guide was extremely helpful and important. I recently went through the job application and interview process for the first time myself and found it daunting. While the application part was not the worst, from there I was very out of my depth.

    The only resumes I had ever written were academic and volunteer ones. I was not sure whether these would even be appropriate. During the interview process, I kept thinking back to my scholarship interviews and their process but honestly those did not help. This article would have been able incredibly helpful for me then.

    I will definitely be saving this and putting this to good use once I apply for another job.

  • MarieM

    This was a great read and never gets old!! I’ve been working nearly 10 years now since graduating from college and am on the job hunt. As soon as I started to get interviews, I noticed how weak my interviewing skills were, particularly my confidence in sharing what it is that I’ve done and what I am capable of. Interviews are your time to shine, yet I’ve yet to land that dream position. From the get go, I think one of the most important things is to apply to things that you really care about and would love to do – if not, nothing will come off as genuine and you’ll definitely find difficult connecting once you get a recruiters call. Once you’re in for an interview, prepare, prepare, prepare. The difficult questions are always going to be asked – prepare your examples on how you experienced, handled and broke through with positive results. Businesses want to hire individuals that can convey how specific experiences allowed them to excel – after all, they want to continue excelling too. Prepare your questions to ask interviewers as well! I’ll have to remember to treat every interview individually since research has to be done from company, interviewer, and specific positions asks. Thank you for the awesome tips! Hopefully my next round, I’ll be the number one pick!

  • Carl January Jr

    Interviewing, interviewing, interviewing; to be or not to

    It really doesn’t matter about anything else, you can have
    the best resume, be dressed in gold or have letters of recommendations from the
    president. If the person interviewing you doesn’t like you or deems you
    incompatible with their company, forget about it! Read the myths you like or
    not, this is the truth. I used to be a manager and it was all about whether the
    person was a good fit and if the person could or would follow position guidelines.

    Being the best that you can while remaining genuine is the
    best policy always. I would rather take someone off the street that was
    trainable then choose from a stack of applicant that could be left unattended
    or wasn’t punctual. Do you need the job, do you want the job and how would you
    contribute once you had this job; all are the questions needed to be asked to
    determine whether or not a candidate will last or is short lived.

    Professionalism, clear speech and honest go further than
    anything, when answers are unknown, say that you don’t know but are willing to
    find out on your own time. Most people make things up and jaw jack their butt
    off. Worst mistake ever!!

  • emmamm.

    I think the one thing that strikes fear during the job seeking process is being rejected. No one ever wants to be rejected, because well it doesn’t feel great or fit into your future plans. However, being rejected often leads to better outcomes in the future. Of course when your mom tells you everything will be fine after a bad interview, you do not want to believe it. But I would like to think I am a firm believer in “when one door closes, another one opens.” Everything happens for a reason, even if we can’t see that reason right away. You just have to trust the process and know eventually something will come your way.

    Last summer I decided it would be smart to make some money of my own before I made the big move to college. I had previously worked as a barista for a cafe and babysat for neighbors, but other than that I did not have much work experience. My days as a barista were fun, but also very stressful due to the thousands of different drinks, syrups, and pastries (oh my!). A friend from high school had been working as a hostess at a local restaurant and told me I should apply. She set me up with her bosses contact information and I began to work up a resume. As I mentioned before I did not have much work experience prior to this application, however I added my school accomplishments, such as being a co valedictorian, landing an internship through my school with a non profit organization, graduating with honors, and many others. I submitted my resume and cover letter and patiently waited for a response. Well, patiently until she never responded.

    I reviewed my resume over and over, trying to figure out why she had not even responded to let me know she received it. To summarize, she never responded. I asked my friend if she knew why, and she said she was looking for someone with more experience. Although I understood that concept, I did not understand how anyone was suppose to gain experience if no one gave them the chance too. In this scenario, I had the resume, the cover letter, the achievements, and the networking, but did not even end up with an interview. I was upset mainly because I did not know what to do differently and worried about future job searches when the job decided my career.

    This article helps to see what the employers are going through during the interview process. This semester gave me the opportunity to join a sorority, which provides me with an amazing outlet for networking. Additionally, as I work toward my degree, work study jobs on campus allow me to gain experience without affecting my education schedule. Finally, I learned it is important to take the smaller jobs to start because those are what gain you experience to show future employers and sometimes getting rejected provides a beneficial lesson in the workforce. chosen for top 75 websites for your career

Follow JustJobs on Twittervisit our facebook pagesubscribe with RSSFollow Me on Pinterest
WORK SMART - How to Land a Job at a Great Company and Get Promoted

Share this post and get a full copy of WORK SMART, free!

This is just a sample of what's in WORK SMART.

Share this post using one of the links below and you'll get a download link for the full book in PDF format.

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.