from Guide to the Job Hunt on Dec 25, 2022

How to land interviews in a job hunt.

Conventional wisdom says to start filling out application portals like mad, but the unfortunate truth is that most of these portals are never looked at. You need to rethink who we're addressing, how we're reaching them, and how to impress them.

To land interviews, you need impress key players. Throw out conventional wisdom: Don't apply to standard application portals; these are rarely looked at. Don't squish into crowded career fairs, excessively; it's hard to stand out from hundreds of highly-similar candidates1.

This post will cover the three parts to landing your first interview: who to impress, how to reach them, and how to impress. The focus here is on communicating your talents and qualifications. Building up qualifications is another matter entirely, but especially if you're an undergraduate, most profiles look highly-similar anyways — communication sets you apart.

Address the decision makers: hiring managers, recruiters, or leadership.

There are only four kinds of key players in every company, for your job hunt — those that control hiring decisions, those that control interview scheduling and sourcing, those that have social influence over the decision makers, and other employees, with referral power. Here are all four:

In summary, your goal should be to reach and impress decision makers, from most influential to least influential, these are hiring managers, recruiters, leadership, and any other employee. The biggest mistake in a full-time job hunt is under-valuing the importance of the hiring manager. They are the ultimate decision makers. Recruiters are the primary contact — not the primary decision maker.

The priority for outreach is not quite as simple, however. Hiring managers and senior leadership are harder to reach. In addition, leadership or recruiters may also effectively play the role of hiring manager in certain cases. In reality, your priorities look like the following, for outreach:

Keep in mind the caveats we noted previously; the above is a rough guideline, taking some weighted average of each employee's influence over the hiring decision and their reachability.

The biggest mistake in job hunting for full-time positions is under-valuing the importance of the hiring manager. They are the ultimate decision makers. Recruiters are the primary contact — not the primary decision maker.

Now that you know who to address, focus on how to reach those decision makers.

Chat with decision makers one-on-one.

In short, your goal is to maximize quality over quantity of interactions. Making one strong impression on a decision maker is far better than getting 30 quick glances from recruiters sifting through hundreds of applicants. To do this, prioritize one-on-one interactions where possible:

In sum, maximize one-on-one interactions where possible, by attending events with lower candidate-to-recruiter ratios. Get started with a few action items that you can complete immediately:

Here are some examples of successful LinkedIn messages that led to interviews, for me. Here was a followup with a LinkedIn recruiter that previously reached out (years ago, I might add):

Here is an example of a successful cold outreach on LinkedIn that also led to interviews.

If you'd like to see the specific companies I applied for and their interview timelines, see How to plan your job hunt. Once you've found opportunities to reach decision makers, you'll need to make the most of those opportunities, by making a strong impression.

Impress decision makers verbally, in writing, and with an online presence.

There are three key parts to impressing any decision maker: verbal, preferably in-person; written, via your resume; and online, via profiles or a personal website. All three are important, as the verbal pitch forms the first impression, your resume is a ticket to passing the initial filter, and the world wide web offers unlimited real estate for you to put up accomplishments for decision makers to see. Here are rough guidelines for each category:

All three of these pitches need review and discussion. You'll want to prepare in advance, and get together a group of friends to collectively work on all pieces of this pitch. For now, complete these immediate action items:

Here's the verbal pitch I used when I introduced myself to recruiters and potential future managers.

The name of the game is to practice communicating your qualifications.

[In your pitch], remember to include something notable, even if it's unrelated: Better to be unrelated and memorable than related but forgettable.

What decision makers will ask you.

Decision makers may ask a number of hard questions about your background, whether it be at a career fair or in an interview. Pointing at some interesting-looking project on your resume, the most common "question" is "Tell me more about this."

This project can be for an internship or a lab on campus. Regardless of its nature — whether engineering, research, or some combination of the two — you should be able to break down the project into a story's components: problem, intuition, method, and result. See a more in-depth explanation of what a "story" is here, under "Tell Tried and True Stories" in What defines a "good" researcher?

If you don't address one of the above points, a good interviewer will likely as you about it. Remaining questions usually sound like the following, effectively asking for one of the story components above. Right now, pick a project, say the pitch for that project aloud, and prepare answers for each of these questions below:

Practice your pitch for each item on your resume. This could be the chance to list only the projects you're most excited about. One trick, by the way, is to direct the decision maker to a project you're more prepared for. You can say, for example, "Project A was certainly exciting, but Project B is a bit more recent and fresher on my mind; mind if I tell you about project B instead?"

In sum, get started on your outreach. You now know who to reach out to and how to do it. Perhaps even more importantly, practice, practice, practice. The name of the game is not how much you know but how well you say it. Practice, so you're ready to impress.

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  1. I use engineering and research examples in this post, but the tips should apply to industry-oriented job hunts generally.