When interviewing young professionals just out of college, one of my favorite questions to ask is:
“So, what other companies are you interviewing with?”
At first glance, it’s a strange question. In many ways an interview is like a first date, as both parties try and see if there’s a mutual connection. So asking what other companies they are “seeing” is the equivalent of asking who else they’ve been dating.
The real reason for the question is to see how focused their job search efforts are.
In many cases, their approach to getting a job is like a shotgun… load it up, start firing at will, and see what hits — kind of like what happens in zombie movies.
And while the shotgun is just one of the top weapons of choice for the zombie apocalypse (yes I did research on this), I would argue that for a job search, the better tool is a sniper’s rifle.
When you’re trying to get your foot in the door for your first job, the shotgun/zombie approach seems to make sense. You don’t have any experience, you’re looking for your first break, so just get anything and then you can adjust your career path from there.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to use a shotgun in the beginning.
For example, I was hiring for a Technical QA job at a computer startup.
Good candidates: Rattled off a list of detail-oriented positions they had interviewed for — with other software companies in the area.
Bad candidates: Told me how they interviewed at a non-profit on Monday, a bank on Tuesday, a law office on Wednesday, and a yoga studio on Thursday.
Having diverse interests is fine and exploring many options can be worthwhile, but most companies are hiring for a specific need, and will hire the person that best fits that need.
The good news is, as you gain experience in your career, it makes it easier to increase your focus.
Steps you can take to focus your job search
Step 1) Do an honest assessment of what you’re good at. What is your unique ability that you can bring to a job?
Step 2) Determine what types of companies and industries need that ability
Step 3) Narrow the list down to brands that you identify with. Where are places that you’d like to work in terms of culture, fit, and location?
Step 4) Find out if there are job openings at these companies that match your skills
Step 5) Rather than battling the masses with an online job form, spend the majority of your time researching, networking and using social media to find a connection within the company
Step 6) Follow this path as far as you can to get an informational interview to learn about the company’s needs, or ideally a meeting with a hiring manager for an open position
Step 7) If this leads to a dead end with your top choice, move on to the next company on your list and repeat. After several weeks if you get through your entire dream job list, go back and politely follow-up with the first company.
Benefits of a sniper approach:
It saves time because it allows you to focus on only relevant jobs that fit your skills vs. applying for anything that looks close
It increases the power of your network, because all of your friends and colleagues know exactly what you are looking for, making it easier to let you know when a match comes along
It increases the chance for a successful interview, since you are only applying for jobs that are a great fit for you
When you ultimately land that job, the chances are higher that you’ll be happier and more successful because you’ve found a job you really wanted at a company you’ve chosen, not one that happened to be advertised online
Your ability to target jobs increases with experience
I’ll put my money where my mouth is and give you an example with my own career. Yes, when I started out, I had more of a shotgun approach. But as I gained experience with each successive job, it gave me leverage to become more and more targeted with companies I really wanted to work for.
Phase 1: Shotgun, scattered approach Just out of college and desperate for a job in a down economy, I reached out to any company with a job opening. As a Computer Science major, while I did focus mainly on tech companies, I sent my resume out at will. I was lucky and beat the odds: after landing my first position, HR later told me that my resume was chosen out of more than 500 applicants.
Phase 2: Geographically targeted approach A few years later but still in my 20s, I wanted to move to a different part of the country and work in the internet industry. I knew the exact type of job I wanted, then targeted three relevant cities (San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin). I built a unique online profile to set myself apart, and landed a job in Seattle.
Phase 3: Highly targeted approach After 8 years at the same position, in my late 30s, and with 15 years of experience under my belt, I knew exactly the type of company I wanted to work for. I had a broad network of contacts and made a short list of just 7 companies that I admired and wanted to work for.
I leveraged my social media network to get an interview for a position at WIRED that I saw advertised online (note: I didn’t fight with all the other applicants online, I went through my network instead). While I didn’t get that specific position, once I had an “in” I nailed the interview and was referred to another opening that was at a higher level and an even better match.
Phase 4: Bulls-eye When you think about it, the most targeted job search is not finding the best job on the market for you, but rather creating the job yourself. I left the corporate world in 2011 and started my own company, allowing me to do exactly what I wanted to do for work.
So when it comes to pursuing your dream job, target the companies you want to work at, narrow your focus, and oh, watch out for zombies.
Need career advice for designing a targeted job search or negotiating your salary once you’ve found that dream job? Let’s talk.
Note: A version of this article first appeared in a post for Salary.com.