Fishing for a Job: 10 ways to improve your chances of landing the big one

Making yourself marketable to employers is the responsibility of every job-holder and seeker, and it takes on added meaning when the economy is finally gaining enough traction for companies to ramp up hiring. That appears to be the case with consecutive months of solid job creation nationally, and continued declines in new monthly unemployment claims.

Whether you have a job and desire something else, or your full-time job is looking for a full-time job, you'll gain from the following career advice offered by two people who are in a position to make hiring decisions: Maria McGinnis, director of career services for the University of Wisconsin Extension in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and Valerie Leake, director of human resources for Badgerland Financial, Baraboo.

We start with five ways to land the job interview, including some related to résumé preparation, and then delve into five common mistakes made during the job interview. Keep in mind that if you land an interview, the company thinks you're qualified for the job, but in the interview they are looking to drill a bit deeper.

"If we find that we don't want to do business with that person," Leake noted, "it's going to be really hard to hire them for a job, regardless of their background or experience."


Landing the interview

1. Be strategic
The job search is similar to managing a project in that it requires focus and organization. According to McGinnis, job seekers should come up with a strategy that makes sense for them. Only choose positions that match that strategy and focus because employers can sniff out somebody who is applying to large numbers of jobs and doesn't really care about how they fit in any organization.

"They know when people are just applying for jobs," she said. "From a skill set that doesn't really make sense for the position, to a cover letter that is not tailored because the individual has been applying for so many different positions, it doesn't really speak to the job. So come up with a strategy that makes sense for your job search."

This is where the résumé is particularly important because the résumé should be tailored for each position. That might mean just a couple of changes or none at all, but the idea is to frame your experiences so they speak to the job being applied for. "It's better to decide what you are most qualified for," Leake said. "You need to focus on your qualifications."

2. Be present
For anyone in the midst of a job search, that is your full-time job. You have to put in the time in order to reap the benefits of getting interviews and ultimately securing what you want. Some people are fortunate enough to only apply for a couple of jobs before they secure one, but most have to maintain a strong level of commitment.

"I'm a firm believer that in order to get a job, you have to have a job, McGinnis said. "I don't really care what that job is, but even if it's one you're holding while you're searching for your dream career, even if it's waiting tables or doing something completely unrelated to what you want to do, it's good to get out there and meet people. Even if it's not in the context of your industry, it's good to get out there."

For those who are unemployed, who don't even have part-time employment, their job is to find a job from the minute they wake up. Their "9 to 5" is the job search and professional development.

3. Be specific
"This plays off of the other two, but employers don't want to hire someone who isn't a good fit, so you need to articulate why you are a fit for a particular position," McGinnis said. "If you can't do that, maybe you shouldn't apply."

4. Be organized
If you are applying for more than one job, you have to keep track of the jobs you applied for, when you followed up, and who you were in contact with. The best way to keep that organized is to develop a spreadsheet and also have some file folders to organize the job descriptions that you've applied for. "You could probably do that electronically, whatever fits you personally," McGinnis said. "I like to have paper files, a couple of file folders with jobs that I've applied to, descriptions, some notes about why I applied, as well as copies of the cover letter and résumé that I sent out for those jobs."

From a company's perspective "there is nothing worse than contacting somebody after receiving their materials, only to find they don't know who you are, they can't remember the job, and they sound confused on the phone because they've applied for so many different jobs that they can't remember you."

5. Be realistic
Understand your limitations, know your strengths and passions, and focus on those, McGinnis advised. Let your passion drive the jobs that you apply for, because no employer wants to hire somebody who isn't going to eat, sleep, and breathe what they do. Employers want someone who is going to be as passionate about his or her job as they are. "Be realistic and understand your passions, understand your limitations, and don't apply to jobs that don't make sense for you," she added.

I believe you're mistaken

The five mistakes to avoid in the interview include some "no-brainers" that are routinely violated.

1. Dress professionally
This is part of the presentation, and it should be obvious despite the trend toward corporate casual attire in the office, but dress appropriately for the position. "We are a business causal environment," Leake stated. "Even though we are, you still should come to the interview dressed professionally. It's always better to be overdressed than underdressed."

2. Know your own résumé
While it's fine to bring along notes about the company and the position, your own résumé should not be used for ready reference. Relying on it is a signal that you are woefully unprepared. "As far as the interview is concerned, you really need to know your résumé," Leake stated. "I don't like it when people have to refer to it. It's your life. You're telling us that you don't remember what you did in that job."

3. Do your research
You'd be surprised how many interviewees don't know anything about the company or the open position. Given how important that is in selling oneself for the job, it's a surefire way to mess up an interview. "If you can't articulate why a company should hire you, the interview is probably going to be as far as you get, especially in this economy," McGinnis stated. "Candidates need to be able to show what they are prepared to contribute to an organization. They have to have a deep understanding of why their skills make sense for that organization."

4. Failure to rehearse
Almost everyone will be nervous during a job interview, but practice will help overcome nerves. Leake recommends standing in front of a mirror and rehearsing for some of the simple questions every interviewer asks: What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? What do you want to be doing in five years? "You need to practice your answers to some of those and know what you're going to say so that you're not as nervous," Leake said.

5. Saying something counter to what is true about company culture
Hypothetical situation: Let's say you know that a company's employees work longer hours at certain times of the year, and then in the interview you talk about how you have to leave every day by 5 o'clock because of family obligations. Work-life balance is important, but the reality is that companies have busy times of the year and are going to hire people who are on board with that. "If you are throwing up signals in an interview that you obviously don't know the culture of the company," McGinnis said, "you are not going to be hired."


Presentation Matters

From cockiness to incessant talk, job candidates do themselves in

Marina McGinnis will never forget one woman who was hunting for a job. She handled a key part of the hunt – the job inteview – about as deftly as Elmer Fudd.

McGinnis was chair of a search and screen committee for an advising position on the UW-Madison campus. The aforementioned candidate came to the interview in business casual clothes (mistake number one), wore her sunglasses on the top of her head (mistake number two), and didn't take them off during the whole interview.

She distracted the interviewers by proceeding to slump over the table instead of sitting up straight, and she wouldn't stop talking, answering a simple question about herself in seven minutes.

"She actually admitted that she didn't know when to be quiet, and then kept going on and on and on," McGinnis recalled. "I don't have many horror stories about the job interview, but this was a train wreck."

The saddest part is that the candidate in this case actually had strong qualifications. In fact, she was very qualified, probably one of the more qualified candidates interviewed, McGinnis noted. "She probably could have done the job well, but she presented herself in such a horrendous way, there was no way anyone on that committee could have justified hiring her."

The obvious lesson is that presentation, at least in the job interview, is not just vital, it's everything. Once you land the interview, the company has determined that you have the necessary qualifications for the job, but the interview helps employers choose the best from a winnowed group of qualified candidates.

"At that point, the job is yours to lose," she said.

The litany of silly mistakes made in job interviews has become legend, from bad-mouthing your old boss to asking what the company does, job candidates have repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with bad manners or careless preparation.

Valerie Leake (Badger Financial) has seen other job candidates swear or even use slurs. "There can be a cockiness to it," Leake said. "They have too high a comfort level. Some people come in and act like your best friend. They simply don't treat it in a professional way."

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