The Ultimate Job Search Guide: Literally Everything You Need to Know to Land a Job You'll Love
Kicking off a job hunt or trying to reenergize an existing search can feel a bit daunting. But, having a comprehensive job-search checklist handy can make this whole process a lot easier. So, let’s take an in-depth look at everything you’ll need to nail this from start to finish.
Oh, and because it’s from start to finish, feel free to jump around between the sections:
- Define Your Goals
- Update Your Resume
- Write a Dazzling Cover Letter
- Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile
- Screen Your Social Media
- Know Your Resources
- Work Your Network
- Outsmart the Applicant Tracking System
- Make a Schedule
- Flex Your Follow-up
- Manage Your Communication Strategy
- Perfect Your Interview Skills
- Write an Awesome Thank You Note
- Nail Your Negotiation
Define Your Goals
Before you update your resume and start applying to open opportunities, you’ll need to understand what you’re looking for first. Are you hoping for more responsibility or a shorter commute? Are you dying to work for a company that allows dogs in the office? Taking time to identify your goals (big and small) will help you to home in on the types of jobs you should be targeting.
Feeling stuck? Try ranking these five key factors in order of importance:
- Company Culture
- Opportunity for Growth
- Pay and Benefits
- Level of Responsibility
If you value stability over all else, a burgeoning startup may not be the best fit for you. Conversely, if company culture and opportunity for growth are at the top of your list, a well-established corporation probably isn’t a perfect match.
Understanding the specific day-to-day responsibilities you’d like to have will also be essential as you begin to update your resume, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile. Try asking yourself what you’ve enjoyed doing most throughout your career and what you’d prefer never to do again. This exercise should help you to picture your ideal role more clearly.
Lastly, try browsing job postings for the different types of roles you’re considering. Do you find the responsibilities described to be interesting and exciting or dull and boring? Make note of the duties that appeal most to you and keep them in mind as you begin searching.
Update Your Resume
When a prospective employer looks at your resume, he should should instantly understand what type of position you’re looking for and how your experience lines up with his needs. He should also be able to easily pick out your greatest accomplishments.
It’s important that you don’t simply list your past responsibilities; you want your resume to tell a compelling story of what you’ve accomplished and how your experience would translate into a new role. For example, if you’re planning to apply for executive assistant opportunities that require extensive calendaring, be sure to highlight your experience managing robust schedules for three C-level executives.
Although you’ll need to update your resume for each and every role you apply to in order to ensure that you’re featuring your most relevant experience, having a solid draft ready to go will make your life much easier when you’re in the throes of the search.
Once you’ve finished updating it, run through the checklist below to make sure you’ve covered all of your bases.
- Is tailored to the types of roles I’m targeting
- Has up-to-date contact information (including my customized LinkedIn URL)
- Does not include my full address (all you need is the city and state)
- Features a professional email address
- Highlights my career achievements and accomplishments
- Is easy to read and follow
- Has about four to eight bullet points (or less) for each of my jobs
- Is keyword optimized, meaning it includes words and phrases that are common to the industry and position I’m targeting
- Uses engaging action words (e.g., manage, develop, cultivate, drive, establish, implement)
- Is one page long (or two if applying for an executive position)
- Is free of spelling and grammatical errors
- Has been proofread by a trusted friend, colleague, or professional
- Is completely accurate
- Features my most applicable and transferrable experience in the top third of the first page
Write a Dazzling Cover Letter
There is some debate around whether or not cover letters are still necessary, but as long as certain prospective employers still require them, you won’t want to skip this step. A stellar one can be the difference between landing an interview or landing in the “thanks, but no thanks” pile, so let’s make sure you’re turning in your A-game.
While you’re also going to need to tailor this for every role you apply to, having an initial template or outline prepared will save you time. Here’s a list of everything your cover letter should include to get you started.
My cover letter:
- Is customized for each and every role that I apply to
- Is addressed to the hiring manager, recruiter, or human resources representative at the company
- Includes my up-to-date contact information
- Is less than a page long
- Is broken up into three or four brief paragraphs, or two paragraphs with a bullet-pointed section in the middle
- Clearly states which position I’m applying for in my opening paragraph
- Shows that I’ve done research on the company (one way to demonstrate this is by including a mention of a recent company accomplishment or news story: “I saw that you were recently named one of the best companies to work for…”)
- Highlights a brief selection of my applicable career achievements
- Is free of spelling or grammatical errors
- Has been proofread by a trusted friend, colleague, or professional career coach
- Is completely accurate
Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile
For a lot of recruiters these days, if you aren’t on LinkedIn you don’t exist. Developing a stellar profile and a strong presence will build your professional credibility and help you to get noticed. Once you get your LinkedIn page up-to-date and packed with relevant keywords, you’ll likely be surprised at how much more attention your profile will get.
Let’s take a look at the elements of a standout profile. Keep in mind that this should be an extension of your resume and cover letter—not a carbon copy.
My LinkedIn profile:
- Features a professional profile photo (preferably a headshot with a simple background)
- Has an engaging headline (not just your current job title, for example, “Enterprise Sales Account Executive Specializing in Marketing Automation”)
- Has a customized URL (i.e., www.linkedin.com/in/namehere)
- Features an engaging summary
- Is up-to-date (includes my most recent work history)
- Highlights my career achievements and accomplishments
- Is keyword optimized
- Includes my education and professional certifications
- Includes my volunteer experience (if applicable)
- Has a comprehensive list of my skills
- Features recommendations from current and former colleagues and supervisors
- Is free of spelling or grammatical errors
- Has been proofread by a trusted friend, colleague, or professional
- Is completely accurate
Don’t forget to maintain your presence so you appear active—you can do it in 15 minutes a week.
Prep Your References
You don't need to include a list of references on your resume or cover letter, but you should have a list of strong, professional options ready to go. Keep in mind that most companies have fairly strict policies around references and will typically only confirm your job title, dates of employment, and salary information to a prospective employer, so you’ll want to secure others who would be comfortable speaking from personal experience and not on behalf of the company.
Start by identifying three to five people. These can be past or present colleagues, professors, or supervisors. Then, ask each person in advance if he or she would be willing to serve as a reference for you. If they say yes, confirm the preferred method of contact, and be sure to stay in touch. If it looks like a prospective employer is getting ready to check your references, give everyone on your list a heads up.
It’s possible that you may come across someone who is unwilling or unable to serve as a reference for you, and that’s OK! You only want to include people who are excited to talk about how great you are. Furthermore, if you suspect that one of your references isn’t giving you the glowing recommendation you’d hoped for, take her off your list. You should feel totally confident in each and every name you provide.
Screen Your Social Media
By now, we all know that hiring managers are probably Googling you. So, you should be able to answer “yes” to at least one of the following questions:
- Is your blog, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and any other platform set to private?
- If not, are these accounts scrubbed clean of controversial or inappropriate content?
If you answered no to both of these questions, you might want to make some changes to your account settings. If a drunken photo or a rant about your current boss are the first things that pop up when a potential employer Googles you, you probably won’t be hearing from that company.
Social media can also have a positive impact on your job search. If you are hoping to manage online communities, work in public relations or marketing, or be a writer, regularly posting compelling, professional, industry-related content is a great way to get noticed and show off your skills.
Know Your Resources
Identifying your job-search resources is a crucial step in this process. There are tons of ways to find new opportunities, but the most common ones are job boards, company career pages, recruiting agencies, and networking. Let’s take a closer look at each:
1. Job Boards
These are websites or apps that feature a variety of current job postings. Obviously, I recommend starting with The Muse.
2. Company Career Pages
Making a list of companies you’d like to work for and going directly to their websites is another great way to find new opportunities.
3. Recruiting Agencies
These are independent firms that match people with openings at their client companies. They may not be for everyone, but they usually have the inside scoop on what the job market looks like and can provide helpful tips on your resume and interview skills.
Your network is probably the most valuable resource that you’ll have at your disposal. This includes your friends, family, former colleagues, and professional connections.
Once you’ve identified all of your resources, you’ll want to spend some time evaluating which will be most useful. Diversifying them will be crucial to your success—don’t rely on just one! Pay attention to how often you hear back about jobs you’ve applied for (even if it’s a “thanks but no thanks” email) and take note of which resource you used to find each role. For example, if you apply to a bunch of jobs through an industry-specific job board and never hear anything back, but get a handful of responses whenever you apply through LinkedIn, you’ll want to focus more of your attention there.
Work Your Network
It’s much more likely that you will land your next job through someone in your network than just through an online listing, so it’s essential to leverage this invaluable resource. To start, let’s run through a quick networking checklist.
The people in my network:
- Know that I am looking for a new job
- Know specifically what type of job I am looking for
- Know the specific industry I’m targeting
- Have a list of sample companies I’d like to work for
- Understand how they can help me (I’ve asked them to introduce me to connections at a target company or refer me to a job with their employer)
- Have a copy of my resume
- Are connected with me on LinkedIn
Don’t be shy about reaching out to your network when you are beginning a new search. You never know who has an in with your dream company or knows of a recruiter looking for someone just like you. Just make sure that your message isn’t too vague or general (“I’m looking for a new job. Let me know if you hear of anything!” won’t cut it). Instead, try something like:
“I am in the market for a new role in the software or tech space. Currently, I’m a Business Development Representative for a small SaaS company in San Francisco and am hoping to move into an Account Executive role at a larger company. Ideally, I’d love to work for ABC Sales, SaaS Sales, or iSales.
If you happen to hear of any Account Executive opportunities in the area or know anyone at ABC, SaaS, or iSales, I would greatly appreciate a referral or an introduction. It may also help to mention that I’ve achieved at least 150% of my quota for the past four consecutive quarters and had a 75% lead to opportunity conversion rate. I’ve attached my resume to this e-ail for your reference.”
Obviously, you’ll want to infuse your personality into a message like this, but you get the idea: Be specific and ask for the referral or introduction.
Lastly, be smart about who you reach out to. You may not want to let your current colleagues know that you’re looking, so being selective will be important.
Outsmart the Applicant Tracking System
Applicant Tracking Systems are the bane of many job seekers’ existences. If your resume doesn’t have the right formatting or keywords, you may be screened out before an actual person even lays eyes on your application. Thankfully, job seekers now have a lot of ATS screening resources at their disposal. Sites like JobScan allow you to compare your resume to a specific job posting to see how well your content matches up, while ResumeterPro scans your resume for compatibility with most major ATS’.
Make a Schedule
Looking for a job can be time consuming, so the more organized you are, the easier this process will be. Try setting up alerts on your favorite job boards and scheduling time to browse postings or reach out to prospective employers throughout the week.
Applying can be a bit of a numbers game—the more often you put yourself out there, the more likely you are to get an interview. Creating a regular application schedule for yourself will help you stay consistent.
Timing’s everything, and the best day of the week to apply for a new job is supposedley Monday (finally, Mondays are good for something), while the worst day of the week to apply is Friday. (Why? Most recruiters are wrapping up their week and planning for the weekend, so they might not look at new applications until Monday. By then, your appication will be buried under the most recent submissions.) The takeaway? When you find an opportunity you’re excited about, apply right away—unless you come across the posting on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. In that case, just sit tight until Monday.
Flex Your Follow-up
Recruiters receive tons (we’re talking hundreds) of applications every single day, so having the right skill set for a particular job may not be enough to get you noticed. Getting on their radar will greatly increase your chances of scoring an interview. Finding a great opportunity, customizing your resume and cover letter, and submitting your application are obviously essential pieces of the process. But don’t stop there.
Your next step is to hop on LinkedIn and search for any connections who work for the company you’d like to apply to, the recruiter or hiring manager, or someone who works in the department you’re targeting. Once you’ve identified who you’re going to follow up with, it’s time to craft your message. This will, of course, vary depending on your audience. Here are a few sample templates to get you started:
For someone you know:
I’m planning to apply for a [job title] opportunity with [company name] and wanted to ask if you’d be open to passing my resume on to the recruiter or hiring manager there.
I’m planning to apply for a [job title] opportunity with [company name] and I noticed that you’re connected with [name]. Would you be open to introducing me to him/her via LinkedIn?
For someone who works in the department:
I recently applied to a [job title] role at [cmpany name]. It sounds like an exciting opportunity! I wanted to reach out to you directly to ask if you would be open to sharing any insights about the company or your role there. Any information or advice that you could provide would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you in advance for your time!
For the hiring manager, recruiter, or HR rep:
I recently applied for the [job title] role at [company name] and wanted to follow up with you directly to ask if there is any additional information you may need from me in order to move forward with my application.
This role is particularly interesting to me because your job posting mentions a need for someone with [requirement] and [requirement] experience. I have an extensive background in [requirement] and am currently working on an [requirement] project now. I would love to learn more about how my expertise could be a match for your organization’s goals.
If you aren't the most appropriate person to ask, would you mind pointing me in the right direction? Thank you in advance for your consideration.
Don’t forget to make these messages stand out by infusing your personality and customizing them to demonstrate your genuine interest in the company and how you can help to solve their most pressing pain points.
Manage Your Communication Strategy
Assuming your resume, cover letter, and stellar networking skills will catch the eye of some awesome prospective employers, you’ll want to brush up on your email and phone etiquette. An unprofessional outgoing voice mail or tacky email could torpedo your chances of advancing to the next round. Make sure you’re putting your best foot forward by following the below guidelines.
- Ditch the ring back tone (if you don’t know what this is, you’re good!)
- Record a clear and professional, outgoing voicemail
- Make sure your voicemail box is not full
- Return all calls within 24 hours
- Use a professional personal email address
- Create a professional email signature
- Proofread and spell check each and every message before hitting send
- Respond to people within 24 hours
Perfect Your Interview Skills
Feeling well-prepared and confident about your interview skills will have a tremendous impact on your success. Enlisting a friend or trusted colleague to help you practice answering some of the more commonly asked interview questions is a great start, but you’ll want to be sure you check each of the following items off your list before every interview:
- Thoroughly review the job description
- Develop a solid understanding of what the company does
- Research relevant industry and company news
- Practice explaining your experience in a nutshell
- Practice explaining how your experience will compliment this role
- Pick relevant, engaging questions to ask
- Research your interviewers: Check out their company bios or LinkedIn profiles
- Research the organization’s dress code and select an outfit that’ll reflect the company culture (don’t wear a full business suit to a startup or jeans to a law firm!)
- For phone interviews, secure a quiet place to talk (with great reception or—even better—a landline!)
- For video interviews, stage the background of the room you’ll be in
- For in-person interviews, take steps to ensure that you’ll arrive early (five to 10 minutes is good), but not too early
- Be ready to answer questions about your availability to start a new job
Write an Awesome Thank You Note
A great thank you note can seal the deal, so be sure to ask every person you meet with for their contact information and send him or her a follow-up message as soon as possible. Same-day notes tend to have the biggest impact, but sending the next day works, too!
Here’s a simple template to get you started. Again, don’t forget to include personal, specific details from your conversation to show that you were engaged and paying attention.
Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me today. I enjoyed learning more about your team, and the [job title] role. I’m very excited about the opportunity to join [company name] and help to [responsibilities you’d be handling].
I look forward to hearing from you about next steps soon. Please feel free to reach out if you have any additional questions in the meantime.
Have a great day!
Nail Your Negotiation
Going into negotiate an offer armed with an understanding of what is most important to you and what is reasonable to expect will make the process easier and more comfortable for everyone involved. To start, let’s take a look at the key components of a job offer:
Knowing what your skills, expertise, and experience are worth will boost your confidence during a negotiation. Researching comparable salaries for similar roles in your industry on sites like Salary.com or Glassdoor should give you a solid idea of the industry standard. Identify the minimum amount that would make you happy, but don’t be afraid to ask for more.
Paid Time Off
Does the company roll sick and vacation time together into PTO or are they separate? Two to three weeks of time off is pretty standard, but try researching the company’s competitors’ offerings to get a feel for the industry standard.
Typically, company benefits offering aren’t very negotiable, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be prepared with a list of expectations. Ask about medical, dental, and vision, 401K, profit sharing, and wellness benefits so that you’ll have a full picture of what you’ll be getting.
Can you start within two weeks of receiving an offer or do you need a little more time? Whether you’d like to wrap up a project before leaving your current job or just want to build in a week of time off in between jobs, it’s totally acceptable to ask for a delayed start date—within reason. Asking for up to three or four weeks should be fine.
Do you already have a future trip planned? Be sure to have a list of dates you’ll need off prepared in advance.
Deciding to ask for a higher salary, more time off, or a delayed start date is perfectly reasonable. This is the time when you should be advocating for yourself. Just make sure that you are appreciative, gracious, and realistic throughout the process. The key is to know what will work for you—and what won’t. Try making a list like the one below and keeping it handy for your next negotiation:
- My ideal salary is:
- My minimum salary is:
- The standard salary range for this type of role is:
- Ideally, I would like at least X weeks of PTO
- The standard amount of PTO for this industry is:
- I’m going to need to take the following dates off for pre-planned vacations or commitments:
- At minimum, I’ll need the following benefits:
- Additional “nice to have benefits” would be:
- My preferred start date is:
- The earliest day I can start is:
Keep in mind that you don’t need to accept an offer or present a counter on the spot. It’s perfectly fine to say, “Thank you for this opportunity. I’m really excited about this offer, but would like to take a couple of days to look everything over in more detail. Would it be possible for me to get back to you on [date]?”
Looking for a new job can be exhilarating and exhausting. Some searches go quickly while others may take a few months (or longer!). Being prepared for each and every step of this process will not only save you time and headaches, but it will also make you a smarter, savvier, and more hire-able candidate!
Photo of man job searching in main header courtesy of Tetra Images/Getty Images.
Jaclyn Westlake is a resume writer, career advisor, and the founder of The Job Hop. She's also a job search enthusiast, LinkedIn addict, and career advice blogger for Maven Recruiting Group. When she's not dishing out job search insights or writing amazing resumes, you can probably find her wandering around a bookstore, watching way too much Netflix, or kayaking with her adorable dachshund, Indiana Jones.More from this Author