(3 Simple Tips + Bonus Career Advice to Get You Started)
Before we dive in, let’s talk numbers for a second. On average, between 100-200 people apply to any given job at any given time; it takes, on average, between 20-80 applications to land an offer; and as of 2023, 80 percent of job offers came from networking, in other words, through personal or professional connections. So what does this all mean? Of course, these numbers vary based on the industry, position and demand at the time of application, but looking at the job market through this wide lens illustrates the growing importance of finding ways to stand out in this increasingly competitive world.
No matter where you are in your professional journey, navigating the unpredictable terrain of the job hunt can be an overwhelming undertaking. While social media and the internet have unlocked remarkable opportunities for job seekers all over the world, these digital platforms have also made it nearly impossible to withstand the temptation to see how you stack up against your competition. Social media has created unrealistic expectations for the speed at which jobs can be obtained. Oftentimes, the process to secure a job, which realistically spans weeks, months and even years, is boiled down into a few hacky steps that promise all of your hopes and dreams will come to fruition today if you just “ACT NOW!”
After I just cautioned against falling into the trap of career advice clickbait, I realize, as I write this, my title “How to Stand Out in a Competitive Job Market (3 Simple Tips + Bonus Career Advice to Get You Started),” is a bit hypocritical. But, I want to be abundantly clear that this article, or any other posts I make, are simply tools aimed to help you on your journey. There are no shortcuts, quick fixes, or secret hacks that can help you get a job and be successful in that role. However, excitingly so, there are plenty of things you can do to put yourself in the very best position to succeed and that is what I hope to share with you here.
The truth is, there is always more you can do. You can apply to more jobs, you can read more articles, blogs or books, you can spend more time networking, you can revise and re-revise your resume until the cows come home (as my mom would say), but at some point, you have to take stock in your progress. You have to look at where you came from, where you are and where you hope to go. There will always be more that you can do and it's because of this, that it is so imperative to be conscious of not falling victim to “paralysis by analysis.” With so many suggestions and strategies out there, many of which are incredibly helpful, it is important to just pick a few things to work on at a time.
With this in mind, I decided to write about only three strategies here to help you get started. Again, there are many more tactics out there, but with no action, these nice ideas are just that, nice ideas and will give little way to any progress if left unapplied. The goal of this article is to assist you in developing a process to stand out in a competitive job market.
I am a big believer in practicality over perfection, so it is more important to me that you adapt these strategies to fit your goals and where you are at in your life than it is for you to follow them exactly as I describe. So, take what works, leave what doesn't, and keep me updated as you progress. Let’s get started!
1. Write Thank You Notes
Thank people who help you, the old-fashioned way
Honestly, when was the last time you received a hand-written note let alone sent one to someone else? In this beautiful age of texting, emails, and social media DM’s, which allow messages to be sent at lightning speed (wifi dependent, of course), why should anyone take the time to write a letter and send it in the mail? Well, because it takes just that, time.
When you take out the paper and pen and write a well-thought-out note, the person who receives it knows that it took time. They know that you could have just as easily sent a text or shot over an email, but instead, you chose to use a few extra moments, all of which you don't get back, to put some extra TLC into your sentiment.
In the time it takes to write a short “thank you” note, address the envelope, lick it closed (Mmm the oddly satisfying taste of the glue on envelopes), stick the stamp in the upper right corner, and place the letter in the mail, you could’ve fired off 10 “thank you” emails, 14 text messages and six Instagram DM’s all while walking down the street to get your morning coffee. And let’s be honest, it’s just not possible to write a “thank you” letter while you’re walking down the street to get coffee. It’s because writing letters by hand is such a horribly inefficient process, that makes doing so so meaningful.
So, how does this help you stand out in the competitive job market? Well, I ask you again, when was the last time that you received a handwritten letter? Exactly. And the people who work at the companies you are interviewing with are no different.
The act of writing a well-thought-out, handwritten note to send the employer after your interview, regardless of whether you get the job or not, links your name to someone who goes the extra mile. Whether with that organization or with another, your newly earned reputation will spread and will eventually come back to serve you.
So next time you sit down for an interview, or someone lends you a hand, instead of reaching for your phone or computer, flip open the notebook, pop the cap off of the pen, and get to writing.
A Sample “Thank You” Note to Send After an Interview:
2. Take Your Time
Spend Time Personalizing Your Applications
To start landing interviews, let alone jobs, it takes a lot of time, effort and energy. You have to send out a lot of applications which means you’ll be uploading resume after resume, cover letter after cover letter, and answering the same handful of questions asked in a million different ways. The challenge here becomes how to be efficient in this process without turning into a templated tyrant where every application you submit is a replica of one another.
While clicking that “Quick Apply” button on LinkedIn or Indeed is extremely tempting, it does little if anything at all to help you stand out. When you take the quick apply route, you are relying entirely on the strength of your resume and while I know your resume is extremely impressive, not personalizing your applications leaves a lot of stones unturned.
Of course, there will be many similarities between your applications. For example, the bulk of the content in your resume will stay the same, your personal information like your name and phone number are unlikely to change and the structure of your cover letters may resemble one another, but that is just about where the similarities should end.
It is critical that you take the time to personalize the responses that lend themselves to personalization, ie., your cover letter and short answer responses. This may look like, researching the company’s mission, vision and values and see how they align with what you find important. This may look like researching the hiring manager’s background to find out if they are currently working on any projects that you might want to be a part of. This may look like spending time figuring out what makes this organization different from any other organization in the industry. This may look like gaining a strong understanding of the position’s role and responsibilities and thinking about how your strengths and background fit into what is expected.
All of this information lays the foundation for your personalized application. It shows the employer that you have done your due diligence and are willing to take the time to do your work the right way.
On the front end, it may seem like you are saving time by copying and pasting your generically curated, one-size-fits-all, application for each opening you apply to, but by not taking the time to personalize your package, you won't stand out from your competition and as a result, will have to send out more applications to garner the response you’re looking for from the employer.
But I get it. Searching for jobs takes soooo much time. First, you have to find open jobs; then you have to sift through those openings to find jobs that you are qualified for, that pay enough to support your cost of living, and that are in your geographical region among many other qualifiers. This process takes time, and chances are, looking for a job is not the only thing you have going on in your life. You might have a family to take care of, classes to pass, bills to pay, and quite frankly, you have a life to live beyond the luminescent computer screen displaying the multi-tabbed windows populated by various job boards. So, how do you balance investing the time it takes to successfully navigate the cluttered job market while weighing out everything else you have going on in life?
Like I mentioned above, I am a BIG believer in practicality over perfection and part of that is starting with what you have. So, if you only have time to apply to one job each week, then apply to that one job, but make it the very best application you could send out. By focusing on what you can do rather than what you can't do, you will find that you are able to build momentum, which is an undervalued, but all too important currency in this process.
3. Follow up
The Power of Following Up
After college, I worked as a freelance videographer and editor partnering with businesses of all sizes from farmer’s market vendors to large corporate organizations. The vast majority of my client base was built through cold emailing. As you can imagine, many of my emails were left unreturned and those who did reply, often declined my offer, rather elected to “keep my info on file.” Though many of my emails left me with no real leads, I did get enough positive responses to keep me going.
At the time, my process was to research companies that I thought could use my creative services, see what their current video content looked like, and if I thought I could help, I would send my email pitch to who I thought would be the decision maker. If they replied, great! If not, I just left it. It wasn't until well into my freelance career that I discovered, what I’d argue to be one of the most powerful tools you can have in your tool belt, the “follow-up.”
For the first couple of years out of college, when I would send a cold email and not get a response, I would assume that they weren't interested. It never crossed my mind that they could be on vacation, distracted, sick, taking care of a kid, taking care of a dog, meeting with a client, meeting with a handyman, just in a meeting in general, or quite literally doing anything else other than replying to my email. None of these reasons above or the countless other reasons there could be for not replying to me meant that they weren't interested in my services. It just meant that they couldn’t reply at that time.
Now, I was never ignorant enough to believe that sometimes “being left on read” meant that the potential client was, in fact, uninterested, but I began to see the value in giving them another chance. Everyone deserves a second chance, right?
To give them a second to breathe between my initial email and my follow-up email, I would wait about two weeks. In my mind, this was the sweet spot. It was generally enough time to let the person return to work if they were out sick or on vacation, and it didn't allow too much time to go by where my initial email would slip into the inbox black hole to never be seen again.
Once I began following up, I found my response rate shot through the roof. The replies I was getting were also much more helpful. If the client wanted to move forward, I would often find that out after sending my follow-up email. If they were really not interested, and not just busy, I would find that out too. Still, there were plenty of instances where my follow-up emails were left with no response, at which point I did move on, but following up helped me to eliminate a great deal of wondering. I even began working with one client, who in our initial phone call, said that she decided to give me a chance because I followed up and she likes people who follow up. She ended up becoming a long-term repeat client of mine.
This process, where I was cold-emailing potential clients, is extremely reflective of the job application process. Oftentimes, when we apply for jobs, we find companies that interest us, research their open positions, and submit our applications without having any prior contact with the company or its hiring managers. By only submitting your application and not reaching out to the company before and after you apply, you leave a lot of opportunities to stand out on the table.
Before applying, it's a great idea to reach out to someone within the company. There isn’t a more valuable resource than talking to those who are doing what you want to do. This plays in your favor for a couple of reasons:
It gives you first-hand insight into what it’s like to work for that company and in that role.
It helps you to create relationships with people in the company and you never know where that may lead. Who knows, they may have a say in the hiring process, and by taking the initiative to reach out and learn more about the company you leave a good strong impression.
After you apply, it’s also a good idea to send a short email to the hiring manager letting them know that you have submitted your application.
Here is an example of an email that you might send after submitting your application:
Hi Ms. Jones,
I just submitted my application for the open [insert job title] position. Please let me know
if you need any other information from me at this time.
I look forward to hearing from you!
This short and sweet email shows your strong communication skills and also allows the company to contact you if they didn't receive your application or need more information from you. At the very least, by sending a quick email like this, you put your name out there in another way which may help you become more recognizable when the hiring team begins reviewing applications.
Following up after you submit your application
After you submit your application, the waiting game begins. In some cases, the company website or the application itself may have information on when applicants may hear back from the employer. This information is also commonly seen in confirmation emails received after you submit your application. Still, though, the timeframe of when you can expect to hear something from the employer may be vague. This is where an appropriately timed follow-up can be extremely helpful.
As long as the application does not explicitly say not to reach out during the review process, which happens sometimes, it is perfectly acceptable to send a follow-up email very similar to the one above. Again, I would use the two-week rule, allowing two weeks to pass before I reach out.
You can write:
Hi Ms. Jones,
I submitted my application for the open [insert job title] position on [insert date] and
wanted to confirm that you have received my information.
Please let me know if you need anything else from me at this time.
I look forward to hearing from you!
This email also shows that you have strong communication skills, take initiative and are well organized; all qualities that are sure to help you stand out.
When you follow up, you're not nagging. Instead, you are politely and confidently reminding the recipient of your email about your initial inquiry. When done professionally, following up can actually be very helpful not only for you but for the receiver. Following up is a simple yet incredibly effective way to help you stand out in this competitive job market.
Bonus Tip: Value Your Experience
When I was working at Lynn University, one of the students I was mentoring was sharing her frustrations with her job hunt. She felt that there were no jobs she was qualified for because the vast majority of the roles she was looking into required multiple years of professional experience. It was even more frustrating when she would come across entry-level positions that were asking for two, three, and sometimes four years of industry experience which, as she put it, and I agreed with, was “ridiculous!”
In order to get hired you need experience and in order to get experience you need to get hired. Breaking into this seemingly impenetrable cycle can seem impossible. But, with a small shift in perspective, your age and experience, or lack thereof, can be positioned as a real strength.
The way you see the world is unique to you. Where you come from, your upbringing, your successes and failures all shape who you are. It is precisely this that allows you to stand out.
With your unique perspective, you may be able to fill in gaps that people who are older than you or have more experience aren't able to see. Sometimes being in the same industry for many years is like looking at a painting with your nose against the canvas, it’s difficult to see the whole picture. Rather than viewing your age and experience as a detriment, use your fresh eyes to position yourself, as you stand right now as an asset.
Be proud of where you are right now and know that you do have a great deal to offer!
Cashing Out: My Closing Thoughts
Remember, there are no shortcuts, quick fixes or life hacks to land a job; it takes time and it takes effort. And to stand out, it takes more time and more effort. While what we talked about here are far from the only things you can do to stand out, they are great places to start. Like I said at the top, take what works, leave what doesn't and make this process your own.
So get out there and start writing your thank-you notes, personalize those applications, and don't be afraid to follow up! I know you will be crushing the job hunt in no time!
Let’s get in touch!
I want to hear from you! Share your big wins and lessons learned with me at @CareerCashThePodcast on Instagram. To stay up to date on the latest from all things Career Cash, follow @CareerCashThePodcast on Instagram. #CashingOut