Looking for a job isn’t rocket science, but there are definitely best practices you’ll want to employ and mistakes you’ll want to avoid to make sure you aren’t attracting the wrong kind of attention from the hiring managers you are trying to attract. Before launching Amplify Talent, an employer branding and recruiting optimization consultancy based in Washington D.C., Lars Schmidt spent 15 years in recruiting roles, including the last 10 years running recruiting at NPR and Ticketmaster. He’s seen firsthand how the job search process has evolved. Schmidt addresses some key answers job seekers need to know to apply for opportunities successfully.
1. What’s the best way to apply to a company?
Most companies still require you to apply online. Schmidt explains, “Many candidates follow that step and wait … and wait. Savvy candidates also invest their time networking to try and find contacts within their target companies. These relationships provide an edge in your job search. If someone inside the organization you’re targeting passes your résumé along to the hiring team, it will be noticed.” You still need the skills and experience to move forward in the process, but your chances increase substantially if you’re referred.
2. What’s the best résumé format?
This is a subjective process; you never know who’s going to be reading your résumé. However, one thing is certain, as Schmidt notes, “Most companies use recruiting software, so your top priority should be having a clean Word or PDF version that will be parsed properly by their systems. In some lines of work, having a more dynamic version with links and more aesthetic qualities can be valuable in situations where you’re emailing or presenting your résumé directly to a reviewer.” He advises you to consider maintaining two versions of your résumé: one for applying online and one for more direct résumé submissions and networking. Schmidt reminds candidates to keep in mind that their LinkedIn profile is a key tool in their job arsenal, too.
3. How damaging are grammatical errors?
Schmidt says, “In short, very. Typos demonstrate lack of attention to detail, or worse, laziness. Proof your résumé twice, then share it with a few friends for additional sets of eyeballs to help make sure you’re sending a clean version.”
4. Do keywords matter?
Since your résumé is likely to pass through an applicant tracking system, keywords do matter. Schmidt cautions that content is important, too. “Some companies use keyword-matching software to rank candidates. Some candidates try to overcome this by artificially loading their résumé with keywords from the job description. I wouldn’t recommend this. It may get you past the robots, but eventually a human will review your résumé, and if they encounter obvious keyword inflation they may pass,” he says.
5. What’s the best cover letter format?
It’s a controversial question: Some employers read cover letters and others ignore them. Schmidt notes, “The good news for job seekers is that cover letters are a dying breed. The bad news: If companies request them, you may be ruled out if you don’t include one.” If you’re asked to include a cover letter in your application, be sure to address why you’re qualified, why you’re interested (in the role/company/industry) and how you can solve the organization’s problems. He explains, “You’d be surprised how many candidates submit stock cover letters and forget to change the company name. Don’t be that candidate.”
6. When should I follow up after an interview?
Be sure one of your questions during the interview is about next steps and the hiring timeline. If the company didn’t set an expectation, Schmidt recommends following up if you don’t hear back within one week. “Great recruiters will keep high-value candidates informed throughout the process. If you follow up and don’t hear back within a few days, chances are they may not be high on your candidacy.”
7. What’s the best way to learn about a company’s culture?
Sometimes, the difference between a candidate who’s competitive for the job and one who lands the opportunity is his or her ability to demonstrate an ability to fit in at the organization. Schmidt says, “To really understand an organization’s culture, you need to dig beyond the career site. Company or employee blogs and sites like glassdoor.com and Quora can provide interesting insights. A lesser-used, but likely more valuable resource, is social media – particularly Twitter. You can follow employees and build lists of companies you’re interested in to get a feel for their day-to-day.”
8. I was perfect for the job but didn’t get it. Why?
This is one of the frustrating aspects of the job search. Schmidt says, “There could be a variety of reasons – a more perfect candidate, the position is put on hold, negative feedback on references (formal or informal), hiring indecision, shifting business priorities, etc. You generally will never fully know why, and unfortunately most recruiters won’t provide specifics due to potential exposure.”
9. What’s a personal brand, and do I need to worry about it?
Hiring managers and recruiters are Googling your name. What will they find? Your personal brand is your reputation and it does matter. Schmidt explains, “Your personal brand, from a digital perspective, is really the sum of information that can be found about you on the Web.” If there’s nothing out there about you, take action now. “Blogs, social media, online portfolios and other platforms allow you to carve out your place online.”
This originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report.