Want to nail your job search? Treat it like you're applying for college

For the best fit, approach your job hunt with the same enthusiasm, diligence and judgment as you did with your college applications.
Image: Young people work in modern office.
Just as you would tour a college campus before enrolling, visiting the office of a potential job will help you get a feel for the company culture.Vasyl Dolmatov / Getty Images/iStockphoto
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By Nicole Spector

Though the labor marketplace remains tight, with some companies so desperate for talent that they’ve resorted to poaching, but not everybody has a job who wants or needs one. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), unemployment hovered at 3.9 percent as of December. That may be low, but in a country of nearly 330 million people — that’s about 12 million people.

Aside from the unemployed, there are millions of people (30 percent according to research from the staffing firm Randstad) feeling burnt out at their current jobs and considering a new one.

In the past, I’ve been in both camps: in need of employment and discontented with the jobs I held. In either scenario, the process of applying for jobs was far from exciting. I felt intensely self-conscious over any lack of experience, intimidated by the competition and totally uninspired about selling myself. Cover letters were especially daunting, as I felt I wasn’t saying anything that would help me stand out. I became robotic and applied to every single job that was even remotely in my field of interest — a move that only further overwhelmed me.

What I would do if in the same position today is treat the job search with the same enthusiasm, diligence and judgment that I did my college applications. There are distinct differences between picking a university and looking for a job (for one, you’re paying for college, whereas a job is paying you), but there also striking similarities, and as career experts note, you can benefit from approaching the job hunt like the quest for the right college.

Research a company like you have to pay to apply

“Remember how we went on college tours, looked at the campus and did a research deep dive?” says Vicki Salemi, career expert for Monster.com. “That’s how we should approach our prospective employers.”

Ask yourself, 'Is this company good enough that I would spend $50 to be considered for a role?'

A psychological tool that might help here is to think of each job application you submit as costing money, just as college applications do, Salemi notes. This can help you narrow down your choices and put the most effort into each application. Ask yourself, “Is this company good enough that I would spend $50 to be considered for a role?” If your research on Glassdoor and any other job sites tells you it’s not — and you have the luxury of being selective — then pass.

Show off your soft skills — they’re in high demand

Hiring managers probably don’t want to read anything resembling a personal essay (one of the staple requirements for college applications), but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to hear anything about who you are, what makes you tick and what you can uniquely bring to their company. Showing that you’re a strong communicator is a big plus.

“As a college admissions counselor and CEO, I look favorably upon job applicants who can go the extra mile and weave non-traditional experiences and soft skills into a resume and cover letter — as long as it is done logically and eloquently,” says Dr. Kat Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise. “Even hiring managers in fields that are entirely separate and distinct from higher education will be drawn to documents with these qualities. According to Glassdoor, each corporate job attracts an average of 250 resumes, which is why it is important for job applicants to set themselves apart for the right reasons. Hiring managers are people too, and will gravitate towards multidimensional documents that provide a sense of who the perspective applicant truly is.”

Cohen points to a 2016 survey of from the Wall Street Journal, where 92 percent of executives consulted noted that soft skills were of equal or greater importance than technical abilities.

“Applicants should avoid simply naming qualitative traits such as being a ‘leader’ or ‘thinking creatively’, and instead incorporate actionable words and experiences that highlight these capabilities,” says Cohen. “Similarly, admissions officers affirm students who can demonstrate positive character traits such as curiosity, open-mindedness and empathy. Whether it’s a college application or job application, personality traits and soft skills help drive home the idea that a candidate is greater than the sum of [their] parts.”

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Highlight your ‘extracurricular’ activities on the cover letter

If you’re involved in community or leadership activities outside of work that somehow tie back to your job, note them in your cover letter.

“The best place to incorporate extracurricular activities is often a cover letter, a component of the job application process that many applicants fail to fully take advantage of,” says Cohen. “Just like college application essays shouldn’t be a repeat of a student’s activity list, cover letters shouldn’t simply regurgitate what a job seeker outlined on a resume. Instead, I encourage applicants to reveal something about themselves in their cover letter that cannot be found anywhere else in their application, which is exactly what I advise students to do when writing their college application essays.”

Remember this is not an invitation to discuss your favorite pastimes.

“Too many folks put in ‘hobbies’ at the end of their resume, but that is not what recruiters want to see,” stresses Dawn D. Boyer, Ph.D., CEO, D. Boyer Consulting. “Placement specialists are looking for activities that may reflect [one’s] work ethics and capabilities, such as leadership roles (a coach to a little league; mentor to non-profit agency service recipients; office holder for a trade organization, [presenter] at conferences or seminars taught, etc.).”

So, if you love coaching youth soccer on the weekends, Cohen advises that you “discuss how this activity provided [you] with the opportunity to develop leadership skills and motivate a group of people towards one common goal.”

Investigate the culture and ask yourself, ‘Am I a fit?’

Do I want a big campus or a small one? Would I thrive better in a party school, or in an environment with a more serious vibe? If I decide to transfer in a year or two, will I have the tools I need to get succeed going forward?

These are the sorts of questions we naturally ask ourselves when considering colleges, but not necessarily when looking for jobs. Considering that we spend more time working than ever before, it makes sense to ask similar questions of our prospective places of employment.

While on-site interviews offer the best sense of place, Rachel Bitte, chief people officer at Jobvite, encourages candidates to check out companies’ social media presence for insights into culture.

“There’s a lot you can do from a social media perspective. On Linkedin, look at what else they’re involved in, [such as] philanthropy. Check out their Instagram page. What are they posting? Is there a variety of types of people?” says Bitte.

If you get to the interview stage, and things are going well, ask to if it’s possible to interview with someone in a peer role so you can ask what it’s like working there in that position.

“Also, pay attention on any tours. Seeing a bunch of kegs or a ping pong table will show you this is more of a [social] culture,” says Bitte. “Or the office might be dead. Whatever the case may be, go back to your criteria about what is important to you and what doesn’t matter.”

Bitte also suggests to think of your prospective managers as your professors, and your colleagues to your classmates.

From retail to construction, talent is in demand

Both Salemi and Bitte emphasize that presently employers are desperate for talent and that the ball is in the prospective employee’s court. But I wondered: Is that only true for white collar workers? Do these tips work for everyone or just certain business sectors?

As recently as this past July, the national labor shortage was considered nearing critical, with companies vying for talent across an array of categories including construction and transportation, while June data from the BLS reflected a surge in hiring in healthcare, retail and food services.

This urgent demand for workers should make you extra confident in applying — maybe even more so than you were when applying for colleges.

“The control is in the candidates’ hands, and I'm not sure it's the same with colleges, where I think the control is more in theirs,” says Bitte. “You also don’t go into colleges negotiating your rate, where as with jobs you get to do that and actually be successful at getting what you’re worth.”

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