How to stand out as a candidate during the post-pandemic job market

June 24, 2021, 12:30 PM UTC

Work Space is a monthly Q&A column tackling the work challenges that keep you up at night. You can read all columns here. If you want advice on something you’re navigating at work, send your questions to workspace@fortune.com.

Q: I’ve been looking for jobs since last year, and while I’ve had a few interviews where I know I was a final candidate, I haven’t gotten a new job. I’ve been sending out applications and looking for things that are either at my current level or just above, and it’s not working. I know it’s supposed to be a “hot job market” but as someone who has been sending applications all over the country since last year, I’m feeling frustrated at this point. How can I set myself apart from other candidates right now? 
—Joan

Dear Joan, 

While some folks, fueled by the excitement of a historically strong job market, are starting to think about changing jobs as the economy kicks back into gear, it sounds like you have been on the job hunt grind for a while, and it’s taking its toll on you. And I can totally see why. Looking for a job is work. So many aspects of the process can be exhausting: searching for the job, adapting your materials for that specific job, prepping for interviews, and, of course, the emotional toll of waiting to hear back from folks or hearing that you weren’t selected for a job you were hoping to get. 

That said, it is a good time to refresh and reactivate your search, since there are a record 9.3 million jobs available right now. I mention this not to rub your face in the fact that there are lots of jobs and you haven’t gotten a new one yet, but to help reframe your frustration. There are a lot of opportunities now, and more have been coming available in recent months, which means there’s a better chance now than in the past year for you to find a job. What you need to do is find the job that works for you—not just any job. 

Now is a time to be honest with yourself about what’s most important to you and what you need from a job, whether that’s a minimum salary, flexibility with childcare, stability, or an opportunity for career growth. Our lives change over time, and at different points in your career, you might prioritize different things, which is why it’s critical that you do the work of identifying what you need now. Finding a new job isn’t just about persuading someone to hire you, it’s also about finding the job that works best for you. 

Let’s approach your job search in three parts: what you need, how to approach the search itself, and how you can stand out when you apply. 

Let’s begin with what you need out of a job. This is key to being strategic in your search. That means making a plan for what you’re open to and what won’t work for you right now. Putting parameters on your search is a good thing. It helps you vocalize what you need and prioritize what’s most important to you. So often, people tell me that they’d “move anywhere” for a job or they’re “open to anything in the right place,” and clearly, they think this is a benefit. Sure, being open means more options, but it often means their search lacks direction—and it also often means you’re not looking out for what you need. 

The most important thing to think about when starting a job search, or recommitting to one, is: What do you want your life to look like? So often, people compartmentalize the job search away from the rest of their lives, hoping that once they find the perfect job, everything else will fall into place. While that may work for some folks, you may find yourself pursuing jobs that ultimately don’t work for you, and getting frustrated by wasting time. 

This also helps make the job of applying for a job much more manageable and allows you to manage your expectations. Each job is a great deal of work and emotional labor—it is common to get immediately emotionally invested in the idea of getting the job you applied for—and if you apply to a bunch of places, you’re spreading your energy thin and setting yourself up to be disappointed.   

Reflect on the question: What do you want your life to look like? This will keep you anchored in the most crucial things, including your nonnegotiables. It’s also the question that you should keep coming back to throughout the search process and in your career. Try your best to put aside the stress of not having a job and the ideas about what you think you should be doing, and think about yourself and what you need, from what you need in the place you live, to what benefits are a must for you.

Here are some more questions to help you unpack that big question: 

  • Where do you want to live? 
  • If you’re open to moving from where you are now, what do you need in a new location?
    • Friends and/or family nearby? Other career prospects beyond this job? Housing? Schools? 
  • Do you want (or need) to be a full-time employee or would you prefer to freelance? 
  • What benefits are a must for you? 
    • Health insurance? Schedule needs? 401(k) matching? Time off?
  • How much of a commute can you handle? How does transportation (feasibility and budget) impact your choices? 
  • What’s your work/life balance expectation? How does that intersect with your salary needs? 
  • What job perks are nice to have but not necessarily a must for you?

Once you’ve got a general idea of what you want your life to look like, the next thing is to think about the job that’s a good fit for you right now. 

When folks are feeling stuck in their job search, I ask them to think about it through three key lenses to generate new leads: the position they want, organizations they want to work for, and people they want to work with. The more you can vocalize what you’re looking for, the better equipped people in your network are to pass along opportunities to you, make connections, and put your name forward to other people. 

There’s a reason that cold applying isn’t always satisfying, and typically, I tell people to try to avoid it if they can, unless it feels like a total dream job. While job postings and websites are useful for looking at what’s available, they only tell part of the story. Up to 70% of jobs are never posted online, and, as you know, just because a job is listed, doesn’t mean that you’ll hear back if you send over an application. If you have no connections where you’re applying, you won’t be able to get any intel into how you rate against other candidates or where they are in the job process. This is a key reason why cold applying to a range of jobs around the country can often be overwhelming, disheartening, and demoralizing for job seekers. Your network is one of the most valuable things that will help you get another job, and in your search, you want to be able to vocalize what you’re looking for and leverage your network to help get you there. 

Be specific about naming the role that you want and be honest about how that matches with your level of experience. Research how the name of the position varies in different companies and across different industries. For example, if you’re currently a senior account manager at a midsize company, your experience may lead you to an account manager position at a larger company or a director level position at a smaller company. 

Think about which companies are doing work that you admire or where you want to be a part of what they’re doing. Make a short list of companies that you pay attention to in your industry, where you have colleagues who are happy with their work, or that offer the types of positions that you’re looking for. If the company feels aspirational, like you’re not quite qualified to work there, think about what are the things that attract you to that company. Is it their work? Their approach? The company culture? All of that is good information about what you’re looking for in the next place that you land. It also might help you think about what you need to do next in your career to help you get hired in the future. 

Think about people that you work well with and would follow to a new job no matter where they’re working. Mentors, people you’ve collaborated with on projects, former colleagues, peers from school, and professional contacts that you respect are all great people to reach out to for an exploratory conversation. This isn’t about thinking of anyone that can get you an in to a job, but rather, making a short list of folks that you trust and would want to work with day in and day out. 

As an applicant, your job is to help people understand who you are and why they should hire you. There are three things that a hiring manager is looking for, based on my experience hiring for a range of roles. 

  1. You can do the job you’re applying for.
  2. You’re going to bring something to the team*.
  3. You’re excited about this position. 

These all sound so simple, but let’s unpack them one by one. 

When I say you can do the job you’re applying for, I mean that people who you will be working with can see clearly from how you talk about your work and what you’ve done before that you’re a fit for the role. I think this is where a lot of folks go wrong. They assume that folks can read through all their materials and make a jump to how they would be good at a job, even if they haven’t had that job before. 

So often, the first person reading your application isn’t the hiring manager. It’s often someone in HR, a recruiter, or even software that is screening for applicants. You can’t assume they can make the leap, especially if you work in something technical. Make sure that people can see—one to one—that you are qualified for the job you’re applying for. Don’t assume that they’ll make connections that aren’t clear in your application. 

Employers don’t automatically know everything about you; real people have to take the time to sift through your résumé, cover letter, or memo, and online presence to figure out what you’re good at and how you might be a fit. While your job search is front and center for you, hiring for a job you’re applying for is just one of many things on someone else’s plate. It’s your job to make it as clear as possible who you are, what your experience is, and how you approach your work, so that people don’t have to guess or make a leap of faith.

Next, employers want to know that the person is going to be good to work with and bring something to the team. Most people don’t want to work with jerks. This means that your approach is important—be kind to folks booking interviews. Be mindful of someone’s time when you reach out for an informational interview or casual chat. 

“Bringing something to the team” is important to folks hiring for full-time roles. For freelancers and consultants, this is not a top priority, though working with great people is obviously a bonus. Freelancers and consultants need to show that they can work independently, deliver what they promise, and that clients won’t put their business at risk by working with them (i.e., if you’re pitching yourself as a freelancer or consultant, you’re an expert in what you say you are and you know the landscape you’re working in).

And finally, hiring managers want to know that people are stoked to work with them. I don’t mean them personally; I mean you get what they’re trying to do with their work and you want to be a part of it. You understand their approach and what they’re focused on. You’ve done your homework before talking to them (even better if you’re a longtime fan). You have examples of what you’d bring to their work, how you’d help them accomplish their mission, how you’d make it better, how you’d inspire them to think about things that they haven’t before. 

So, good luck. All of this is just food for thought about how you can approach your job search. I do want to end by noting these tips are aimed at folks who are applying for jobs where you’re sending in cover letters and résumés, and all the advice might not be as applicable to folks who are working in hourly jobs. But even with temp jobs and freelance work, there’s a lot to adapt to individual situations here, and I hope some of it is helpful to you as you’re thinking about your next step. 

Sending you lots of good vibes, 
Jen

Work Space is a biweekly Q&A column tackling the work challenges that keep you up at night. You can read all columns here. If you want advice on something you’re navigating at work, send your questions to workspace@fortune.com.