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How to Stand Out in a Competitive Job Market


Anybody looking for a job right now knows—it’s a jungle out there. Unless you are looking in recession-proof fields, jobs are few and far between, and thousands of workers are losing their jobs every day. Put simply, competition is cutthroat. Don’t despair. Whether you are fresh out of school or have several years of experience and are recovering from a layoff—it’s still possible to stand out from the competition and land a great gig.

Make Your Cover Letter Shine. According to a July 2008 report by HR.BLR.com, 86% of executives say cover letters are important when evaluating a job candidate. One hiring manager described submitting a resume without a cover letter as “not shaking hands when meeting somebody for the first time.”

Your cover letter makes your very first impression, not your resume, so spend time on every letter you send out. To make a cover letter extraordinary, tell the prospective employer how you would help them succeed with specific examples. You’ll also want to:

  • Make your cover letter easy-to-read, using short paragraphs and bulleted lists.
  • Write a brief, catchy first sentence that makes them want to read more.
  • Give specifics about their business to show that you have researched them.
  • Avoid repeating what’s on your resume.

A final cover letter rule of thumb: If you can’t spend an hour writing a tailored cover letter for a job opening, don’t waste the fifteen minutes it takes to send a resume and a generic cover letter—these days, you can almost be assured the generic application won’t be noticed.

Don’t Appear Desperate. The best time to look for a job is when you already have one. That, of course, means that the worst time to look for a job is when you—and lots of others—are unemployed. When employers know their candidates don’t have other options, they’ll be more included to offer a lower salary, fewer benefits, and even delay the hiring process. So never appear desperate to potential employers.

The good news? You can bet that at least some of your competitors will be practically begging for a job. Most employers will prefer a candidate that appears cool, collected, and confident. Even if you’re at the first job interview you’ve had in a month, make it seem like you have a half dozen lined up this week alone—you want prospective employers to think that they need to fight to recruit you, even if it’s far from the truth.

Work Your Connections. Although it is possible to land a job by applying through an online posting, your chances of getting a gig are infinitely higher if you have an connection on the inside. Make calling everybody you know a regular part of your job search. If you’re in a new city, find ways to meet new people such as volunteering, joining a church, or attending group meetings in areas of your interest. Network, network, network!

Be Willing to Take Risks. Big risks often yield huge rewards. Still, most people would rather take few risks in exchange for a steady paycheck. Starting your own business or freelancing full-time is one way to use risk to combat a slow job market, with potentially huge rewards, both financial and personal.

Not up for owning your own business? There are still job opportunities out there that most people consider “too risky”. If you have the right qualifications and can stomach a bit of risk, you might be able to walk right through the door. The most common “risk-reward” job opportunities are in sales, in which most of your compensation is commission-based. Risky, sure; but if you’re fearless and hard-working, you’ll probably do just fine.

Another option is to look for start-up businesses that need help. Many may be looking to hire employees or contractors in exchange for equity. If you have a specific talent that can help a new business grow (and you can live without income fro a while), this is a great way to develop experience and the potential for a huge payday.

Work Harder, Faster, Smarter. Looking for a new job is a full-time job, and you should treat it like one. If you’re unemployed and not spending about eight hours a day researching openings, applying, and going on interviews, rest assured that you have hundreds or thousands of competitors that are. The faster you seek out new job openings and the better you make your resume and application materials, the faster you’ll land a great new job, even in this slow economy.

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.