We talked to 7 career coaches about the most common mistakes they see from applicants.
BY ADRIAN GRANZELLA LARSSEN
How often, during a tough week at the office, have you heard your friends say, “Time to update my résumé!”
You’ve probably said it, too.
Most people take this approach to the job search, and it makes sense. There’s so much you can’t control about the process, but adding new bullet points to your résumé feels actionable and straightforward.
But when it comes to thinking about your next career move, this isn’t the best place to start, says Jenny Foss, a career coach, certified professional résumé writer, and the voice behind the popular career blog JobJenny.com. “Job seekers will be in much better shape if they think about what they do (and don’t) want in that next job BEFORE they update the résumé,” she explains.
What other not-so-intuitive traps do we fall into? Here, seven experts who coach people through these very scenarios share how to job search the right way:
MISTAKE 1: NOT STARTING WITH YOU
Founder and lead coach Evangelia Leclaire agrees that people often initially focus too much on job search tactics, like their résumé and elevator pitch. “I suggest you focus on you first as the foundation,” she says. “The beliefs, attitude, and energy a smart person will bring to a job search will determine their success.”
Specifically, she advises spending time building up your confidence. Because you’re often competing with hundreds of candidates, it’s easy to doubt yourself, but that’s counterproductive, she explains. “We behave how we believe. So, if you believe that you are not enough or think, ‘I don’t have enough,’ your attitude, approach, and actions will reflect that.”
Some practical tips to boost your confidence? Leclaire suggests jotting down your competencies, character traits, and core strengths and using those to create a vision for your next chapter. She also recommends crafting a narrative about your future ambitions and repeating it daily, both in your mind and out loud.
These mental exercises can be powerful motivation. “You don’t want to end up in a job you hate, or simply tolerate, because you weren’t honest with yourself or didn’t believe you could grow into bigger and better opportunities,” she says.
MISTAKE 2: THINKING LIKE A HISTORIAN, NOT A MARKETER
Once you’re clear on what you want, is it time to update your résumé? Yes, but maybe not in the same way you’ve done in the past.
Foss often tells her clients that a résumé is a marketing document, not an autobiography that details every role and responsibility you’ve ever had. “Just like in marketing, you’re trying to prompt a purchase decision. In this case, that purchase decision is, ‘Invite you in for an interview,'” she shares. “The easier you make it for decision makers to quickly connect the dots between what they need and what you can walk through their doors and deliver, the better the odds they’re going to want to talk.”
What does this look like in practice? Foss recommends digging into job boards and companies’ careers pages. Pull a few postings, and find the themes and criteria that keep coming up. “For instance, if you pull five job descriptions and four of them indicate in some form that they need someone who can solve complex problems and navigate ambiguity—and you can absolutely do these things—then you need to make it clear very quickly on your résumé that this is you.”
MISTAKE 3: NOT LOOKING AT THE BIG PICTURE
With that said, don’t forget about all of the skills that you bring to the table. “The biggest mistake smart people make during their job search is not looking at their experience in a holistic way,” says Dorianne St Fleur, a career strategist and the founder of Your Career Girl, a career development agency for black women. “While it may seem like a no-brainer to solely focus on your project management experience if you’re applying for a project management role, consider highlighting the complementary skills you bring to the table as well.”
For example, she explains, if you’re a project manager who also has experience in web design and operations management—and those skills are relevant to a specific role—find a way to highlight them. “Showcasing how your specific background allows you to bring a new perspective to your work will help you stand out among the hundreds of job seekers vying for the same position,” she explains. Just make sure to make it feel like a value add, not a random sidebar of your career. “It’s your job to connect the dots.”
MISTAKE 4: OVEREMPHASIZING WHAT YOU WANT
Another part of your job? Showing a company what you can do for them, not vice versa. “One of the biggest mistakes even the savviest job seekers make is they put too much emphasis on what they want,” explains Emily Liou, career happiness coach and founder of CultiVitae. “When asked, ‘Why do you want to work here?’ or ‘Why are you interested in this role?’ . . . they may catch themselves stating, ‘I want to grow and am ready for greater challenges.'”
But, she cautions, employers don’t really care—at least not initially. “What they want to know is: How will you make our lives easier? What are you going to immediately contribute? How are you going to solve my problem?”
Instead, she advises zeroing in on the solutions you can provide and sharing how you’ve accomplished related milestones before. Her example: Try reframing “I’m interested in greater challenges” as something like “I’m really looking forward to leveraging my expertise in developing programs that impact global communities. I can accomplish this as I’ve spent the past six years studying various learning theories and creating curriculum that’s increased engagement by 78%.”
MISTAKE 5: RELYING SOLELY ON JOB POSTINGS
In theory, online job boards are great—you can submit your application to as many companies as you’d like in the span of an hour or so. But given how easy it is for anyone, anywhere to apply online, hiring managers are flooded with résumés, says Ryan Kahn, career coach and founder of The Hired Group.
So it’s a mistake to rely only on these sites. He paints this picture: “Imagine you’re a hiring manager trying to fill a position. You have two piles—a stack of 100 résumés from qualified candidates who applied online and five résumés from candidates who were personally referred by your colleagues. Which pile would you tackle first? It’s only natural for hiring managers to start with candidates who’ve already been vetted.”
He coaches candidates to spend more time networking with friends, second-degree connections, and even people they don’t know yet to build the kinds of professional relationships that can lead to being referred—or even hearing about positions before they’re posted. “Job seekers who rely solely on online job postings are only tapping into a small percentage of the available market,” he explains.
MISTAKE 6: ONLY NETWORKING WHEN YOU NEED SOMETHING
Jena Viviano, career strategist and founder of Recruit the Employer, seconds the importance of networking, adding that too many job seekers only do it when they need something. “That is just too late,” she cautions.
Most people, she adds, tend to avoid networking because they have a misconstrued idea of what it entails. “We often think of it as sleazy, or a one-time interaction, or a happy hour,” she says. “But networking at its core is about mutually beneficial professional relationships developed over time—with an emphasis on ‘over time’.”
If done correctly, she often tells people, networking can make the search infinitely easier. So, if you’re even thinking about looking for a new gig, start now. “I would recommend connecting with three different contacts a week. That way, when it is time to find a job, you have a whole army of people to support you.”
MISTAKE 7: NOT FOLLOWING UP
Like Kahn, Ariel Lopez, founder and CEO of tech hiring platform Knac, notes that most hiring managers receive an overwhelming volume of applications. “It’s almost impossible for them to screen everyone in their pipeline,” she shares.
Which is why she says that it’s a big mistake to spend time on finding the perfect opportunity, polishing up your résumé and cover letter, submitting them—and then never following up. “Avoiding following up could result in your application being overlooked and you not getting the job you want,” she adds.
She advises candidates to follow up with every position they apply to, as well as looking for referrals within the companies you’re applying with to help you out. “Be persistent,” she says. “Don’t be afraid of being too aggressive in your job search. Fortune favors the bold.”