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Winning An Interview: How to Skirt the Application Process

Mike Santoro

A few weeks ago, I shared how to get a job using social media in a presentation for the Japan American Society of Chicago. We’ve been hiring a lot of people at Walker Sands, and the first place we look for new employees is referrals from our current employees. In the past year, 50 percent of the people we hired came from people we already knew.

So how do you become known? Unlike in the past social media has opened the door to meet new people. But there are rules to making friends at your dream job. Here’s what I shared with the JASC.

The old way was to apply online using Career Builder or Craigslist. There are SO MANY JOBS! But this usually doesn’t work. We received 2,000 applications for our summer internship program. From there, we picked 40 perfect resumes and found 10 perfect candidates who passed the writing test. Five people were hired. I know we probably missed some good people in that batch simply because you can’t tell everything from a resume. That way sucks if you are a job seeker.


So we rely a lot on referrals. And we aren’t alone.

The New York Times reports similar findings at other companies. At E&Y, 45 percent of non-entry level employees come from referrals. Deloitte gets 49 percent of its experienced hires from referrals. Even Enterprise-Rent-A-Car obtains 40 percent of its employees from referrals.

For our part, this is how our full-time employee hires broke down: 50 percent people who an employee referred or worked as an intern. People we knew. And 50 percent people who just applied through a job posting. People we didn’t know. And if you’re referred, you have a much better chance of getting an interview.

ws hiring

Hopefully I’ve convinced you by now that you need to quit mass applying to online job postings if you want to land a great job. But how do you make a friend on the inside? Social media can help, but you need to do your research first.

Step 1: Define Your Goal

When I was looking to enter the PR field, I made a list of all the PR firms in Chicago I wanted to work for. I diligently researched what job roles existed within these agencies, what specialties they had, and what they were known for. I then whittled that list down to the places that would both play to my strengths and would contain work I wanted to do. If you don’t know what you want to do and who you want to do it for, it becomes very difficult for anyone to help you.

Step 2: Become a Round Peg

Once you’ve done your research, you need to sculpt both your resume and your online presence around what you want to do and who you want to do it for. If you want to work in PR, your resume better show that you have a strong background in writing and that you know how the media works. You social profiles also should show a strong interest in writing and the media as well.

When someone posts a job, they have a clear idea in their mind of who they want to hire. You need to be a round peg to fit perfectly into that role. We see lots of square pegs trying to wedge themselves into round holes. The market is incredibly competitive and just because you know some things about marketing doesn’t mean you are a perfect fit. Make yourself fit the role you are pursuing.

round peg

Step 3: Meet People and Ask Questions

So now you look like a respectable round peg. Now it’s time for some person to person information gathering.

LinkedIn makes it really easy for you to find out who works at your dream companies. Connect with them and try to arrange a face-to-face meeting. You’d be surprised at how many people are willing to have coffee with you if you are simply asking for advice. And note, at this point you are simply asking for advice and trying to make a connection in your network.

Ask them what it takes to succeed. Ask them what their day to day looks like. Ask them what type of position you should be looking for. Ask them about big trends in the industry and what they are working on. DON’T ask for a job.

You are trying to figure out two things. Is this a place you would want to work? Is this a place that you could be successful?

If it’s not both of those, then you should shift to finding out about places that might be a better fit for you. This is someone embedded in your industry and they have a lot of information. Take advantage of that.

And it’s important to note that you shouldn’t only be trying to connect with the senior leaders of your dream company. Connect with people currently doing your job or people even more junior. We get the majority of employee referrals from junior-level staff. These people are often more welcoming to share what they’ve learned and they have a ton more influence than most people give them credit for.


Step 4: Become a Special Peg

By now you should be an expert in the industry. You’re meeting a lot of people. You’ve edited your dream company list to focus on places you want to work and be successful. You’ve heard from multiple people what those companies are looking for. Now you need to become a special peg.

The truth is that I’m not looking for round pegs, I’m looking for a specific type of round peg. I don’t just need an excellent writer, who’s self-motivated, very creative, and understands the media. That’s a great round peg, but the slam dunk person is someone who’s interested in technology, who understands media, social and search, who has a track record in the space. That’s the person I’m looking to hire.

If you’re a square peg, you aren’t getting a job. If you are a round peg, I’m willing to invest time to teach you as an entry-level professional. But I’m really looking for that special peg.

round peg 2

If you know exactly what your dream company is looking for, you can work to show that interest and demonstrate those skills so that you match that special space that the company is looking to hire for. That will make it easy for you contact to recommend you for an open position.

Step 5: Keep in Touch

As you are building yourself into a special peg, keep in touch with all the people you’ve met with. You never know when an opportunity might present itself. Send an email every few months with an article or event that might be relevant. Share their social content via mention, like and retweet. Comment on their blog posts. You want to stay on their radar.

You might even want to ask for advice/help on a personal project related to the field. Maybe you are writing a blog post that you want their expert eyes on. Or maybe you are running a Facebook campaign for a local charity. Don’t be overbearing, but remember that people are naturally inclined to help you and it gives you a chance to show what you are working on.

Step 6: Find the Job and Make the Ask

Set up Google Alerts for the role you are looking for at that company. Make sure you are staying up to date with the company social feeds. Find that perfect job that you are uniquely positioned to do very well.

Now ask your friend if it might be a fit for you. You did make a friend there, right? At least a LinkedIn connection? If you really are qualified and you have established a connection, chances are good you’ll make it past the big lump of resumes that inevitably flood the HR office.

And that’s the best you can do. Often that means a merit-based test such as a writing test. Sometimes you go straight to the interview. And once you’re there, you’re on your own. Then you really have to be right for the job.

One last thing. Keep your connection up to date during the process. Maybe they helped get you into the writing test, but you bombed it. Maybe you got into the interview and flubbed it. The worst thing you can do is run away. Let your contact know that you didn’t make the cut. Most likely you’ll get some valuable intel that the hiring manager never shares. I’m always disappointed when someone I recommend doesn’t get past the writing test. But I’m even more disappointed when I never hear from them again. Nine times out of 10, I’m willing to give them tips that could have helped them in the future, whether at our firm or another.

This is not an easy process, but it will be successful. It’s much easier to simply blast resumes into the ether and hope for the best. Sometimes that works, but your odds of succeeding this way are much better and your network will grow drastically in the process. As you know, you never can tell when you’ll need that network again in the future.

Winning An Interview: How to Skirt the Application Process from WalkerSands