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Customizing Yourself for the Job Hunt

By Christopher Schonberger

The tighter the job market, the more you need to stand out in the application process. Amid a sea of qualified job hunters, some of whom are experienced career-changers rather than fresh-faced recent grads, how do you separate yourself from the crowd? Lying on your resume? Sleeping with the CEOs children? Yes, but there’s a better way: customize yourself for the job you want.

If you’re serious about landing a great gig, taking the time to customize yourself for each position is as important as any aspect of the job-hunt. Successful customization starts with the resume and trickles all the way down to the interview. Does it make the job-hunt more time-consuming and annoying? Of course! But all evidence points towards it being worth the effort. In this guide, we’ll explore some tips for making customization work for you.

Why Customize?

Imagine that you're a freelancer writer. If you want to write an article for Forbes, would you send them the same article pitch you sent Sports Illustrated? Probably not, because they are different magazines with different audiences. The same story could probably work for each publication, but you need to frame it a bit differently to fit their respective needs.

When you’re on the job-hunt, the same principle applies, except now you are pitching yourself. I know that may sound a little slimy, and you can get on your high horse (as I have in the past) and say, “I am qualified and smart, I shouldn’t have to sell myself to these people! It's demeaning!” But that attitude is just the product laziness and a futile refusal to accept how the world works. Do you really expect employers, who are probably looking at hundreds of applications, to read between the lines to determine that you are the best possible candidate? You’ve got to serve it up for them on a platter, and as long as you’re being truthful, it shouldn’t feel like you’re being “salesy.” After all, you’re not a used car salesman selling lemons off the lot—you’re a job-hunter trying to make sure you and the organization you’re offering your services to really match up.

How to Customize Yourself

There are various degrees to which you can customize your application, and obviously if you are casting a very wide net you may have to make some compromises (e.g., tweaking your resume and cover letter for a few distinct industries rather than each individual job). To help you out, here are some different ways to do it, in ascending order of ballerness.

  • Level 1: Read (and Re-Read) the Job Description. The simplest method is to carefully read the job description for each application. You should always do this. Presumably, this description lists the specific skills and qualities the employer is looking for in an ideal candidate. Thus, in your resume, cover letter, and interview, you should tailor your experiences and talents to stand out in response to those specific criteria.
  • Level 2: Know the Industry. You want to be responsive to the job description, but knowing the general demands of the industry is just as important. (Clearly, if you are applying to a finance job and a PR job, you don’t want to send in the exact same resume.) Check out these traits to stress by industry to help you get an idea of what characteristics are generally valued, particularly if the job description doesn’t give you much to work with.
  • Level 3: Know the Industry Lingo. Every industry has its “insider” lingo that’s bound to confuse you if you're not familiar with it. Check out this industry lingo cheat sheet, but be careful not to take it too far. Dropping phrases like “mezzanine debt” in your resume or cover letter will probably just make you look like you’re trying way too hard. But getting familiar with the vocabulary of an industry and reading industry-specific publications (e.g., The Real Deal for real-estate) can help you sound more knowledgeable—or at least not look confused—at the interview stage.
  • Level 4: Build a Story. If you’re unemployed and you know what type of job you want, get out there and start doing the things that will help you stand out when you finally get a chance to speak with someone in a position to hire you. For example: start a blog or try freelancing if you're trying to be a writer. Volunteer for a non-profit that interests you and explain to prospective employers why you did it and what you learned. When you create a story, you give yourself another way to stand out from the crowd.
  • Level 5: Get Co-Signed. While you talk about yourself as much as you want, nothing speaks louder than a referral from someone whose name means something to the organization where you're applying. Over 70% of jobs are filled through referrals, so definitely take the time to brush up on networking techniques. And remember: you don't necessarily have to find someone who will vouch for you directly. Even if you just request an informational interview or reach out to someone to ask him about his job at a certain company, you should still mention that you've spoken to someone from the company in the first paragraph (or even sentence) of your cover letter. It will show that you are proactive and took the time to learn more about the job.

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