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03/13/20 | Career, Menu-Homepage

After Seeing Over 10,000 Job Interviews, Here’s What I’ve Learned About Getting in the Door

A 2015 survey found that 85% of jobs were found through networking. A Jobvite survey says that 40% of jobs are won through employee referrals. One 2013 survey claims that 80% of jobs are never even posted.

Connecting with people is the way most jobs are won—the data says so, and so does the near-decade I’ve spent on both sides of the recruiting process. But this isn’t the way most people job-seek. And that’s not surprising, given most of us never learned, in an intentional, practical way, how to run a great job search. 

If you read the headlines about job-searching from the last several years, the pattern experts tout is clear: People get jobs by connecting with people. 

Why, then, are we still applying to jobs online?

Executing a great job search is a learned skill just like people management, coding in Python, or winning at poker. Great job-seekers aren’t born, they’re made. But nobody teaches these skills, so most of us don’t get a chance to learn them.

Even though other humans are the surest path to a job offer, most job-seekers don’t start with people. Most job-seekers start with the internet.

People get jobs from people

My colleagues and I have spent the last seven years building Flatiron School, a school where we train career changers with the technology skills and job-search know-how to start new careers. An important part of our process is the time our team spends working with graduates to help them conduct successful job searches. 

In those seven years, we’ve collectively watched over 10,000 interviews happen—often from both sides, working directly with graduates to coach them through their searches, and directly with companies to help them hire our grads. And we’re right there with the chorus of data: People don’t get jobs from job boards or ads. People get jobs from people. 

That’s what we help our graduates do, and the results of this approach speak for themselves: Flatiron School grads get jobs at a rate of 93%. In fact, we’ve had 93%-or-better job placement rates every single year we’ve been in existence.

Without the benefit of context and practice, applying to jobs online makes logical sense: Tens of thousands of job posts beckon. One-click application portals seductively say, “We want you! We want you so badly, you don’t even need to work at it. Just apply!

The most important first step to a great job search is learning how to get in the door. From there, you get the chance to showcase all of your brilliance throughout the rest of the process. But without that first conversation, your candidacy is stuck in a digital pile of resumes.

The internet has wooed job-seekers to put their efforts towards this all-important first step in precisely the wrong place: Into internet job applications. There’s a better way.

For many job-seekers, abandoning internet applications is difficult for two reasons:

  1. We don’t believe other methods of getting in the door will work—the “why”
  2. We don’t have those other methods in our toolkit—the “how”

At Flatiron School, we offer students a tuition-back promise: If you don’t get an offer after six months of job-seeking with us, you’re eligible for a full tuition refund. We’ve woven accountability for job placements into our DNA, and that meant demystifying the path to a job offer. Our business depends on a job-search formula that works.

Why applying to jobs online doesn’t work

A friend of mine, Rob, was looking for a job a few years ago. He had assumed, like many of us do, that the trick to getting a job was applying for as many jobs as possible online. Since your resume tells your story, and the HR people decide who gets interviewed based on your resume, he reasoned, the whole job-search thing was sort of a foregone conclusion. He just needed to put his resume in front of the right person at the right company. So he figured that maximizing the number of folks who saw his resume was the right way to go.

When I interviewed him about this experience, Rob said, “The last time I had applied to jobs, it was a pretty straightforward process.” 

Rob knew a little bit about programming, so he wrote a bot that could apply to thousands of jobs for him. And these weren’t just blind applications: Rob’s bot could address cover letters to individual people, specify company names and include the appropriate job titles. Rob’s bot created about the amount of customization that’s common today in an online job application.

Rob turned on his bot, went out for a coffee, and figured that by the time he had finished, he’d be pretty close to a brand-new job. Based on what he knew from his last search, it seemed like this bot approach was likely to work. 

But the terrain had changed..

“Ultimately, what you’re going to hear is I failed,” he said in our interview. 

Rob learned that this process was not as straightforward as he’d remembered. His bot didn’t work the way he expected. From his first 3,000 job applications, Rob got only 43 calls for interviews — about a 1.5% response rate, just to get the interview process started. 

The bot went on to apply for over 10,000 jobs, and the response rate stayed the same. And none of those roles were ultimately a good fit. 

What Rob later found out was that his resumes and cover letters, more often than not, were getting filtered out of the process by applicant tracking systems before they were even seen by a human. At one point, to identify whether this was true, Rob even tested a version of his cover letter that explicitly said it was written and submitted by a robot, against a version that didn’t, (implying it was written by a human). No difference whatsoever in response rate: Both were abysmal.

When Rob started networking, though, he got interview invitations — or referrals that turned into interview invitations — from almost every contact. It was literally hundreds of times more effective. In the end, Rob found the job he accepted through a connection.

In a new-economy job search, quality wins out over quantity to an almost ridiculous degree. No matter how many job applications one submits, a robot is likely filtering out your resume if it doesn’t have specific keywords or companies on it. If you’re pivoting careers, or don’t have a degree, or haven’t worked at one of a handful of peer competitors, that means your success rate applying through job boards and career sites is likely to be close to zero. 

You’ll see lots of advice online and elsewhere talking about how to optimize your resume for optimal visibility in an online application process. It’ll say to change it each time to highlight your relevant skills, to tailor your cover letter to the job, and to use keywords in your resume that are likely to be programmed into the robot that is screening your application. 

I say that’s playing the wrong game.

There is a method that works to get into these companies. It’s connecting with people, and getting the chance to actually tell your story. For Rob—and for nearly every career changer I’ve ever worked with—this approach is how you get a job.

How to connect with people

There are three main ways to connect with people and get in the door for a job—I call them the concentric circles of networking: 

  1. Inner Circle: Speak with people you know 
  2. Middle Circle: Get referrals to people who know people you know
  3. Outer Circle: Reach out to people you don’t know 

Most job-seekers start on the outside of the circle, and may never work their way in. Cold applications on websites are the outermost ring of your outer circle: You don’t even know who (or what) is reading your resume. 

We’ve been conditioned to think about job searching as a job-first, not people-first endeavor. But that’s not the way most jobs are won. 

Starting on the inside of the circle gives you your friendliest audience, access to the people who care most about your success, and a chance to refine your job-search story with the crowd that’s most forgiving and likeliest to want to help.

And this approach lines up with the data: You’re statistically more likely to get a job by pursuing real connections.

When you know you’re ready to job-seek, it’s valuable to spend some time on a list of target connections to pursue for conversations about your new search. Start close: Good friends, relatives, former colleagues and other supporters.

A text like this can comfortably set up a first conversation: 

Hi! Are you free for a drink in the next week or two? Among other things I’d love to catch up about, I’m getting started looking for a new job — would be grateful to run the plan by you and get your advice.

People love sharing their advice. Think about how often you go to this group for help with your relationships, recommendations, and your current job. 

In this conversation, plan to share what you’re up to, why you’re pursuing a new path, and the reasons you’re excited about it. Share the kinds of work or sorts of companies you’d love to be a part of, or even the sorts of activities that light you up and make you feel great throughout the day, that you’d like to do more. (Remember, this is your friendliest audience: You can start conversationally with this group, and refine your pitch as you go.)

Ask for support and advice: Do you know anyone who works in this industry who might be willing to speak with me? Do you know anyone who does this sort of work, and might take a call about how they found their job? What have you learned during your last few job searches? 

Even if this first group of people isn’t able to get you in the door for a job, they certainly can help you battle test your approach, understand where your story makes sense and where it needs work, or introduce you to someone who can get you one step closer. 

As you move farther out from your core of close “people you know,” your new contacts will expect more from you in the discussion: The less-warm the connection, the more prepared, polished, and intentional your conversation needs to be. 

For a contact you’re reaching out to cold, for example, or a friend of a friend of a friend, you’ll want to come to the conversation having researched this individual, prepared to share a targeted and achievable reason you’re having the conversation, and prepared to ask a set of questions that will likely interest them.

For research, that might look like: Where have they worked? Where did they go to school? Do they regularly write or speak on any topic? 

A targeted and achievable reason for the conversation could be: “I see you’re in HR; I’ve realized through my work as an Account Manager that what I love most and what I’m best at is navigating our internal organization and helping people solve their challenges at work, so I think I’d like to pursue HR, and I’m eager to learn how other people have gotten to where they are.”

And questions someone’s eager to answer might include: How did you get where you are today? How did you figure out the work that you most like to do? What skills are most useful in your day-to-day work?

At a high level, the process looks something like this: 

  • Reach out to real people. Start close, and work your way out.
  • Have meaningful conversations. Be positive, curious, and prepared to drive the discussion.
  • Follow up in a timely manner, with value: Suggest a book, offer up a connection, or simply say you’ve appreciated the time, and would like to be helpful in the future. Even telling the person what value you got out of the conversation, is valuable. People love giving advice, but they really love hearing that their advice was useful.
  • Ask for another conversation: “Can you think of anyone else I should chat with about this new direction I’m pursuing?” 
  • Repeat

Eventually, either through meaningful direct outreach or through warm introductions, you’ll be meeting with companies.

This sounds like a lot of effort

And it definitely is. Getting a job—in any job search, but especially if you’re making any kind of career change or pivot—is a job . Expect to put in time and effort, and learn and sharpen skills along the way, in order to get the results that you’re after. Just like a job. 

We’ve already discussed why a people-first approach will yield you much better results, statistically speaking, than an application-based job search. If you want a job, people-first is your best bet. 

But I’d like to offer one more reason that a people-first approach is more rewarding — an idea for which I’m indebted to Pat Hedley, author of the excellent book Meet 100 People

Every ounce of effort you spend on connecting with people will return you value.

In stark contrast to sending job applications into the abyss, there’s something to learn or discover from every single conversation you have. Unlike floating your resume to an internet black hole, conversations with real people are additive. They’ll each contribute something—some knowledge, tip, introduction, insight, or meaningful relationship—that you didn’t have before. 

Ten thousand job interviews is a lot more than any of us will do in a lifetime. If you’re looking to start in a new role, industry, or career entirely, there’s no need to figure this all out by yourself: Stand on the shoulders of job interviewers who’ve come before you. Connect with real people and I promise, you’re in for a more successful job search—and one that’s much more rewarding.

Rebekah Rombom

Rebekah Rombom

Rebekah Rombom is General Manager of Online Education at Flatiron School, a global school for technical skills with a 93%+ job placement rate. She oversees product strategy, learning outcomes, operations and business objectives for all of the school’s online programs. For the five years before becoming GM, Rebekah built and oversaw Flatiron School's job placements programs. Prior to Flatiron School, she oversaw marketing and HR & recruiting at startups in NYC.

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