Finding A Job During A Pandemic

9 months and 1000 applications later, here’s everything I’ve learned.

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

November 2019, the job market is considered very difficult and I’ve just moved to London to increase my chances of finding employment.

Recently graduated from my M.A programme, I had a few years of experience in marketing and then freelancing. With some early positive responses from recruiters and companies I was confident that I would soon have a job.

I was wrong.

Two months later the entire country was locked down, the graduate schemes I was testing for were cancelled, the jobs I had interviewed for were pulled.

Thousands of people had lost their jobs and were now applying for any position they could get, many with decades of experience.

The job market went from difficult, to near impossible.

In November I was getting an interview for every 10 applications I sent.

By march, I would get an interview every 100 applications.

In September, the job market had gotten worse, jobs on LinkedIn often had 800+ applicants for an entry level position, up from the 300+ applicants that were common in April. During that time I had managed to up my interview rate from 1 per 100 applications to 1 per 30.

At the end of September I was offered a management position, and one of my first tasks was to hire two members of the team.

After searching for so long, immediately seeing the job market from the other perspective was a humbling experience. It put a lot of things into perspective

With that experience and perspective, here’s everything I learned about finding a job in this difficult market.

Keep Your Spirits High And Stay Consistent.

This is by far the most difficult part of the process.

Finding a job while unemployed can be demoralising at the best of times, during a downturn when the competition is 10x higher, it’s going to be really, really rough. You need to mentally prepare for how bad it will be.

I would tell myself that a successful application is unlikely and try to manage my expectations, but every application I sent was a little bit of hope and each rejection crushed it.

If you are taking the job hunt seriously, you need to be sending multiple applications per day. After a few weeks that means you will be receiving multiple rejections per day.

Having a slow, constant trickle of rejection emails during the day is demoralising.

You will eventually get an interview, the rejection following has the potential to be much more damaging.

If the rejection emails feel like having your self-esteem needled at, being rejected after having a good interview feels like somebody tearing strips of flesh away from you.

I found myself being so demoralised after being rejected after a good interview that I wouldn’t do any applications for a week, then I would panic that I wasn’t making any progress and spend a weekend working 14 hour days, churning out tens of applications a day, burning myself out in the process.

I began to feel very depressed and hopeless; life was desperate. The world was a hostile place.

I would spend 8 hours a day doing applications and 5 hours a day playing videogames to try and de-stress.

If I had received a rejection from a job that I was particularly hopeful about, I might spend a week playing games and overeating, before panicking and rushing out more applications at the weekend. It was very unhealthy

Towards the end of my search, my process became outcome-independent.

I would wake up and consistently do 5 applications a day, per day, every day.

Even if I had a great interview the day before.

Even if I was rejected after an interview I thought I nailed.

Even if I had an interview lined up for a role that I was perfect for tomorrow.

Don’t ever stop. Stay consistent. Apply and keep interviewing until you have a written offer.

The key to keep your spirits high is to change your goals. Your goal is not to “get a job”, which makes the rejections hurt and the process painful.

Your Goal should be “Complete 5 applications”. This change in mindset makes the rejections bearable.

The sooner that I adopted this attitude, the sooner I would have had a job and the less my mental health would have suffered.

Tailor Your CV.

It’s the case for most people that their experience (or education) can lead them into a few different directions.

Most jobs have duties that overlap into multiple roles. For example, my previous job was in marketing in a small biotech, a start-up environment.

It meant that my duties overlapped marketing, logistics, admin, communications and sales.

If you’re an Account Manager, a significant portion of your day will be dealing with clients — perfect experience for finding a new job in sales or communications. Perhaps you dealt with budgets and timelines, perfect for moving into a project management role.

The days of having a one-size-fits all resume are gone.

Even if you in specialised fields like IT, there will be jobs where you want to emphasise how closely you worked with security functions while others you want to talk more about your experience with design/implementation.

You need to identify early on, which roles you are applying for and examine exactly what they are looking for from their applicants.

You then need to emphasise the experience that you have so that you sound like the perfect candidate.

I would be actively using 6 different CVs at any given time.

Two for each type of role I was applying for.

I A/B tested my CVs to refine their effectiveness.

I would make two different CVs for marketing jobs. CV A would be more “designed” while CV B was more standard.

I would then send 25 of CV A and 25 of CV B when applying for marketing job roles.

Keep track of which CV performs better. Then examine why you think it’s performing well and make another CV that emphasizes those qualities. Send the new CV alongside the best-performing old one and track which performs better.

Repeat and refine.

This might sound excessive, but it’s not.

In this market where entry level jobs are attracting thousands of applicants you need every single edge you can get.

Tailor Your Cover Letter.

I spent a few hours nearly every day for the past 8 months writing cover letters, so I have a lot to say about this topic.

For the sake of brevity I’m going to summarise what I learned into some general rules:

Hiring managers want unique cover letters, an obvious copy-paste job is an instant turn off.

Despite this, you can’t write a tailored cover letter for every job, it will burn you out and take far too long.

The key here is that it needs to seem unique and not be unique.

You need to write very general templates and leave sections out that can be edited for each individual job, that way the letters seem like they are personal without requiring the effort to actually be.

My initial cover letters were focused on me: “Hello, I’m Adam, this is who I am and what I can do.”

This is a very common mistake. Recruiters and HR know this already from your CV.

All the recruiters I spoke to told me that they look at cover letters second, after they have shortlisted CVs.

This means that the purpose of the cover letter isn’t explaining who you are, or that you can do the job. They wouldn’t be reading your cover letter if they didn't already know you could do the job.

Instead, think of the purpose of the cover letter as demonstrating why you would fit into the company and why you can do the job better than all of the other applicants on the shortlist.

Multiple times I was told that I was invited to the interview because I demonstrated an understanding of why the job existed, how it fit into the overall business or what the company was aiming to do, which made me stand out from the crowd.

Read about the company, read about the team, look at some of the people on LinkedIn and see what they’re posting, see what content they’re sharing.

What are they talking about? What challenges are they facing in the near future? What incentives have they recently undertaken? Find out and write about them.

The person reading your cover letter will probably read hundreds that day, the majority will be well formatted, decently written and a re-instatement or explanation of what’s on their CV.

As a result, they won’t leave much of an impression.

You need to inject as much personality and individuality as you can into the letter without crossing the line into unprofessionalism.

There are multiple ways you can do this.

For example, you can give your opinion on something — the best way to organise a team, the importance of a specific process or technical skill, or something that the business is doing well.

You could try and relate one of the job duties back to a role that you have previously done with a (short!) anecdote.

You want to write something that will stick in their memory.

Every time I have included something like this in a cover letter, I have been asked about it at the interview stage. Sometimes the interviewer has disagreed with me but brought me in to discuss my perspective in a little more detail.

It’s a great way to stand out from the crowd while maintaining professional standards, just make sure to make it relevant to the job.

It’s A Numbers Game.

I Hated this advice.

This was the piece of advice that I most commonly got from family and friends.

I didn’t take it seriously because I knew that I could improve all levels of the application — CV design, cover letter writing and interviewing.

If I was getting to interviews but not getting the job, I must be going wrong somewhere.

If I could make improvements, I would eventually get a job.

It was only when I was on the other side of the table, sifting through CVs to shortlist candidates for interview that I realised how true the “numbers game” was.

A good portion of the CVs were flat-out terrible. No relevant experience, basic spelling errors, and poor organisation.

Let’s say that 50% of the CVs were instantly disqualified. In this market that still left literally hundreds of applicants that had very, very little to separate them in terms of education, experience and quality.

I narrowed the applicants down as much as I could, but with hundreds to choose from, even with the most ruthless nit-picking it still left me with dozens of people.

At this point the decision became — which of these thirty people seem like they would fit the organisation and team best?

I have to discern that from the cover letter as I only have time to formally interview around six or seven of them.

From the outside, for applicants. It feels like the organisation is reviewing your application with a fine-tooth comb, judging you not worthy and dismissing you without feedback.

But the truth is, I could very well have missed the perfect candidate for the role because there were so many applicants and I simply didn’t have the capacity to closely examine each one.

Once you meet the required quality of CV and cover letter, getting to the interview stage becomes a bit of a gamble, there’s actually a lot of luck involved.

Like it or not, the truth is that to get a job in this market, you’re going to have to apply to as many jobs as possible with the highest quality application that you can.

Even technical, highly skilled positions have an overabundance of applicants right now, so unless you completely blow the other applications out of the water in terms of skills and experience, there’s going to be lot of luck involved.

The Interviewer Is Not Your Enemy

My first few interviews I was defensive, nervous and desperate to please. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t perform very well and didn’t get any feedback afterwards.

Towards the end of the process and after 40 interviews I was being told that I interviewed well after nearly every interview. I was consistently told that I seemed like an excellent candidate. Even when I was rejected, employers were reaching out to me to explain that I interviewed well but that they were going with somebody else for unrelated reasons — more experience, different requirements, recommendation.

Other than picking up hours of interview experience, the main improvements I made to my interview technique was shifting my mindset from seeing the interviewer as gatekeeper that I needed to pass, and instead as a collaborator.

Having been on the other side, I now know that it can actually be just as intimidating to interview somebody as it is to be interviewed.

The interviewer wants you to fit the job. They want you to ace the questions. They really are on your side.

Feel free to ask them questions, to clarify your answers.

Tell anecdotes about your experience and ask if you think it’s relevant for the role. Ask them if they think you have answered the question well or there was something else they felt needed to be addressed.

Feel free to joke a little bit with them, to be friendly. Be a genuine person, be your authentic self.

If you’ve made it to the interview they likely know that you can do the job and are now also assessing you as being a good cultural fit for the company/team.

This is the stage where you can stop being an application robot and start being a real person. They want to know what it would be like working with you, so show them.

Approach the interview as a collaborative project rather than a confrontation and you will be much more successful.

Take Advantage Of Online Interviews

The shift to remote working is likely to persist even when the pandemic is a memory. If you can adapt to this shift faster, and better than others, you will have an edge.

Take advantage of the fact you’re not physically sat in front of the person.

Go into interviews with an enormous amount of notes.

Go into interviews with a script if that’s how you work best.

Prepare some anecdotes and write yourself some prompts.

Record your interviews and watch/listen to them back.

If you are uncomfortable you can clarify with the interviewer that you are doing this and ask for their consent.

I personally wouldn’t find it strange if somebody I was interviewing wanted to record the interview so that they could improve but it’s also legal to make recordings of conversations in the UK for your own use without informing the other person. Check your local laws and use your best judgement.

When you watch or listen to an interview you will realise just how many mistakes you are making. You might not have answered the question that was asked, you might hesitate and sound very nervous, you might be too casual and familiar with the interviewers, or conversely, too formal and stiff.

When you are in the interview it’s difficult to identify where you are going wrong, but watching back after will separate you from the moment and let you make radical improvements to your approach. Have friends watch them and be brutally honest about your errors and any improvements you can make.

It’s a very difficult market right now, and while it might recover, in all probability it’s going to be like this for a few years.

The process of finding a job isn’t just a stepping stone. It needs to be treated as a full time task in itself. You need to dedicate yourself to it, make improvements to your approach and become more skilled at presenting and selling yourself.

If you think I can be of help, or you want to make some comments about the article, you can find me on Twitter.

Good luck with your search.

M.A in Geopolitics, Territory and Security from King’s College London. I’m much more concerned with what’s going to happen rather than what should happen.

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