The Ten Commandments of a Job Search: A (Mostly) To-Don’t List

By Don Goldstein

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Career advisors spend a lot of time advising students on what to do in order to be successful in the job search process. We tend to focus on the positive things you should do, but actually, avoiding mistakes is also an important pathway to success. Don’t underestimate the importance of what not to do in certain situations. In fact, in daily life, we’re always being reminded of what not to do: “Don’t walk,” Do not hold the doors,” “Do not go on to the tracks.” Even the Ten Commandments of conducting a job search are mostly a Don’t-Do List. Eight out of the ten are about things you should avoid. So here are your To-Don’ts and To-Do’s.

The Ten Commandments of a Job Search

The To-Don’ts

1. Don’t Say No to Yourself

Plenty of other people in the job search process are going to say “No” to you, so don’t do it to yourself. You read a job description and you say to yourself, “I’m not going to apply to that position. They’re asking for 10 things, and I only have 7 of them. There must be plenty of other candidates who have everything they’re looking for.” WRONG. There are very few perfect candidates. Go ahead and apply. Don’t rule yourself out because of a preconceived notion as to the type of person they’re looking for.

Columbia University has 11 career centers. Over the years, I saw numerous postings but never applied because I thought, “I’m not an Ivy League type. I’m a child of working-class parents from Brooklyn. I graduated from Brooklyn College, not Harvard.” One day, however, with the advice of a former colleague who was working at Columbia, I did apply. Lo and behold, I got the position and worked there for nine years. Most of the people that I worked with across the university were just regular people who graduated from all different types of colleges from many different backgrounds.

2. Don’t Conduct Your Job Search by Only Applying Online

Sure, you can get a job this way: you go to a job board or a company website, you send in your application materials, you get called for an interview, and you get a job offer. It can happen, but it significantly reduces your chances of getting an interview if you have not incorporated networking into your job search strategy. Surveys have shown that 80% of successful job applicants have gotten their job through some form of networking—contacts you have made that result in recommendations and referrals. I have seen this work in my own career; many times when I’ve worked with clients over the years, I’ve gone through their resumes and asked how they got each job, and most of the time they’d say through networking.

3. Don’t Use the Same Resume and Cover Letter to Apply for Dozens of Different Jobs (The Shotgun Approach)

Every job is different, and every company is different. While you don’t need a totally new resume for every job you apply to, you do need to tweak your resume and make sure that the qualifications and skills that the employer is looking for appear on your resume (if you have those qualifications). If you are applying for jobs in totally different fields, you probably need different versions of your resume. I was a freelancer for many years, and I had three unique resumes: a career counseling resume, a teaching resume, and an editing resume.

You need to write distinctively tailored cover letters for each position that you apply to. You have to address the job description and tell them that you can do the job that they need you to do. You have to try to show that you know something about their company or organization and possibly why you would want to work there. Hiring managers can tell when a candidate is using a template cover letter. I’ve even seen cases where a student forgets to change the name of the company they are applying to and uses the wrong name.

4. Don’t Send Any Job Application Materials that Have Not Been Proofread (Ideally by Someone Else)

I cannot tell you the number of times that I’ve reviewed a student’s CV, resume, or cover letter and spotted a typo that they did not see despite having looked at their own materials numerous times. Picture a hiring manager who has dozens of resumes and cover letters piled on their desk. They have plenty of candidates, so they are looking for ways to reduce the pile: “Oh, a typo—careless student, careless employee—NEXT.” If there is no one else to proofread your material, at least read it very slowly out loud.

5. Don’t Show Up Late for a Job Interview

If there is one thing that can shoot you down before you even get started, it’s showing up late for a job interview. If it is an in-person interview like in the good old days (eight months ago), check the route. Do a dry run if you’re not sure how to get there. Give yourself extra time. If something happens that is totally out of your control, try to contact the employer to tell them what’s going on. If it’s a virtual interview, check and double-check the time. Make sure you have the Zoom link. Check your equipment. Get on a little early.

6. Don’t Talk about Your Own Needs in Your Cover Letter or Interview

Sure, this is a great job for you. It will allow you to pay off some of your debt and move to a new apartment. It’s a great commute. You might even be able to bike to work, and it’s right near your favorite aunt so you can visit her afterwards. Companies don’t care about your problems. They only care about what you can do for them. Always emphasize the value you would add for THEM.

7. Don’t Think That You Can Successfully Wing the Job Interview

The key to a successful job interview is preparation and practice. It is indeed a very, very rare individual who can improv a job interview. In order to succeed, you need to research the company, re-read the job description, and think of ways that you are a good fit for every aspect of the position. Try to anticipate the questions and practice the answers. Develop a strategy where you think about the points that you want to get across about yourself in the interview, and look for the questions that allow you to show yourself in a great light.

Stories are very powerful and hiring managers remember them. Think of stories and examples that you can give that illustrate why you’re a great fit for the position, and look for a way to work them into the interview. These stories are very hard to think of on the spot. You probably worked very hard to get the interview; don’t blow the opportunity by not preparing.

8. Don’t Lose Hope

In the job search you are probably going to get many more rejections than acceptances. That’s hard, but don’t take it personally. There are a lot of things that are out of your control. Maybe you even did a great job at the interview, but there was an insider candidate or someone they liked just a little bit better. If you didn’t do such a great job or there was an unexpected question that tripped you up, learn from the mistake. It can be very disappointing that you didn’t get your “Dream Job.” You may even need to feel bad and mourn it for a day or two. But if you don’t get back to business, you are just compounding the problem, and although it may not look this way right now, you might look back on it and realize you were better off not getting that job after all.

The To-Do’s

9. Do Have a Great Understanding of Your Transferable Skills

You probably will be applying for some jobs that will be asking for a different skill set than you have used in the past, so it’s important for you to understand how your skills can be applied in different settings. For instance, let’s say that you have done a lot of college teaching. You could apply for a position as a trainer in an HR Department because training is just a different form of teaching. Let’s say that you have been doing research on urban development. It is most likely that you could do research on another social issue.

Also, keep in mind that most of what people do on a job is learned on the job. The ability to learn is a transferable skill. As a doctoral or master’s student at the CUNY Graduate Center, you know how to learn. In addition, almost every soft skill is transferable—teamwork, taking initiative, a strong work ethic, attention to detail, time management, etc.—and carried by you from job to job.

10. Do Use the Services of the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development

We are your ally. Use us! We offer individual career advising, mock interviews, help with all job application materials, a job board (GC Connect), a career planning guide, a website packed with information and resources, workshops, webinars, a podcast, employer information sessions, career fairs, and more.