Standing Out as a Candidate in 2020

By: Ben White

Author

In September of 2019, the unemployment rate in America was 3.5%. The economy was strong, it was a candidate market and companies were trying their hardest to secure talent. In many cases, they couldn’t hire fast enough. Now, going into the fourth quarter of 2020, unemployment in America is at a staggering 8.4%, leaving many wondering, “how do I stand out as a candidate?”

For most people, 2020 was a year they did not see coming. People with stable careers and long tenured stays at organizations were abruptly severed from companies they had no interest in leaving. Good performers with track records of success found themselves in a place unfamiliar to them. The job hunt.

The reality is there are more people than ever looking for a job, there are less jobs available, and those companies lucky enough to find themselves in the position to hire have to balance the trepidation brought on by uncertainty with the needs to grow for the future.

In a market that is more crowded than any time in recent history, it’s important to know how to stand out in the crowd. We will cover a few tips that have their roots in common sense and other that will require you to think outside the box.

Be less generic, more specific.

When candidates ask me what recommendations I have for their job search, one of the first things I mention is that they should understand that the margin for error is much smaller now because there is much more competition. To that end, it is important to do what you can to differentiate yourself. Not only in an interview, but also with your applications, resume, LinkedIn profile and networking.

So what is one tangible thing you can do right away? The first step is to ensure you resume and LinkedIn profile are up to date. Every lead, networking talk and application leads to people seeing your resume. Beyond that, consider customizing your resume to the jobs you apply for instead of continually using the same version. The more specific and tailored it can be, the better impression it will make.

There are only so many roles available and if your resume is generic, are you truly maximizing each opportunity? A quick look at the job posting and what they are looking for/requiring serves as a great template on how you can align what you have done with what they want you to be able to do for them. Not only will this show that you are very well qualified, but it will also align you with the job description in the ATS so that if there is any sort of analysis that occurs, you are well positioned.

Make use of your network.

When most people think networking, they think going to an event and walking the room engaging in sporadic conversations and exchanging business cards. Or these days, joining a zoom room while you watch prerecorded speeches and multi-task while asking yourself why you bothered to wear a tie.

The reality is, that doesn’t cut it when it comes to properly leveraging your network. If you have worked at more than a few places in your career, you likely have former colleagues that now work in a variety of different companies. As people grow in their careers, move on and accept new challenges, your network becomes increasingly more powerful. You gain access to different organizations through former colleagues. So, why not use that?

The first step is to reach out to former colleagues. If you have their phone number or email, by all means contact them that way. But if you don’t have their personal contact information, don’t let that stop you! Find them on LinkedIn and send them a personalized LinkedIn request. Once they accept, message them to see if they would be open to a quick meeting (virtual or otherwise).

Worse case scenario with a meeting like this is it turns into a great catch-up session. The upside is in talking with them, you can ask them for advice, telling them that you have always respected their opinion. Let them know that you are looking and if their company is hiring, or if they know of any openings through any of their other connections, you would appreciate a quick heads up.

There is only so much applying you can do. Some of the things you do outside of traditional applications may be the actions that end up paying the biggest dividends!

Engage differently.

If you have spent any time talking to me about advancing your career, you probably know I am a tireless advocate of LinkedIn. I personally have received three of the five offers in my career through meetings requested on LinkedIn. And the story is far from mine alone, 122 million people have been invited to interview through LinkedIn and another 30 million of them have ended up accepting those roles (more stats here).

Having a great resume is awesome but having an optimized LinkedIn that effectively tells your story may be worlds better. First and foremost, do what you can to make your LinkedIn profile stand out. Make sure you have a professional picture, google image a banner to put behind your professional picture, and optimize your profile! Include details of each role you’ve held, quantifying your impact with actual measurables over a clear period of time. and make sure you include all relevant keywords so that you increase the probability of people finding you.

But wait, there is more! What if you find a role on LinkedIn that you are interested in? Or anywhere else for that matter. What’s stopping you from going to that company’s page, looking at their employees who are also on LinkedIn and engaging with them?

The answer is nothing; nothing is stopping you! So find people who might be in a position of hiring, whether it’s the hiring manager or a recruiter and send them an invitation. From there you can inquire directly or better yet, see if they have posted anything on their personal LinkedIn profile (not necessarily about the job of interest, but a picture, video, post, etc.). If they do, find a few of their posts, leave thoughtful comments and once they have responded introduce yourself via direct messaging. I call that move bypassing the ATS.

What have you done with this time?

If your resume has a gap on it due to Covid-19, it’s possible you’ll be asked a question along these lines in an interview – “what have you done with your time off?” Since “surviving” may not quite be the answer they’re looking for, I want you to have a slam dunk answer.

It’s critical to stay calm and what tends to help is having an answer already prepared. My best advice is to answer the question in two ways. First, talk about how you focused your job search on roles that were a great fit for you and would motivate you to do your best work, this being one of those roles. Second, have an example in mind of how you tried to better yourself.

Again, for many of us this was a highly challenging time, but it’s better to be prepared and know what they will be looking for. Whether we think it’s an appropriate question or not, use it as an opportunity to talk about how selective you have been and how this role matches up very well with your strengths.


This year we’ve come face-to-face with the fact that there are so many things outside of our control. My best advice to those who find themselves as job-seekers right now is to implement these strategies, prepare for the tough questions, and do not hesitate to make connections. If you would like to talk more with a member of our team, click the button below to reach out!

Related Insights

Talent Checkup

Want to start a journey towards building a high performing culture? We can give you a roadmap. It takes less than 10 minutes.