The University Network

How To Get A Job Interview — Interview With Jia Wei Cao, Career Coach, Stony Brook University’s Career Center

TUN sits down with Jia Wei Cao, a career coach at Stony Brook University’s Career Center, to provide some tips on how to get a job interview. 

TUN: Jia Wei, thanks so much for joining us. 

JIA WEI: Absolutely. Great to be back. Thank you, Jackson. 

Applying for jobs can be exhausting. Sometimes it can feel like you’re firing applications into a black hole and never hearing anything back. So, how many jobs or internships should students or recent graduates be applying for?

For recent grads who are not currently working, I would say at least 2-3 jobs a day. The expression, you know, is quality over quantity. But, this is one of those cases where you’re going to want a little bit of both. 

If you’re applying to a lot of jobs, it is important that you keep track of all your applications. I’m old-school. I have a journal. When I was applying for jobs, I would just basically write everything down. But, I see more and more students nowadays keeping a spreadsheet where they keep track of all the jobs that they apply to. They note when they apply to the job, the specific title at each company and the contact information of the recruiters for each position that they apply to, if that’s available.

For students who are currently seeking internships, the mindset should pretty much be the same. Except, you are in school, so there are other obligations you have to commit to as well. But, I would say, try to aim to apply to at least 5-10 internships a week. 

For positions with deadlines that are posted, it’s always better to apply sooner rather than later. We’ve had recruiters that we work with tell us that they sometimes will periodically go in and see what applications are coming in, especially if they have a rolling deadline. Sometimes, if they find someone they like, they’ll just bring them in right away. Even though the deadline says November 30, they’ve already decided who they’re going to take. 

Definitely apply sooner rather than later. Don’t wait, especially because a lot of the recruiting partners that we work with have also told us that they’ve either moved up the recruitment timetable or sped up their onboarding process due to the current pandemic. 

To be offered an interview, your application has to stand out to potential employers. So, do you have any advice to help students and recent graduates create compelling resumes, cover letters and overall applications? 

Students have all probably heard this time and time again at this point, but in order to put forth a quality application, you really need to put in 100 percent, even 120 percent, in terms of researching the organization or the company that you’re applying to. 

You need to make sure that your resume and your cover letter speak to the recruiter, or whoever is reviewing your application, in a way that showcases your ability to be able to come in and do the tasks that are listed in the job requirement. You want to aim to bridge that gap. Think about what they’re seeking in a candidate and what you can offer. 

I always say to treat (your job search) like sales. The analogy is, they’re currently looking for somebody who can come in to solve a problem or do something for them, and they’re going to be looking in the market for the best candidate who can come and do the best job. 

The challenge for you is to find a way to market yourself in a way that, again, differentiates you from your competitors to make sure that they’re confident that, when they pick you, you’re going to come in and do the job. 

You’ll find that this is going to be a lot easier if you are targeting jobs that you’re more qualified for. You want to apply for a lot of jobs. But, if you’re looking at it as like, “I’m just going to apply to the first 20 jobs I find,” you’re doing yourself a real disservice. 

You want to look for jobs strategically. You want to identify jobs that you’re more likely to hear back from. If they list five things that you absolutely have to have to be eligible for the position, you want to make sure you hit all those things. 

If it’s more rolling, you want to try to hit at least 80 percent of everything. That way, you know you’re more likely to hear back. It also gives you an ego boost when you hear back from more people as opposed to applying to 20 random, shot-in-the-dark jobs and not hearing back from any of them. You’ll feel discouraged.

So, you want to identify things that you’ve had experience with. The easiest way to do that, again, is to focus on the skills. At the end of the day, skills are tangible, especially in more technical roles. The more you can showcase proof that this is something you’ve done in the past, the more likely you’re going to hear back from somebody. 

Another thing that recruiters and employers really love to see is directly related experience. If they’re looking for somebody who’s had experience developing a website using a certain programming language and you’ve done that in a previous job, you want to be able to show that. That’s point A to point A.

Other things that they look for, especially if you’re a college student or recent grad, are leadership qualities, teaching experience, customer service skills and collaborative skills. The best way to really show this is through your work and internship experience. But you can also show this through any extracurricular activities that you’re involved with on campus, as well as any volunteer work that you’ve done while you were in school. 

Include any other academic or personal projects that you may have done that are relevant to the position that you’re applying for, especially if you are a younger student and you haven’t had a lot of work experience. A lot of curricula nowadays are designed for you to be able to conduct these projects where you’ll gain similar skills to what you’ll have if you’re actually in a position. 

Be mindful of the structure and the formatting of your resume. I can’t stress that enough. As somebody who once worked as a recruiter, there’s nothing that can distract a person or annoy a person more than when the structure and the formatting is all over the place and there are grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes. If you make sure all that is perfect and prove that you have really good attention to detail, that is something that is going to help you out. 

If your resume doesn’t look appealing when the person picks it up, unconsciously or consciously, they’re going to be having that in the back of their minds. You don’t want anything like that to distract them from the things you’re trying to showcase in your resume. So, stick with basic formatting. Don’t do anything crazy. Use standard fonts. I’m a big fan of Times New Roman. But, other fonts are acceptable, like Calibri, Ariel and Helvetica.

Just use simple page breaks or lines to divide up the sections. There’s absolutely no need for pictures or graphics as long as you’re applying for a position within the United States. Other countries have other formats. But, stick with just text on your resume. Pictures and other forms of graphics can actually mess up the format of your resume, if the organization that you’re applying to is putting it through an applicant tracking system or some sort of CRM program.

You just spoke about mistakes to avoid on the resume. Are there any mistakes that students should avoid while writing cover letters?

You want to avoid that life story on a cover letter. You should really be keeping it brief. You don’t want this to be a personal statement. This is not a personal essay. Focus on the skills. This is an opportunity for you to summarize the key skills that your resume is pointing to and briefly describe either experiences you’ve had or a situation you’ve encountered before in the past in which you were really able to let these skills speak for themselves. 

This is an opportunity to describe where you’ve been able to use your skills so that employers and/or recruiters can visualize you using the skill and showing mastery. 

Avoid vague language. You want to avoid general umbrella terms. If you want to emphasize that you have really strong communication skills, definitely break down what that means. Are you a good communicator one-on-one with people? Are you a good public speaker? Are you a really good writer? Written communication is huge. Are you somebody who is able to take command on a team and lead? 

So, think of the big umbrella term “communication.” Try to break it down. If you feel like you can break that down further, always do yourself the courtesy and break it down. It’ll make your examples a lot easier to showcase.

Your cover letter should be no more than three paragraphs. First paragraph should be a brief introduction. The bulk of the second paragraph will focus on, again, the skills and experiences. And the last paragraph should be no more than three sentences, just exiting and saying, “Thank you, again, for your time.” You should reiterate your contact information if you haven’t already done that in the header. 

Because hundreds of people apply for some jobs, it’s easy to feel like your application may never be read no matter how good it might be. Is there anything that students and recent graduates can do to increase the chances of their application reaching hiring managers’ desks? 

Students should absolutely be following up with folks, especially if you’ve applied for a job, you’ve been tracking the application and you haven’t heard back for a while. Especially if you know somebody within the organization or if you spoke to a recruiter directly, you want to reach out. 

Email is always a really good start, but I always encourage my students, at the very least, to become more comfortable speaking on the phone. Maybe it’s something with this current generation of students, but people don’t like phone calls any more. But, unfortunately, a lot of recruiters do like phone calls. 

So, start off by contacting folks on recruiting teams if you still want to learn a little bit more about some of the positions that they’re offering.

You shouldn’t feel awkward. If you want to reach out to, let’s say, somebody who works within the company or an industry leader, it’s more about building yourself up to that. You might not necessarily be ready for that right off the bat. You might want to, again, start off lower. 

I always encourage students to reach out to folks who are 3-5 years out of college. Those are usually the best people to reach out to who will probably respond to you, especially if they’re alumni or if they have mutual connections with you. 

You should be doing this throughout the year, not only when you’re looking for a job. Especially nowadays, with less and less networking events that your university might be hosting, you want to be able to be consciously trying to build these relationships throughout the entire academic year. 

Platforms like LinkedIn are usually a great place for you to kind of get started. You don’t want to make it seem like you’re only reaching out to a person because you need something from them. 

You’re applying for a job right now at, let’s say JP Morgan Chase, and you’re like, “Okay, now I need somebody who can advocate for me on the inside. I’m going to go reach out to someone now, after I’ve already applied.” 

Plant that seed earlier on. Speak to folks who work in finance or fintech about learning more about the industry, what it’s like to start off as a young professional, tips that they can offer you while you’re still in school, industry trends that you should be following, the things that you should be trying to learn right now and the things that they’re seeing some of the entry-level people fall short on right now. 

Build this connection and don’t directly go into it like, “I need something from you right away.” You want to be able to build that level of trust and that layer of sincerity. You want to build a reputation with people who are in that field. And, you want to be able to turn to them at the right time.

I always say, start off with alumni. Alumni are usually the best people. They’re more likely to respond. But, again, this is a process. Not everybody is going to respond to you. I’ve had students tell me that they’ve reached out to 10 or 15 people and they heard back from one person. But, that’s just the way it is. That one connection that you do follow up with, if you’re able to maintain that long enough, pretty much supplements in-person networking events that we would have had if not for the pandemic this year. 

But, it’s absolutely important to have these connections. More often than not, a lot of currently open positions out there will be filled with people who have somebody on the inside advocating for them. 

Some students have come to me and said, “It feels like that’s cheating. It feels like that’s me trying to get ahead of other people.” But, it’s really not. It’s, again, just what the current job market is. 

Think about that sales model. If you have somebody who you know and they’re advocating for somebody, you’re more likely to trust that brand as opposed to going out and trying a brand that you’ve never had before. 

So, definitely reach out to people now. It doesn’t hurt. You know, the worst thing that can happen to you is, you reach out to somebody and they either completely ghost you or just tell you, “No, I can’t help you. I don’t have time.” 

It’s good for you to get into this habit right now. Especially nowadays, with less and less interactions with people directly, it’s absolutely important for you to be able to learn how to get these networking skills now while you’re still in school so that when you start your first job, it’ll be a little bit more natural to you. 

Absolutely. Thanks, again, Jia Wei, for joining us today.

Absolutely. I hope this helped. Have a great day. 

This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.