When it comes to advice on how to get a job, most of it is pretty bad.
- CollegeFeed suggests that you “be confident” as their first interview tip, which is a bit like suggesting that you should “be employable.”
- Many advisors cover the “clean your nails and have a firm handshake” kind of thing.
- One of the most popular interview videos on YouTube, with over 8 million views, makes the wise point that you definitely mustn’t sit down until you’re explicitly invited to do so by the interviewer.
Who could ever recover from taking a seat a few seconds too early?
Over the years, we’ve sifted through a lot of bad advice to find the nuggets that are actually good. We’ve also provided one-on-one coaching to thousands of people who are applying for jobs, and hired about 30 people ourselves, so we’ve seen what works from both sides. Here, we’ll sum up what we’ve learned.
The key idea is that getting a job is about convincing someone that you have something valuable to offer. So you should focus on doing whatever employers will find most convincing. That means instead of sending out lots of CVs, focus on getting recommendations and proving you can do the work. Read on to get a step-by-step guide.
Reading time: 25 minutes
The bottom line
- Getting a job is a sales process. Think of it from the employer’s point of view, and do what the employer will find most convincing.
- Get lots of leads, especially by asking for introductions.
- Prove you can do the work by actually doing it. Do a project before the interview, explain exactly how you can solve their problems, or seek a related position first.
- Once you get an offer, actually negotiate.
- Do whatever it takes to keep yourself motivated, such as make a public commitment to apply for one position per day, or find a job-search partner.
Table of Contents
- 1 Stage 1: Leads
- 2 Stage 2: Conversion
- 3 Stage 3: Negotiation
- 4 Have a plan to stay motivated
- 5 Check out our advice on different jobs
- 6 Never job hunt again
- 7 Conclusion
- 8 Apply this to your own career
- 9 Want to come back later?: Get the guide as a free book
Let’s be blunt. You’re not entitled to a job, and hiring is rarely fair. Rather, getting a job is, at root, a sales process. You need to persuade someone to give you responsibility and a salary, and even put their reputation on the line, in exchange for results.
We’ll list key advice for each stage of the “sales” process:
- Finding opportunities (leads).
- Convincing employers (conversion).
The common theme is to think from the employer’s point of view, and do whatever they will find most convincing.
While the rest of this guide is about working out which job is best for you and the world, here we focus on the practicalities of taking action on your plans. Just bear in mind there’s no point using salesmanship to land a job that you wouldn’t be good at — you won’t be satisfied, and if your performance is worse than the next-best applicant, you’ll have a negative impact.
But we wrote this article to prevent the opposite situation: we’ve seen too many great candidates who want to make a difference failing to live up to their potential because they don’t know how to sell themselves.
Stage 1: Leads
A lead is any opportunity that might turn into a job, like a position you could apply for, a friend who might know an opportunity, or a side project you might be able to get paid for.
You need a lot of leads
We interviewed someone who’s now a top NPR journalist. But when he started out, he applied to 70 positions and got only one serious offer.
This illustrates the first thing to know about leads: you probably need a lot of them. Especially early in your career, it can easily take 20 to 100 leads to find one good job, and getting rejected 20 times is normal.
In fact, the average length of a spell of unemployment in the US is six months, so be prepared for your job hunt to take that long.1
This is especially true if you’re applying to jobs that are especially desirable and competitive, which are normally more selective, and therefore require more leads.
This includes most jobs directly working on the pressing problems we talk about — in part because we focus on neglected problems, so there just aren’t that many jobs available. For instance, if you want to work on preventing catastrophic pandemics, but can only find 10 leads, that’s (normally) not enough to make it likely you’ll find a job. You might need to apply to jobs in other areas or career paths until you’ve got at least 30 leads.
To compound the problem, there’s a huge amount of luck involved. Most employers are not only looking for general competence, they’re also looking for someone who will fit that particular team and organisation, and the specific requirements of the job. They also have to make decisions with very little information, which means they’ll make a lot of mistakes. You can be very talented but simply not find a match through bad luck.
While bad luck can derail even the best candidates, many people struggle in their job search through a lack of confidence. We know a lot of people who thought they’d never get a certain job, but went on to not only land the job, but also to excel within it.
Others are overconfident. We’ve met people whose backup option was to work at an effective altruism organisation — but those roles are also super competitive, so they aren’t really a backup at all.
Unfortunately it’s hard to know whether you’re underconfident or overconfident. So it’s important to pursue both backup and stretch positions:
- Backup positions are those that are less attractive but you think you’re likely to land. Applying to them reduces the risk of not ending up with anything, and having offers can improve your negotiating position.
- Stretch positions are those you think you’re unlikely to get, but would be great if you do, so offer a lot of upside.
Making all these applications is a lot of work. It helps to bear in mind that it’s also one of the best ways to assess your fit with a career path — indeed, job applications are specifically designed to assess fit as quickly as possible. This means you stand to learn a lot from applying –– you might even discover a totally new career path.
Pursuing lots of jobs is also one of the best ways to find even more opportunities. Maybe one employer doesn’t have any openings, but they know someone else who does.
How to get leads: don’t just cold email your CV, use connections
Many large organisations have a standardised application process, such as the UK Civil Service and Teach for America. They want to keep the process fair, so there isn’t much wiggle room. In these cases, just apply.
But what do you do in all the other cases? The most obvious approach is to send your CV to lots of companies and apply to the postings on job boards. This is often the first thing career advisors mention.2
We would recommend doing this sometimes — and have our own job board — but the problem is that sending out your CV and responding to lots of internet job ads has a low success rate.
Richard Bolles — the author of What Color is Your Parachute?, the bestselling career advice book of all time — estimates that the chance of landing a job from cold emailing your resume to a company is around 1 in 1,000.3 That means that (unless your application is much stronger than average) you need to send out 100 resumes just to have a 10% chance of landing a job. We’d guess responding to a job listing on a job board has about a 1% chance of success.
Moreover, the positions on job boards need to be standardised and are mainly at large companies, so they don’t include many of the best positions.
The best opportunities are less competitive because they are hidden away, often at small but rapidly growing companies, and personalised to you. You need a different way to find them.
Consider the employer’s point of view. Employers prefer to hire people they already know, or failing that, to hire through referrals — an introduction from someone they know.
Which would you prefer: a recommendation from someone you trust, or 20 CVs from people who saw your job listing on indeed.com? The referral is more likely to work, because the person has already been vouched for. It’s less effort — screening 20 people you know nothing about is hard. Referrals also come from a better pool of applicants — the most employable people already have lots of offers, so they rarely respond to job listings.
For these reasons, many recruiters consider referrals to be the best method of finding candidates.4
But job seekers usually get things backwards — they start with the methods that recruiters least like.
Applicants find around 50% of jobs through connections, and many are never advertised. So if you don’t pursue referrals, you’ll miss many opportunities.
Moreover, speaking to people in the industry is the best way to get information about how to present yourself and how to approach opportunities. It’s also among the best ways to assess your fit, helping you to focus on the best opportunities.
How to get referrals
You need to master the art of asking for introductions. We’ve put together a list of email scripts you can use.
To get referrals, here’s a step-by-step process. If you’re not applying for a job right now, skip this section until you are.
- First, update your LinkedIn profile (or personal website, etc.). This isn’t because you’ll get great job offers through LinkedIn — that’s pretty rare — it’s because people who are considering meeting you will check out your profile. Focus your profile on your most impressive accomplishments. Be as concrete as possible — e.g. “ranked third in the nation,” “increased annual donations 100%.” Cut the rest. It’s better to have two impressive achievements than two impressive achievements and three weak ones. Add links to any portfolio projects relevant to the job.
- Search yourself on Google and do anything you can to make the results look good (e.g. delete embarrassing old blog posts). Here’s a guide.
- If you already know someone in the industry who can hire people, then ask for a meeting to discuss opportunities in the industry. This is close to going directly to an interview, skipping all the screening steps. Plus, you’ll be able to ask them really useful information about how to best apply, and learn more about which positions might be your best fit. Remember, there doesn’t need to be an open position — employers will often create positions for good people. Before you take the meeting, use the advice on how to prepare for interviews below.
- If you know them less well, ask for a meeting to find out more about jobs in the industry: an “informational interview.” If it goes well, ask them to introduce you to people who may be able to hire you, which is effectively getting a referral from this person. Do not ask them for a job if you promised it was an informational interview.
- When asking for introductions, prepare a one-sentence, specific description of the types of opportunities you’d like to find. A good example is something like: “an entry-level marketing position at a technology startup in education.” Two bad examples are: “a job in software” or “a job that fits my skills.” Being concrete makes it easier for people to come up with ideas, so lean towards too narrow rather than too broad.
- Failing the above steps, turn to the connections of your connections. If you have a good friend who knows someone who’s able to hire you, then you could directly ask that friend for a referral. The ideal is to ask someone you’ve worked for previously, where you performed really well.
- If your connection is not able to refer you, then ask them to introduce you to people in the industry who are able to hire. Then we’re back to informational interviews.
- To find out who your connections know, use LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social networks. Say you want to work at Airbnb. Go to LinkedIn and search “Airbnb.” It’ll show a list of all your contacts who work at Airbnb, followed by connections of connections who work at Airbnb. Pick the person with the most mutual connections and get in touch.
- Remember, if you have 200 LinkedIn connections, and each of them has 200 connections that don’t overlap with the others, then you can reach at least 10,000 people using these methods.
- There are lots of people in the 80,000 Hours LinkedIn group who are happy to give advice on applications, and may be able to make introductions.
- If you still haven’t got anywhere, then it may be worth spending some time building your connections in the industry first. Read our advice on how to network. Start with people with whom you have some connection, such as your university alumni, and friends of friends of friends. Your university can probably give you a list of alumni who are willing to help in each industry. There are probably some good groups you can join and conferences to attend. Otherwise you can resort to cold emailing. Here’s a guide to getting jobs with no connections. Here’s a guide to finding anyone’s email address.
Remember to use the scripts when asking for introductions.
Recruiters and listings
We prefer the above tactics, but recruiters can be worth talking to, and are often more effective than just making cold applications. Look for those who have a good network in the industry you’re interested in.
You can also browse job listings, which does sometimes work, and is also a useful way to get ideas. In particular, check out our job board, which lists the best jobs we can find to put you in a better position to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.
Stage 2: Conversion
When you’re speaking to someone who has the power to hire you, how do you convince them?
Again, think about it from their point of view. Once at 80,000 Hours, we were trying to hire a web engineer. Most applicants just filled out our application form, while one sent us a redesigned version of our old career quiz. Which application is more convincing? The person who sent the quiz was immediately in the top 20% of applicants, despite having very little formal experience.
Employers are looking for several qualities. They want employees who will fit in socially, stick around, and not cause trouble. But most importantly, the employer wants to be sure that you can solve the problems they face. If you can prove that you’ll get the results the employer most values, everything else is much less important.
So how can you go about doing that?
When the process is highly standardised
In these cases, like Teach for America or many government jobs, you have to jump through the hoops. Maximise your chances by finding out exactly what the process involves, and practicing exactly that. For instance, if it’s a competency interview, find out which competencies they look for, then have a friend ask you similar questions. Some public service organisations publish the rubrics they use to assess candidates.
The most useful thing you can do is find someone who recently went through the process, ask them how it works, and, if possible, practice the key steps with them. Sometimes there are books written about exactly how to apply.
Most employers, however, don’t have a fully standardised process. What do you do in those cases?
If you’ve already done the same work before, then you just need to practice telling your story. Skip ahead to the interview tips. But what if you don’t have much relevant experience?
The basic idea is: just do the work.
Just do the work
The most powerful way to prove you can do the work is to actually do some of it. And as we saw, doing the work is also a great way to figure out whether you’re good at it, so it’ll help you avoid wasting your own time too.
Here are four ways to put that into practice.
Do a portfolio project
For example, if you want to become a writer or a journalist, try to keep a blog or Twitter feed about a relevant topic. If you want to become a software engineer, put projects on your GitHub.
Include these projects on your personal web page and/or LinkedIn profile. Mention them in your applications or during interviews.
The pre-interview project
The pre-interview project is what the web engineer did with our career quiz. To do your own project:
- Find out what you’d be doing in the role (this already puts you quite a way ahead).
- In particular, work out which problems you will need to solve for the organisation. To figure this out, you’ll probably need to do some desk research — here’s a simple guide — then speak to people in the industry.
- Spend a weekend putting together a solution to these problems, and send a one-page summary to a couple of people at the company with an invitation to talk more.
- If you don’t hear back after a week, follow up at least once.
- Alternatively, write up your suggestions, and present them at the interview. Ramit Sethi calls this “the briefcase technique.”
See some more examples in this article (an eight-minute read, also where we got the term “pre-interview project”).
Speaking from personal experience, we’ve overseen four years’ worth of competitive application processes at 80,000 Hours, and doing either of these projects would immediately put you in the top 20% of applicants (if your suggestions made sense). It demonstrates a lot of enthusiasm, and most people hardly know anything about the role they are applying for.
If the employer is on the fence, you can offer to do a two- to four-week trial period, perhaps at reduced pay or as an intern. Make it clear that if the employer isn’t happy at the end, you’ll leave gracefully.
Only bring this out if the employer is on the fence, or it can seem like you’re underselling yourself.
Go for a nearby position
If you can’t get the job you want right away, consider applying for another position in the organisation — like a freelance position, or a position one step below the one you really want.
Working in a nearby position gives you the opportunity to prove your motivation and cultural fit. When your boss has a position to fill, it’s much easier to promote someone they already worked with than to start a lengthy application process.
Just check that the position can actually lead to the one you want. For example, we often see people apply to operations positions at research organisations with the hope of later becoming a researcher. The paths require very different skillsets, so are treated as separate tracks, but lots of people would prefer to do research. This means that while it does sometimes work out, it’s rare, and can be frustrating for both sides.
How to prepare for interviews
If you can show an employer you can solve their problems, you’re most of the way there, and you probably don’t need to ace the interview. However, there’s more you can do to become even more convincing.
Here’s some of the best advice we’ve found on preparing for interviews. It’s also useful for getting leads while networking. If you’re not actively looking for a job right now, skip this section for now.
- When you meet an employer, ask lots of questions to understand their challenges. Discuss how you might be able to contribute to these challenges. This is exactly what great salespeople do. A survey of research on sales concluded “there is a clear statistical association between the use of questions and the success of the interaction.” Moreover, when salespeople were trained to ask more questions, it made them more effective.5
Prepare your three key selling points ahead of meetings. These are the messages you’ll try to get in during the discussion. For instance: 1) I have done this work successfully before, 2) I am really excited about this company, and 3) I have suggestions for what I could work on. Writing these out ahead of time makes it more likely you’ll mention what’s most important, and three points is about the limit of what your audience will remember. That’s why this is standard advice when pitching a business idea. If you’re not sure what you have to offer, there’s an inventory exercise at the end of the article on career capital.
Focus on what’s most impressive. What sounds better: “I advised Obama on energy policy” or “I advised Obama on energy policy, and have worked as a high school teacher the last three years”? Many people fill up their CVs with everything they’ve done, but it’s usually better to pick your one or two most impressive achievements and focus on those. It sounds better, it makes it more likely you’ll cover it, and it makes it more likely that your audience will remember it.
Prepare 1–2 concrete facts and stories to back up your three key messages. For instance, if you’re applying to be a web engineer, rather than “I’m a hard worker,” try “I have a friend who runs an organisation that was about to get some press coverage. He needed to build a website in 24 hours, so we pulled an all-nighter to build it. The next day we got 1,000 signups.” Rather than say “I really want to work in this industry,” tell the story of what led you to apply. Stories and concrete details are far more memorable than abstract claims.6
Work out how to sum up what you have to offer in a sentence. Steve Jobs didn’t sell millions of iPods by saying they’re 30% better than MP3 players, but rather with the slogan “1,000 songs in your pocket.” Having a short, vivid summary makes it easy for other people to promote you on your behalf. For instance, something like “He’s the guy who advised Obama on climate policy and wants a research position” is ideal.
Prepare answers to the most likely questions. Write them out, then practice saying them out loud. The following three questions normally come up: (1) Tell me about yourself — this is an opportunity to tell the story of why you want this position and mention one or two achievements, (2) Why do you want this position? and (3) What are your questions for us? Then usually the interviewer will add some behavioural questions about the traits they care most about. These usually start “Tell me about a time you…” then are finished with things like: “exhibited leadership,” “had to work as a team,” “had to deal with a difficult situation or person,” “failed,” or “succeeded.” You can find a list of common interview questions here.
Practice the meeting, from start to finish. Meet with a friend and have them ask you five interview questions, then practice responding quickly. If you don’t have a friend to help, then say your answers out loud and mentally rehearse how you want it to go. Ask yourself what’s most likely to go wrong, and what you’ll do if that happens.
Learn. After each interview, jot down what went well, what could have gone better, and what you’ll do differently next time.
Improve and adapt your process
Applying to jobs is a difficult skill that takes time to learn.
After every interview or other important interaction with an employer, jot down what went well, what could have gone better, and what you’ll do differently next time.
If you’ve done 5–10 interviews and didn’t make it through to the next stage, then it’s time to do a more thorough reassessment. You might be making a mistake in how you present yourself. Ask someone in the area (ideally someone with hiring experience) to check over your materials, and do a mock interview with them (or explain what happened in the interviews).
Similarly, if you’ve made 20+ applications and haven’t been invited to any interviews, ask someone in the area to review your application materials.
If you can’t find a mistake, then you might be applying to jobs that aren’t a good fit, and should consider a different area or position.
If you’ve done 10 interviews and have made it through to the later stages a couple of times, but haven’t yet had any offers, then keep going. Often 3–10 people make it through to the final stages, so you’ll probably have to do at least five final-stage interviews before you get an offer.
On the other hand, if you’re getting offers relatively easily, then apply to more stretch positions.
Stage 3: Negotiation
Negotiation begins after you have an offer, once the employer has said they’d like to hire you.
Most people are so happy to get a job, or awkward about the idea of negotiating, that they never try. But 10 minutes of negotiation could mean major benefits over the next couple of years. So the key message here is to actually consider doing it.
For instance, you could ask the employer to match your donations to charity. That could mean thousands of dollars of extra donations per year, making those 10 minutes you took to negotiate among the most productive of your life.
You could also negotiate to work on a certain team, have more flexible hours, work remotely, or learn certain skills. All of these could make a big difference to your day-to-day happiness and career capital, and are often easier to ask for than additional salary.
Negotiation is not always appropriate. Don’t do it if you’ve landed a highly standardised offer, like many government positions — they won’t be able to change the contract. Also don’t do it if you’re only narrowly better than the other candidates or have no alternatives. And definitely don’t negotiate until the employer has made an offer — it looks bad to start negotiating during the interview.
However, we think negotiation should be tried in most cases once you have an offer. Hiring someone takes months and consumes lots of management time. Once an employer has made an offer, they’ve invested many thousands of dollars in the process. The top candidate is often significantly better than the next best. This means it’s unlikely that they’ll let the top candidate get away for, say, a 5% increase in costs.
It’s even more unlikely that they’ll retract their initial offer because you tried to negotiate. Stay polite, and the worst case is likely that they’ll stick to their original offer.
Negotiation should be most strongly considered when you have more than one good offer, because then you have a strong fallback position.
How to negotiate
The basic idea is simple: explain the value you’ll give the employer, and why it’s justified to give you the benefits you want. Then look for objective metrics and win-win solutions — can you give up something the employer cares about in exchange for something you care about? For instance:
- Other people with my level of experience in this industry are usually paid $50,000 and can work at home two days per week. But I’d prefer to work with you. Can you match the other companies?
- I’m really motivated to learn sales skills, so I’d like to work alongside person X. This will make me much more effective in the role in six months.
If your position is weaker, you could negotiate about a future promotion or salary increase:
- I’d like to work towards this [insert position name]. What would I need to do in the next six months to make that happen?
Then ask them to commit to it if you hit their conditions.
Negotiate after you’ve started
Once you start the job, try to perform as well as possible, and then negotiate again. Most employers will be very unwilling to lose someone who’s already doing excellent work.
Just bear in mind, most companies have a standard performance review process, so wait until then to make your request.
Learn more about how to negotiate
Lots has been written about salary negotiation, so this hardly scratches the surface. Here’s a good guide (30 minutes). Ramit Sethi (whose style won’t fit every situation!) also has tips (14-minute video and free PDF guide in exchange for newsletter signup). If you want to get more advanced, check out the book Getting Past No by William Ury, who developed the negotiation course at Harvard Law School.
Have a plan to stay motivated
Your first job search may be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done — you’ve probably never been rejected 30 times in a row before. It can involve months of work. And you may have to do most of it alone. It can make online dating look easy.
This means that you’ll need to throw every motivational technique you know at the job hunt. Here are some tips:
- Perhaps the most useful single tip our readers have found is pairing up with someone else who’s also job hunting. Check in on progress, and share tips and leads. Alternatively, find someone who was recently successful at a similar hunt and is willing to meet up and give you tips.
Set a really specific goal — like speaking to five people each week until you have an offer — publicly commit to the goal, and promise to make a forfeit if you miss it.
Make it easier to face rejections. Maybe make yourself a loyalty card that you stamp every time you get a rejection, and reward yourself with an ice cream once the card is filled up!
Treat it like a job. You’re most likely going to be doing the job for years at 40 hours per week, so it makes sense it might take 5%+ of that time to secure the position, and that’s already 1–2 months of full-time work. The more time you can put into it, the better the results are probably going to be. And if you’re not in a job right now, treating your job search as a job itself can help a lot with motivation. Turn up at 9am, and work till 5pm.
Apply other tips on how to motivate yourself. For example, check out the book The Motivation Hacker by Nick Winter, and the advice on productivity in our article on increasing your career capital in any job.
Check out our advice on different jobs
The best way to get a job depends on the type of job you’re pursuing. Go to our career reviews and scroll to the end of the profile to see customised advice for each type of job.
Never job hunt again
Your job hunts will get easier and easier as you build career capital.
Once you’re in a job, focus on developing strong skills and excel in your work. The best marketing is word of mouth — employers seeking you out rather than the other way around. If you’re great at your job, then people will actively want to refer you to employers, because it’s doing them a favour as well as you. Read our article on career capital to find out how to never have to job hunt again.
Getting a job can be an unpleasant process, but if you go through the steps in this article, you’ll give yourself the best chance of success. And that will make sure you fulfil your potential to find a satisfying career and contribute to the world.
Apply this to your own career
What are the most important three steps to take in order to get into your top options?
Try to be as specific as possible. Some good examples:
- Follow up with my boss at my last internship.
- Write 10 applications.
- Meet three people in the industry.
- Find someone to job hunt with.
The key steps probably involve speaking to people.
When are you going to do each of these? Many studies have shown that writing down when you’ll do a task makes it much more likely you’ll actually do it — it’s called an “implementation intention.”