Customizing your approach to the candidate-selection process shows recruiters and hiring managers that you're the made-to-order solution to their needs.

By Leslie Stevens-Huffman | June 2007

For one moment, imagine you're a recruiter. Your responsibility is to take a job requisition and its list of desired skills, experience and personality traits, review hundreds of resumes, and connect the dots between the skill set you're looking for and thousands of pages of work histories.

Now imagine one candidate jumps out from all those resumes. There's a crisp list of your top requirements and a corresponding list of the candidate's skills and abilities, demonstrating a perfect solution to your needs. Admiring his intuition, you pick up the phone and call the candidate, hoping your search is finally over.

Now come back to reality: You're a job-seeker. The lesson from your daydream?  Connecting the interviewer's needs and your solutions will make it easier for employers to see you as the perfect match for the job. Customizing your approach to the candidate-selection process shows recruiters and hiring managers that you aren't generic. In fact, you might be the very candidate they had in mind when posting the job.

Do Your Homework

"Employers want it all, even though they know that they really can't have it all," says Deborah Brown-Volkman, a certified career coach based in East Moriches, N.Y. "They also don't want to take any risks when they hire someone, so candidates really can't keep throwing that same generic resume online, hoping for different results."

The first step in customizing your approach is to do your homework. You want to demonstrate that you're a match on all levels for the position, not just in your technical skills. Generally, employers are looking for a fit with these decision categories when they select a candidate to interview:

  • Hard skills and experience match
  • Personality and soft skills compatibility
  • Cultural and environmental fit
  • Ability to solve their problems

In addition to reading the job description, review the company's Web site, including news releases, mission and vision statements, earnings releases and the chief executive's  message in the annual report. You want to know about the tone set by corporate executives, the corporate values and current business priorities.

To begin understanding the firm's culture, run a search on Google for information about the organization and its executives, and also check social networking sites and blogs  written by company employees. If you're referred by an agency, talk to the recruiter about the company's present challenges and what the interviewer is looking for. Your goal is to know what's desired and required for each of the decision categories.

Customized Resumes and Cover Letters

The next step is to create a cover letter and resume that demonstrate both your knowledge of the position's requirements and why you're the best candidate for the job. "Employers want candidates who can think, so it's important in the cover letter to  reference something that needs solving and then explain how you can help," says Brown-Volkman.

Consider using a bulleted cover letter, first stating the company's need and then following with a one- to two-sentence summary of your qualifications for meeting it. You can also show your match with the company's culture by repeating language you found during your homework session.

"As candidates are doing their homework, they should make a list of the key words that have appeared throughout their research, and they should mimic those on their resumes and in their cover letters," says Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of strategy and marketing for the outsourcing firm Yoh.

Adjust the objective on your resume to match the job requirements and company culture, and tailor the descriptions of your experience so they match the position. Consider bolding words that show why you're a perfect match for added emphasis, such as  adaptable, budget-conscious and highly motivated.

The Interview and Follow Up

"It's okay to ask the interviewer at the outset what challenges they are facing, because then you can apply your experience in a way that demonstrates that you are a problem solver for their specific needs," says Brown-Volkman.

If you've done your homework, you can anticipate the kind of challenges the company is facing and prepare by providing examples of where you've encountered similar problems before - and how you solved them. Knowing the examples you want to reference will  make you much more confident during the interview. And place some of your key words at the top of your note-taking page so you can use them as a cheat sheet.

For example, if your research found the company fosters work-life balance or is  struggling to digest recent acquisitions, show your awareness through specific comments, questions or solutions during the interview.

Finally, customize your follow-up letter by going beyond the typical thank you note. Briefly summarize what was discussed during the interview and repeat why you're the best match for the job. Consider printing a news story about the company and include it with your letter, connecting the dots between your discussion and the contents of the clip.

"Employers bring you in for the interview because they already think that you can do the job," says Brown-Volkman. "You can get to the interview stage and beyond by  demonstrating that you are the best candidate to accomplish the top three to five  objectives on their list."

Leslie Stevens-Huffman is a freelance writer based in Irvine, Calif. who has more than 20 years experience in the staffing industry.