3 big ways to stand out in a tough job market, according to ZipRecruiter's CEO

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With tens of millions of Americans out of work during the pandemic, landing an interview, let alone a job, has become an almost unprecedented challenge. But, companies in certain sectors of the economy are still hiring, meaning it's all the more crucial to set yourself apart as a job candidate using all the connections, skills and tools you have.

"You're entering a market where you're incentivized as a job seeker to do everything you possibly can to stand out," Ian Siegel, CEO of jobs marketplace ZipRecruiter, tells CNBC Make It. As of May, there were nearly four unemployed people for every job opening in the U.S., according to the most recent available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "You're going to be facing stiffer competition for every available job than you've experienced in the last decade, and probably your lifetime."

Siegel, whose business involves making the hiring process more efficient and effective, shares three areas where job seekers can pay extra attention to improve their odds of connecting with a hiring manager and making a lasting, positive impression.

1. Build quality references

One of the first steps of launching your job search will include updating your resume and online profiles. While you're polishing your LinkedIn summary and work history, Siegel says to make sure your connections are also up to date. 

Hiring managers may check to see if you're connected with former coworkers (and if, through online interactions, you're still on good terms). They may also see if you're connected with industry leaders or someone at their own company, who they can refer to in order to ask about you and your job candidacy.

Consider these virtual connections as a preliminary assessment of your professional circle, Siegel says: "In broad strokes, it really pays to make sure you have quality references lined up."

2. Make your cover letter interesting

A cover letter won't necessarily make or break your chances of landing an interview, but when used well, it can make a good first impression with the hiring manager in a stack of applications. The key is to say something interesting quickly, Siegel says, rather than launch into an expansion of your resume.

Start off by stating a specific thing you like about the company and why it makes you want to work for them.

For example, Siegel says, "Open with something like, 'I love the product you've built,' 'I love what I read on Glassdoor about your culture,' 'I love that you have a maternity and paternity leave policy — that's the kind of forward-looking company I want to work for.'"

This can be a straightforward way to show you've done your research and are familiar with the organization both as a consumer-facing company as well as an employer brand.

"Show you have put thought into your application as a means of standing out," Siegel says. 

In general, avoid spending too much time explaining your qualifications, which should be covered in your resume to begin with, and focus on what you'll bring to the company as a future contributor. Essentially, keep the focus on the company and your future role within it, not on your past.

"Show enthusiasm, show you've done research and show you want to come in there and make a contribution," Siegel says.

3. Perfect the video interview

By now, many people are familiar with being on camera and video messaging with others during the pandemic. With that said, learning how to conduct a virtual interview can add anxiety to an already stressful job-search process.

The good thing is that you can control your environment at home better than if you were going into an office, so use that to your advantage and over-prepare.

"Go into those interviews and think about everything," he says. In addition to the usual prep work of researching the company and role, rehearsing your answers and coming up with questions for your interviewer, think through how you'll present on camera.

"Overgroom, find good lighting, make sure you have an uncluttered background, sit up straight, smile — do every little thing you can do to convey professionalism and readiness to work."

To make sure you have the technical details down, you may want to test your video and audio connection ahead of time, and assess what's in frame when your camera is turned on.

Otherwise, the general rules of job-seeking apply, such as being prepared, enthusiastic and professional throughout the hiring process.

"The value of any one tactic independently is hard to assess," Siegel says of advice to succeed as a job applicant. "What's certain is you should be doing everything you can and use every advantage you have available to you to stand out from the crowd."

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