What's the First Step in a Job Search?

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By Marcelle Yeager

First step: Narrow your targets.

How do you answer when someone asks you what kind of job you're looking for? It can be tempting to say you're open to a wide range of positions, industries, companies and organizations. Maybe you are, but this is unlikely to help you land a job quickly. The wider you cast your net, the more unclear and clouded your message becomes. It will show in your online presentation, résumés, cover letters and interviews.

It will be hard to sell yourself to a prospective employer or a new professional contact if you cannot narrow your scope. This is not something you can determine overnight, but these exercises will help you hone in on what your skills and interests are and where you can apply them most effectively.Your Dreams. Schedule a half an hour of uninterrupted time to think about this and jot down some notes. What are you passionate about? Why these particular things, and what do you enjoy most about them?

Next, consider what your ideal professional and personal lives look like over time. What do you want now? Where do you see yourself five and 10 years from now? Imagine you are retired and reflecting on your fulfilling and satisfying career; what kinds of jobs did you have?

Your Talents. Beyond qualifications and skills gained through education and work experience, what specifically makes you stand out from the crowd? While many people are humble and have difficulty talking about their accomplishments, this is a must when you are marketing yourself in résumés, cover letters and interviews.

Yes, you'll need to "check the box" that shows you possess some or all of the job requirements listed in a description, but there's more to it than that. You need to understand what you are particularly good at – whether it's editing materials for the marketing department or mentoring junior colleagues. Think about how your colleagues see you or what you are known for at work.

If the first thing that jumps to mind is social coordinator (maybe you're the in-house happy-hour planner), think about why that is. Perhaps there is more to it than just the socializing and drinking that you enjoy. You're probably good at rallying or motivating teams, for instance.

Write down three to five specific accomplishments. They do not need to be quantitative! A lot of people get stuck on that. How did your actions in each situation benefit your company?

These may be achievements you do as part of your everyday job description or unknowingly, because you enjoy and are good at them. It's like the subjects in school where you did your best; they are usually the ones you enjoyed the most.

The Market. Naturally, just thinking about what you want (your dreams) and what you offer (your talents) is not enough. There has to be a match with what the market offers. Never underestimate the usefulness of talking to people in different industries, companies and organizations to get a broad perspective of the benefits and drawbacks of each that will help you decide what is right for you.

If you prefer job stability, training opportunities, benefits and the chance for lateral or upward movement, perhaps a big organization in the public or private sector is right for you. However, a smaller company or nonprofit may offer you the chance to apply a broad array of talents if you get involved in several areas of the business.

If you know you want to help people and make a difference, a nonprofit is likely your most rewarding choice. However, you can find a similar role in a private company, even if you're focused on giving back. There are many for-profit companies that recognize the importance of being socially and environmentally responsible.

Perhaps you are an entrepreneur and want to start your own business. Think about how comfortable you are with committing significant time to the company, taking risks and staying motivated to bounce back after setbacks.

What sounds like the best scenario to you, considering your dreams and talents?

Looking at your dreams, talents and the market can help you figure out the best match for your current skill set and career goals. A lot of people say "I'm a jack of all trades," which counterintuitively sells yourself short. This is not usually something an employer wants to hear, unless you are aiming for a job at a startup and want to get involved in everything.

You want to have a more specific idea of what you want and where you fit, so the employer can feel assured that you will stay for longer than a few months. If you're all over the place, it will be a much harder sell.

Marcelle Yeager is the president of Career Valet, which delivers personalized career navigation services. Her goal is to enable people to recognize skills and job possibilities they didn't know they had to make a career change or progress in their current career. She worked for more than 10 years as a strategic communications consultant, including four years overseas. Marcelle holds an MBA from the University of Maryland.
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