The most frequently asked question I get is this:

Why do you recommend being specific about the job I want? Many people tell me I should be more general.

Being specific about the job you want allows you to look more effectively at the job marketplace, and it enables other people to help you. You’re going to have to get specific sometime, so why not do it consciously?

You know all about how a job hunt is like a trip somewhere. When you know where you’re going, it’s much easier to map out a route to get there. The challenge is deciding where you are going. Many people find it difficult to commit to a specific goal. The biggest fear is that they’ll exclude themselves from too many possibilities.

My observation is that the job search itself forces you to whittle down your focus. Think about it: when you say “I just want a job, any job,” don’t you get suggestions you immediately reject? I’ve heard that from many people, yet when I suggest that they apply at a bookstore or to do sales, they come back with “but I can’t do that” or “I don’t want to do that.” They are narrowing the search and getting more specific even though they didn’t consciously decide to do that.

Here are three great reasons to get specific:

Specificity allows me to identify jobs for which I am suited and want to apply.
Targeted applications are much more effective than scattershot applications. There are many jobs out there yet there are only a few for which you are qualified and in which you are interested. It’s a waste of time to apply for anything other than jobs well-matched to your background and abilities.

I read the other day that a major problem with modern job search is that so many people can with the click of a mouse apply for jobs that are totally inappropriate for them. This clogs the recruiters’ pipelines and makes it more difficult for qualified candidates to stand out. To cut through the clutter, recruiters use key word search engines to find the most qualified candidates, and they use referrals. It’s almost impossible for your resume to get reviewed if you don’t have the right key words on your resume or a referral from an insider. For these reasons, it makes no sense to spend any time applying for inappropriate jobs.

Specificity enables me to market myself very powerfully to potential employers
in four key ways:

  • I am able to craft a resume and cover letters that are internally consistent and build a clear picture of my abilities and impact in previous jobs. This gives me a much better chance of rising to the top of the pile and getting an interview.
  • I can show a potential employer how I will help them achieve their goals, building a case based on my past experience, expertise and enthusiasm.
  • I know why I want to do the job, so can answer that question in an interview. Employers want to hire someone who wants to work for them, so your desire to do the job will make a difference in an application and an interview.
  • I know what I’m looking for in an employer and job, so I have more confidence in the interview, which avoids the deadly smell of desperation.

When I am specific, it’s much easier for other people to help me.
“What are you looking for?” is the first question people usually ask when they find you’re looking for a job. If you say “anything,” people don’t know how to help you. They often start to ask you questions to help narrow down your focus. Eventually, you’ll get more specific and the person may be able to pass you on to someone else. However, they may have a less-than-optimal opinion of you because you don’t know what you want.

Sometimes, people will say “come back to me when you know what you want to do.” It’s just too hard for someone to do your thinking for you. So make your network’s job simpler by doing the work to decide what work you want to do.

These are three great reasons to get specific. The reality is that most of us DO know what we want to do, what we’re good at, and what we’re willing to do as a job. That knowledge may be hiding under many things. It’s certainly easier to say “I don’t want to do this or that” than to say “THIS is what I want to do.”

It’s not very risky to reject things; it’s riskier and a little scary to say “I want this.” Avoiding disappointment often is an excuse for not getting specific. When you say you want something, you risk being disappointed. I for one don’t like being disappointed. It is difficult to adjust my feelings to a new reality with one less option and perhaps a little less hope, then to regroup and get myself motivated all over again to go back out there and look for work.

However, applying for jobs for which you are not suited brings disappointment, too. If I’m going to be disappointed anyway, I would rather spend my limited job search time on a process that has a better chance of producing desired results.