10 common job-hunting mistakes (and how to avoid them)

Many people are job hunting these days, but some are making mistakes that are hurting their chances. Learn to avoid these mistakes and you'll be ahead of the pack.

Five out of six working Americans -- a full 84% -- plan to look for a new position in 2011, according to a recent survey by job placement firm Manpower. If you are, or soon will be, one of them, you have to stack the deck to stand out and succeed. But how? Start by knowing -- and avoiding -- these10 common mistakes made by job hunters.

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1: Playing the generalist card

Now more than ever, companies look for specialists, not generalists. Develop a personal brand, distinguish your skills and strengths, and design your job search around specific industries and functions. For inspiration, turn to the Internet or a Sunday newspaper and study searches from real-life companies. Recently, for instance, a well-known software company was seeking a seasoned marketer "skilled in developing online video for B2B marketing." In short: specialize!

2: Building bloated resumes

Employers don't read resumes -- they scan them in mere seconds. Put your resume on a word diet and eliminate the bloat. Odds are, you can lose up to a third of the words without compromising the content. Remove extraneous words and phrases, as well as generic "mom and apple pie" references, to bring your experiences and accomplishments to the forefront. Among the common culprits: "a," "the," "reporting to," "responsible for," and "strong team player."

3: Missing your target

Most job seekers are "me-centric." Instead of focusing on yourself, focus on your target. Know the job you're seeking, what companies are looking for, and how you can present your experience to win, and hold on to, people's attention. In other words, your search isn't about you. It's about them.

4: Hibernating online

More than 60 percent of successful job searches are the result of networking, not online job postings. Resist spending more time in front of your computer than you do in front of human beings. Get on the phone. Even better, get out and connect, eyeball-to-eyeball, with your network and other people you encounter along the way. Share your 15-second elevator pitch with everyone, whether you're at a major networking event or a checkout lane at the supermarket.

5: Sabotaging your networking efforts

The first commandment for networkers: Thou shalt not ask for a job while networking. Why? Because the sole purpose of networking is to seek advice and information. Moreover, in today's world of give and take -- quid pro quo -- you've already asked a person or group for something: their time. Don't put an abrupt end to the conversation by asking, "Do you have a job for me?" Seek answers to smart, well-positioned questions and find a way to return the favor.

6: Preparing too little (or not at all) for interviews

One of my executive search clients passed over a prospect because when asked in an interview, "What do you know about the company?" he responded, "Absolutely nothing." (I had even provided the prospect with detailed information on the company plus asked him to study the organization's Web site.) Before every interview, do your homework on the company, from knowing the executive team to learning about key industry issues, trends, and competitors. To really stand out, develop your "First 90 Days" plan for the position and be ready to discuss it.

7: Missing opportunities on social media

The vast majority of employers and recruiters look at your profile online: LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social media Web sites. Leverage that opportunity and have your online presence tell a story. Sure, you watch the appropriateness of what you post online. At least you'd better. But take it a step further: Tell your story and tout your personal brand.

8: Having weak communication skills

Communication skills can make or break a job search. Many job seekers dull interviews and conversations by sharing too many details. On the flip side, others share too little information, glossing over their successes or sharing what "we" did without spotlighting their personal contribution. Pick one area of communication that needs your attention, considering skills such as listening, presenting, persuading, or distilling messages, and commit to improvement. Take a class, hold practice interviews with a friend or career coach, or join a group such as Toastmasters.

9: Failing to put in the hours

Being a serious, successful job seeker is a full-time position. Don't be a part-timer by investing too few hours in your search. Many people report spending "under 10 hours" per week on their search. Compare that, however, to one recent job hunter who was on a quest to land a new position in six weeks. He set a goal to have at least one meeting every day and quickly learned that would require making 50 to 100 calls a week. He made the calls -- and his goal.

10: Going it alone

Flying solo, particularly in today's turbulence, is tough. Form a job search team that meets or talks on a weekly basis. Together, you can add structure, support, and a sense of accountability to your searches. Team members can share new contacts and accomplishments and discuss the week's highlights and lowlights. If someone has had a particularly low week, others can offer advice or inspiration.

Additional resources

Kathryn Ullrich is a Silicon Valley-based executive search consultant and author of the award-winning book Getting to the Top: Strategies for Career Success. She also serves as associate director of Alumni Career Services at UCLA Anderson School of Management. You can contact her at info@ullrichassociates.com.