It's pretty rare that you are the only candidate for a job. In those cases, you're usually approached by the company anyway. So, rest assured that any time you apply for a job, you're facing competition--stiff competition. You don't know who they are, either: internal or external people, with doctorate degrees in whatever the subject matter is. You don't have a clue. So, how can you get an edge on these other candidates so you can get the job? Try these ideas.

1. Do your company research. There's absolutely no reason why you shouldn't know at least a little about the company prior to the interview. Heck, you should do research prior to applying so that you have an awesome cover letter (see point 2). It's a rare company that doesn't have a web presence. And if it doesn't, you had better do some digging to find out why.

2. Write an awesome cover letter. It's true that some recruiters and hiring managers don't read cover letters. But, many, many do, and a good cover letter can make a real difference in the hiring process. Yours should do two things: introduce you and your personality, and explain how you would fit into this job. You can't really do the second part of this if you haven't done your company research. Résumés are boring recitations of your accomplishments. Cover letters are for letting your personality shine through. We talk about culture and fit a lot. A cover letter helps a company know if you'll be a good fit for its culture.

3. Be highly qualified. I realize that if you're not highly qualified today you probably won't be by the time you submit your application tomorrow, but that is exactly the point. Why are you applying for a job for which you're not highly qualified? Stop it. You're wasting time. Now, does this mean you need to have every requested skill? No. But you have to be someone who can be expected to do the job. If you're still interested in applying for a stretch job, you had better have the world's best cover letter.

4. Do your personal research. Finding out about the company is obvious, but looking up the people takes an extra step. It's OK to send LinkedIn invitations to the people who will be interviewing you. Even if they don't accept, you can look at their public profiles. Find out if they are on Twitter. Google their names--heaven knows they are Googling yours. You're not looking for dirt; you're looking for interesting information and things you have in common. Knowledge is power.

5. Prepare for the interview. It's actually pretty stupid that we put so much emphasis on the interview part of job selection, as interviewing itself is a skill that isn't used all that often outside of job hunting. Nevertheless, hiring managers want you to be a sparkling interviewee even if the job is for washing windows and won't involve talking with actual humans. So you need to practice. You can find list after list of questions on the internet and get a friend to ask you them. You can't prepare for everything, but make sure you have a few good experiences to share about how you showed leadership, how you handled a difficult situation, and what your weaknesses are.

6. Brush up on your technical skills. If your résumé says you can do X, you had better be able to talk about it, even though you haven't done X for five years. No rational person expects you to be perfect at a skill you haven't used recently, but interviewers are rarely rational. They may have brought you in specifically for X, so be ready to discuss it.

7. Prepare some questions to ask the interviewers. Remember, a job interview is not a beauty pageant, in which you are out to impress judges without caring about the judges themselves. It's more like a date in that you're both trying to determine if you'd be a good match. Some great general questions:

  • Thinking back to people who have had the position previously, what differentiated the ones who were good from the ones who were really great? (from management guru Alison Green)
  • What is the biggest problem the company is facing, and how does this role engage that?
  • What do you see as the biggest challenge I would face in this role?

8. Ask some questions before the interview. Ideally, a job interview is where you should demonstrate how you can do the job. Most interviewers focus, instead, on what you've done in the past. Try to flip that and ask the hiring manager for a challenge the department is facing and then come prepared to show how you'd solve that problem. Check out Nick Corcodilos at Ask the Headhunter for more on how to do this.

9. Remember all the little things. Grammar check. Spell check. Wearing the right clothes. Don't panic that you got your suit on clearance at J.C. Penney and not for full price at Nordstrom. Most people aren't going to notice the difference. (Some will, of course, but don't go broke trying to impress people.) What is important is that you look professional. Tattoos covered up. One pair of earrings for women (or none; none is always fine), no earrings for men. No facial piercings at all. (Of course, there are exceptions for some of this--depending on the industry and culture.) But you want to look and act like a responsible adult. After you've got the job offer and reviewed the dress code, you can put your eyebrow ring back in if it's allowed.

10. Give yourself time to answer. Culturally, Americans don't like silence. So, rather than waiting and thinking a bit before answering, we'll bluster on--our mouth going while our brain tries to come up with a good answer. This does not go well. Take a second before answering. You can even say, "That's an excellent question. Let me think about that." When you have an answer, then answer. Not before.

The reality is, you will never get some jobs no matter how fabulous you are, but you can strongly increase your chances by being awesome when you apply and interview.

Published on: Apr 6, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.